An American Jew in Poland
Grappling with a tragic living history.
By Jordie Gerson
“I have no idea,” I said to my roommate on a Sunday night last spring, sitting in the living room of our apartment in Brooklyn. “Why would anyone want to go back?” We had just started watching Everything Is Illuminated, the movie based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel about a young American Jew who, in an effort to recover his grandfather’s past, travels to Ukraine to find the woman who holds the key to his family history, lost to the Nazis during World War II. On screen, Elijah Wood was getting off a train in Odessa and introducing himself to his tour guide. I sighed. “I mean, I just don’t understand why anyone would ever—ever—want to go back.”
This language is true and untrue: a riddle. Why young American Jews say “go back” to refer to countries we have never lived in, places we have never visited. We say “go back” as if we knew the locals, ate the food, and walked the streets of those cities, those countries. But we didn’t, and haven’t. It’s a truism: You cannot return to a place you have never been. But we have been raised on stories, narratives in which Poland and Germany are the backdrop and the antagonist—shamed by their pasts, empty synagogues, desolate streets, and mass graves. And so we do know them. We know about the food that was eaten in those places, the families raised, the holidays celebrated, the shtetls and cities our families lived in and left. We know where our cousins, or the cousins of our cousins, were killed. We know, because in Judaism, remembering is a commandment. We know because we remember. And we remember because we have to. We remember mostly so that we will not forget.
I am leaving services the next morning, a Monday, when the dean of the rabbinical school approaches me in the lobby. “Do you have some time after lunch?” he asks. “There’s something I’d like to ask you. Can you come to my office?”
“Sure,” I say, “OK.”
After lunch, I take the elevator to the fourth floor and knock on his door.
“Come in, Jordie,” he says. “Have a seat.”
I slide into a chair and cross my legs. “Every few years,” he begins, “the Holocaust Project, run by the University of Notre Dame, sends a group of students to Germany or Poland for a week—American and Israeli rabbinical students, Notre Dame graduate students, German and Polish graduate students—to talk about the past, to learn from each other. I don’t know all the details, but next October it’s in Lublin, Poland, for a week. Would you like to go? We’ll take care of everything.”
I call my parents from Washington Square Park that night, standing under the beaux-arts arch on the north side of the park that’s meant to make downtown Manhattan resemble Paris or Berlin. “Hebrew Union College is sending me to Poland,” I tell them. The line cracks and buzzes. “For a week.”
“That’s great, honey,” says my mother.
“I hope you like cabbage,” says my father, the rabbi. “And gray.”
I am from Poland, on both my maternal and paternal sides. Where exactly I am from in Poland has been lost to the vagaries of memory, and history. What I know more about is why my family left: opportunity, persecution, anti-Semitism. Mostly anti-Semitism. But mostly we don’t talk about it. Three of my grandparents were first-generation American. They didn’t discuss Europe, because they had never lived there, and their parents, my great-grandparents, wanted to forget that they had. We were Americans. We ate cheeseburgers on the Fourth of July, shrimp cocktail on hot summer nights. We were thoroughly acculturated American Jews. There was nothing to talk about.
What I did know about Poland was limited to movies, and I grew up on a hearty diet of them: Schindler’s List, Shoah, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist. In junior high, I started reading the books, too: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Mila 18. It never got old and I never got bored, because it was all that I had. My Mizrachi friends—Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent—could trace their family lines back 500 years to streets in Baghdad, Tehran, or Cairo. But I couldn’t, because too much had been lost, erased, rubbed out. I coveted their history, because I thought I had none. Nobody wanted to remember. No one was quite sure exactly where we came from anyway—even Gerson, my last name, is, my father says, adopted from another family so that my great-great-grandfather wouldn’t be conscripted into the Russian Army as a teenager.
We didn’t even know our name. So I read the books, instead.
I have never been afraid of flying. I have flown to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as if it were a bus ride to the next state. I have never been airsick, but sitting in the terminal at JFK before boarding the LOT Polish Airlines flight to Warsaw, my stomach churns and roils. I am sure I am going to throw up. I think about taking a cab back to Brooklyn, and how I might disappear for the week. I think about it. But I have to go, sometime, I know. I am a Jew, and I am going to be a rabbi. This is my past; these are our roots. And maybe, I think hopefully, wistfully, I’ll find something that feels like home, that tells me who I am.
The first language spoken to me in Poland is Polish. Checking in at the LOT airlines counter at JFK, Polish. On the airplane, my seatmate starts speaking to me in Polish; at the hotel in Warsaw when I check in, Polish again. “I don’t speak Polish,” I say over and over and over again. And the woman who serves me my lunch says, “But you have Polish eyes,” referring to the pale blue of my irises, “You could be Polish.”
“I know,” I say, thinking: I could have been.
The first real language I speak in Poland is Hebrew. I arrive midday on a Saturday, Shabbat, and have 24 hours before I meet the group to leave for Lublin. So I find a map and take a tram to the former Warsaw Ghetto, a place both known and unknown.
Because it is Shabbat most of the major Jewish locations are closed, so my only stop is a quiet park, where the Ghetto Heroes monument sits: the spot that honors the Jews who fought and died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The streets are wide and the buildings are grand, but the roads are empty and haunted, and it feels like walking in a bad memory. I wonder where all the people are.
When I arrive, two huge tour buses are unloading teenagers. “Oh,” I think, “a Polish field trip.”
But I’m wrong, because all of the students are speaking Hebrew and five or maybe ten of them are wrapped in Israeli flags. For the first time since leaving JFK, I feel safe. I ask them where they’re from, in Hebrew. Outside of Haifa, they say. Kiryat Bialik. And they’ve been planning a ceremony here, in memoriam.
Where am I from? they ask, in Hebrew.
New York, I say.
Oh, says one of the leaders, your accent, it is Israeli.
I lived in Israel, I say, for a year. I’m studying to be a rabbi. But I’m American.
Ah, says their bodyguard, and he tells me I can stay for the ceremony, if I like.
The ceremony is all in Hebrew, Israeli folk songs and excerpts from the memoirs of the resistance fighters who died in the uprising. On the back of the script of the ceremony, there is one sentence in Hebrew: “Lizkor, L’daber, Lo Lishkoach.” To remember, to speak, and not to forget.
The Hebrew is soothing, and feels familiar in a world pushed off balance. It feels like a balm. And then, at the end of the ceremony, we are asked to stand for the singing of “HaTikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
We stand and sing. People around me start to cry. I try not to, but I fail, and then I leave and walk back to the tram, queasy and cold, back to the quiet of my hotel room.
Across from the monument, there was a large apartment building lined with balconies, and during the ceremony, a Polish woman in her 70s came outside to shake out her rugs. Elderly couples walked by with their dogs, stopped, and watched the singing. I wondered what it must be like to live so close to this history.
I know what happened at the monument. I understand the dangers of conflating Israeli nationalism and what happened to Jews in Poland, in Warsaw. I understand that how we teach and remember what happened in Europe and how we teach it to Israeli and American Jewish teenagers matters a great deal. I understand all the risks. And I know that the ceremony was constructed to make me feel exactly as I did. But the truth is, no matter what I see for the rest of the week, and no matter whom I talk to, the hour that I spend with the Israeli group will be the only time in Poland that I will feel safe. The Israeli bodyguard made me feel protected, and after years of refusing the possibility, years in which I lived in Israel and never even considered it, I begin to think about dual citizenship. I wonder how fast I can get a second passport. I need to know there’s some place I’ll always be safe. I have never felt so alone in the world. I have never felt so Jewish.
I wake early on the second day to meet the group bound for Lublin and try to get excited, but it’s not easy. Visiting Warsaw is macabre and miserable. The sky is gray. Outside, when I walk to buy my morning coffee, the air is cold and sharp. The leaves are changing. In Warsaw, it is autumn. I look up at the balconies of the buildings that line the streets and remember a scene from Schindler’s List: an elderly Jewish man being pushed off the balcony of his third-floor apartment in Warsaw in his wheelchair by the Gestapo. I try not to think. I try not to remember what I know about Warsaw. I try to breathe.
As I walk to the coffee shop, I think about the sermon I gave this past Kol Nidre (the night of Yom Kippur) at New York University, where I work. It was about forgiveness. I went on and on about forgiveness, about how to live full, rich lives, we have to let go of the past. About how the rabbis demanded this, about how science has proved forgiveness makes you healthier.
I think about how it was a pretty sermon. I think about how much I meant it when I gave it. And I think about how sometimes, even when you know what you should do, you can’t do it. You just can’t.
On the drive to Lublin, we drive through the forests of Poland. And all I see are partisans. All I see are ghosts.
In Lublin we meet the entire group and learn that there are seven Jews and 45 non-Jews on this trip. The 45 non-Jews are German and Polish students, mostly seminarians, and graduate students from Notre Dame, almost all of whom are devout Catholics. In addition to us, there are two rabbis and 10 Catholic professors.
We are staying in a monastery on the edge of what was formerly Jewish Lublin. Today all of Lublin is Catholic, but before the war, the Jewish section of town was just outside the monastery’s walls, in what is now a vast green field. The monastery once served as Lublin’s Jewish orphanage. But that was before the war. During the war, the Nazis razed the area where Jews lived after the Lublin ghetto was liquidated. My bedroom window in the monastery looks down on the empty field, and a single streetlight, which is on 24 hours a day, every day of the year, is just outside our window. It is a ner tamid, an eternal light, and it is the only evidence that there were 40,000 Jews here before the war. One of the Polish professors tells us that when he was a child, he asked his grandfather about it, and he said it was for a group of people that lived here once but were gone now. “Who lived here?” he asked. “The Jews used to live here,” said his grandfather, “but they were murdered.”
There is a crucifix over my bed, and another over the tables in the dining halls where we eat. Jesus hangs from it, bleeding and pained. These crucifixes are everywhere in the monastery. In America, and in Israel, where I have participated in many interfaith dialogues, crucifixes don’t bother me. But here, this kind of suffering is hard to look at. Here, there’s already enough to go around.
After faculty introductions, we’re given a brief introduction to Lublin. A common theme, and one that we’ll hear about repeatedly throughout the week is Judaism’s “revival” in Poland, the burgeoning multiculturalism here. The first time I hear this I’m not surprised; in July 2007, The New York Times published an article titled “In Poland, a Jewish Revival Thrives—Minus Jews” about how an industry has been created around the absence of Jews in Poland: Judaism has become kitsch-cool here. The article explained how in summer 2006 the Polish government threw a “Jewish festival” that attracted thousands of Poles from all around the country, Poles with a keen interest in listening to klezmer music, eating faux Jewish food, and experiencing, through Jews shipped in from Israel and America, “Jewish culture.”
Judaism, says one of the Polish students in our group during a discussion about “multiculturalism” in Poland, is “very hot” right now. Another Polish student agrees, pointing out that her friends think that Judaism is “very exotic.”
These statements are made cheerfully, boastfully. I am stunned. I am so stunned that it takes a while to realize how angry I am, and how unholy this is. Surely, I think, Poles have a right to be curious about Judaism, but something about the festival, and the way it’s described, strikes me as exploitative—and in terribly poor taste.
The truth is, I have spent most of my life spoiled. As an American Jew born in the late 1970s, I have been spared the anti-Semitism woven into the fabric of my ancestors’ lives. The indignities I’ve suffered for Judaism are trifling compared to what my grandparents and great-grandparents knew. Growing up, every Christmas I was “strongly encouraged” to sing songs about Jesus in a public school outside of Chicago. Also, my parents refused to join the local tennis club because it only started to admit Jews during the mid-1980s, but I have never known virulent anti-Semitism, or its flip side, philo-Semitism. I have never, before arriving in 2008 Poland, seen Judaism both fetishized and vilified. Not outside of books, museums, and movies.
The next week will be instructive.
At the end of the first night, we break into small groups, which we will stay in for the duration of the seminar. I am the only Jewish student in mine, although one of the supervising professors is Israeli. The other is German. They ask us to talk about our impressions of Poland so far, how we have felt being here, and being in the seminar. When it’s my turn to speak, I begin by saying: “I didn’t expect that being in Poland would be so painful. I knew I would feel something, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to be here. It has been very hard. I thought, I hoped, that it might feel a little like coming home—two of my great-grandparents were Polish—but it doesn’t. It just feels like absence. There’s so much absence here.”
Our group is made up of two Notre Dame students, two Polish students, one German student, and the Israeli and German professors. After I speak, there is a long, awkward silence. One of the Polish students speaks.
“This is why Polish people don’t like Jews,” he says. “Because you come here and all you care about is concentration camps; all you want to talk about is the Holocaust. This is all. This is everything. Polish people don’t like this.”
He is holding up a hand now and ticking off reasons. “The Jews, they come to Poland and they don’t want to meet us, they don’t want to talk to Polish people. All they want to do is go to the camps. This is why the Polish people don’t like the Jewish people. Also, the Polish people don’t like the Jewish people because they collaborated with the Communists. And also, the Polish people don’t like the Jewish people because they are very rude.” He glares at me.
I am stunned into silence. I have never spoken to this man before, we haven’t been introduced. And I can’t imagine how to answer these claims, can’t imagine that there are words. I have spent days facilitating Jewish-Christian dialogues in America, days in Israeli-Palestinian dialogues in the West Bank and Neve Shalom. But I have never, in all that time, heard something like this.
Our Israeli professor pulls me over, asks how I am feeling, “I know it’s hard, Jordie, to hear statements that might sound . . . anti- Semitic,” he says, “but you know, this is how dialogue begins sometimes.” The small group departs and not a single student says another word to me.
A few days later, after another Jewish student points out in a larger group that there is still anti-Semitism in Poland, the same Polish student from my small group repeats everything he said earlier, adding only, “The Polish people don’t like the Jewish people because they smell like garlic.”
I smell myself, then. Right in the middle of the room, I stick my nose in my armpit, to check. I smell like baby powder and lavender shampoo. For a moment, though, he had me wondering. For a moment, I feel dirty in a way I didn’t know was possible.
Before the war, and for nearly 500 years, Lublin was an international center of Jewish learning. Yeshivot and Jewish printing presses filled the small city, and young scholars came from all over Europe to study with Lubliner rabbis renowned for their piety, mystical abilities, and scholasticism. Lublin was referred to, for centuries—until the war—as the “Jewish Oxford,” housing boarding schools and many synagogues, and serving as a home to some of the greatest rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was home, too, to the burgeoning Hasidic movement, and the famous Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin, known to the locals and Jews the world over as the “Seer of Lublin.” He was reputed to have supernatural powers, including the ability to see into the future and into the souls and futures of men and women, Christians and Jews.
So on the second day with the entire group, devoted wholly to touring Jewish Lublin, we make the requisite visit to his grave, which sits on a quiet hill in the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery (there is also a New Jewish Cemetery). Here, each year, hundreds of Hasidic Jews make this same pilgrimage to appeal to the seer as Catholics would a saint: to ask for healing, to pray for love. And because of this his grave is well kept, surrounded by black fencing, the tombstone painted technicolor blues and reds. Hanging on the inside of the fence is a granite plaque in Hebrew, describing the significance of the seer, the meaning of his grave. We crowd in close, pushing up to read the Hebrew, waiting while one of the Israeli students translates.
Gravestones mark the loss of entire families, and often there is only one date on them: the day families were taken to Majdanek or Treblinka or gunned down.
When he is done, we wander to other graves, and the extent of their disrepair is staggering. Money is not available for preservation, and the caretaker is very old. Even those graves that are still intact lean this way and that, cracks twisting out from their centers in spiraling webs. One grave, whose size and shape suggest what must have been an imposing grandness, has an enormous hole in its center, which is mystifying. It looks like vandalism, but how did this appear, this huge, circular, hole? How, I demand of one of the other rabbinical students, has the center been gouged out of this, out of something so solid, so old, so sacred? He shakes his head, silent. There’s no answer.
Around the edges of other graves, weeds push their leaves up, springy and resilient. They crowd around the Hebrew letters, and make the cemetery seem almost normal, the way these graves are sinking back into the earth, monuments from and for another time. And, in a way, it is normal because these graves predate the war. None of the rabbis buried here, none of these Jews lived to see what would happen a century later, and this is some small comfort: the privilege of a natural death, everything in its own season.
In the New Jewish Cemetery, which we visit next, gravestones mark the loss of entire families, and often there is only one date on them: the day the families were taken to Majdanek or Treblinka or gunned down in the Lublin ghettoes. “Liquidated” one of our Polish professors will say each time he refers to what happened there. None of the historians that speak to us that week, except our Israeli professor, will say killed or murdered, just “liquidated.” Here, the weeds creep in and around gravestones as well, gravestones that are, like those on the other side of town, in terrible disrepair, their pieces falling onto the ground. We push aside the shrubs and rub away the dirt to read names.
Is this how history survives here in Lublin? I wonder, pushing the hair out of my cold face. Untended and overgrown with weeds? Maybe, I think, and hope that I’m wrong.
Back in the monastery that afternoon, the Polish students have been invited to tell the group about their relationship with Judaism and with the history of Jews in Poland. They are terribly uncomfortable as they begin speaking, and when they describe what they know about Jews, it sounds as if they’re talking about ideas in a history textbook. In many of their homes, Jews and “what happened during the war” were a taboo, never mentioned, or mentioned only very briefly and quietly, once they were old enough to understand.
Slowly, though, the tone shifts, and one of the women, a college student, says this: “When I found out [about the Holocaust] I was wondering how it was possible to destroy an entire nation.” She stops, her voice cracking. “But now I know it only takes one generation, because my grandfather lived next to and knew Jews and my father didn’t know any. But I hope my children will.”
I think the sentiment is lovely but can’t help but wonder how this will happen. As far as I can see, there are no Jews left here. There are no Jews here but us.
The following evening, we take a bus to Kazimierz Dolny, a beautiful town in the Polish countryside surrounded by lush hills turning orange and gold with the arrival of autumn. Today, Kazimierz Dolny is a tourist town for urban-dwelling Poles, but before the war it was home to 3,000 Jews, all of whom died in the death camps, and who, before their deaths, made up half the town’s population.
Our first visit is to a well-kept Jewish graveyard, set on a forested hillside outside of town. Afterward, we drive back into town and meet our Polish tour guide, who, for the next half hour, tells us about Kazimierz before World War II. But when she gets to the war, she says, without missing a beat, “Let’s not bother with all the sad stuff,” and skips over it entirely. The Jewish community is barely mentioned, the Holocaust excised. All the Jewish students and some of the Notre Dame students turn to one another with wide eyes. We can’t believe what has just happened, how history has been glossed over and Poland’s Jews ushered out. Most of us, then, decide to forgo the rest of the tour. We’re in a tourist town after all, we say. We might as well browse the gift shops.
There’s not much of interest in the stores and as we wander from one to another, we start to wilt. “Maybe just one more?” I ask Gabby and Brian, two other rabbinical students, and we walk into the closest store, which doubles as an art gallery. Inside, there are glass cases with different displays, and just as I’m wandering from the jewelry to the figurines, I see them in a corner. Carved wooden Jews. The one I’m staring at is dressed to resemble a rabbi. He has an oversized nose, a tallis, a kipah and sad, huge, dark eyes. In his hands he holds a wooden platter, and when I lean in closer, I see that an enormous carved pig’s head rests on it. Bile rises in the back of my throat, and I blink hard, sure that this cannot be real. I drop the first rabbi, as if I’ve been scalded, and see that there are others behind him. These rabbis are not carrying pigs’ heads. They are carrying moneybags and some of them have noses double or triple the normal size. I stand there for a few moments before picking up the rabbi with the pig and carrying it over to Gabby and Brian. Their eyes widen.
“What is that?” they demand. “What is he carrying?!”
“A pig’s head,” I say flatly.
“What?!” says Brian. “Where are they?”
I take them to the other rabbis. Brian picks up the rabbi holding the moneybag and pushes it forward, under our noses.
“This cannot be for real,” he says.
“It is,” I say. “Look, there are more behind him.” I gesture behind us, at the rows of statuettes.
I buy the rabbi with the pig’s head that afternoon. I buy him because I know that someday soon, in a synagogue on the Upper West Side, I may be asked to teach about anti-Semitism to Jewish children who will simply be unable to believe what I am telling them: that anti-Semitism, the dark and heavy cloud their ancestors lived under, still exists. I buy the rabbi so I can teach about how deeply bigotry—our own, or others—can wound. I buy the rabbi because I think the best thing that can possibly happen to him is to be used as a teacher, as a symbol of our ability to dehumanize those who do not think, believe, or act like us.
I keep him in my apartment in Brooklyn now. Bound in a rag and thrust into a plastic bag, buried at the bottom of a box, waiting for the day I will bring him to a Hebrew school. I know he’s there, but I don’t want to have to look at him.
Later that afternoon, another rabbinical student asks a shopkeeper about these figurines. Who buys them, and why.
“Poles,” the shopkeeper says. “They keep them in their homes. For luck. They’re like lucky charms. People think, for example, if you keep a rabbi with a moneybag in your living room, it will help you get rich.”
I want to leave Poland.
Majdanek is not on the typical tourist circuit of death camps visited by American Jews. It does not have the scope of Auschwitz or the fame of Treblinka. But Majdanek, set just outside of Lublin’s city limits, was nonetheless one of the Nazi’s largest camps, and it is our destination the following day.
For the Jewish students Majdanek is also the axis of the week, the day around which our minds spin and which we are dreading. The night before we all sleep badly, and in the morning, at breakfast, there is uneasy silence at the table. Our anxiety is thick and heavy; we want to get this over with.
As we pull into the entrance to the camps, Gabby, who is sitting in the seat next to me, gasps. “Why is it so . . . so . . . nice looking?” he demands, gesturing at the lush green fields, the well-kept barracks. He’s right. From a distance, Majdanek looks like summer camp. If not for the telltale chimneys rising up into the background, the barbed wire fences, it might be mistaken for one.
Very little of what I have learned about God in school before that survives the room with the shoes, but everything I have learned about evil does.
There are no words for what we see in Majdanek that morning. It is horrifying and stomach-turning, and far worse, in every way, than the movies and books warned me about. The crematoria are small and cramped, the palettes on which bodies were shoveled into ovens defiantly large. But it is the shoes that stop me in my tracks. Nothing I have learned or known or believed prepares me for the shoes.
One of the barracks has been emptied out and filled entirely with cages of shoes. There must be thousands of them and they’re the shoes of the victims: the 110,000 Jews who were killed here, the 75,000 Poles who were murdered, the 50,000 others whose lives were prematurely ended.
The shoes have turned black and brown with age and dust, but it’s still possible to see, if you look closely: this one was a pump, that one a loafer, this an infant’s bootie.
Very little of what I have learned about God in rabbinical school and at Harvard before that survives the room with the shoes, but everything I have learned about evil does.
We are broken into three tour groups at Majdanek. One is for Hebrew- and English-speaking students, one for Polish speakers, and another for German speakers. We are staggered, but somehow, the English group keeps catching up to the group with the German tour guide, and when we overhear German my internal pressure valve blows. The sound of German is, here and now, terrifying. I walk out of the crematoria, and sit on the side of the barracks, shaking. I will not rejoin the group until the end of the tour.
At the end of the tour, we ascend the stairs to the mausoleum, a huge stone structure set on a hill above the camp. From here, we have a bird’s-eye view of Majdanek: the barracks and the barbed wire, the crematoria and new apartment blocks being built a few miles away.
Behind us is an open pit that looks like a massive stone bowl. In it are the ashes of hundreds of dead Jews, mixed with cement so they won’t blow away. If we turn around now and face the pit, we’ll see a small hill of human remains. Instead, we are facing a sprawling green field, pocked by more deep pits. These pits divide sections of a mass grave and the field, which is a brilliant, glowing green tomb. On a cold day in November 1943, 18,500 Jews were lined up here and murdered.
Our presence here has been choreographed by our group leaders; we have been instructed to hold a prayer service. And so, in the midst of the ashes, we start to pray. Students read Psalm 23 in Polish, German, Hebrew, and, finally, English. When they are done, I read the Mourner’s Kaddish in Aramaic: “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah.” We are all grieving, and many of us are crying, but when the 23d Psalm is read in German, “Der Herr ist mein Hirte, mir wirdnichts mangeln,” the Jewish students flinch. And I try not to be, but I’m not just grieving—I’m also angry. I’m angry at the statuettes in Kazimierz, angry at the silence of our tour guide, angry at the seminarian who told me Jews were rude and smelled like garlic, and furious about the Jewish festivals that happen in the shadow of these places. This anger feels cavalier and besides the point, but no matter. Even though I know I should, I just can’t shake it.
On the walk back to the bus, Hans Peter, one of the German clergymen and professors, walks next to me, but says nothing. I realize this for what it is, accompaniment at the bottom of the pit, and I am grateful, although I don’t say anything. Neither of us does. As we begin to pass by the barracks, though, he stops and says in a shaking voice: “My people, the Germans, did this. And mostly, they were baptized. It’s unbelievable.” He pauses for a long, long moment, staring into the distance. “You know,” he says, “the Jewish people lost their lives here, but we, the Germans, we lost our dignity.” He shakes his head, and we walk on.
The Jewish students reconvene at the pub, where we order many bottles of Polish vodka. As we are pouring shots, Gabby, an Israeli who has spent years serving as a rabbi in the Israeli Defense Forces, says to the group, “As a human being, and a Jew, I think that Judaism is . . . about how we don’t do [these kinds of things] to people.”
Yoki, our Israeli professor, a rabbi and a scholar, is quiet for a moment, then nods. “I hope so,” he says, looking up at the ceiling and adjusting his kipah. “You know, there are two crucial moments in the Kuzari,” he says, referring to the classic book of medieval Jewish philosophy written in the twelfth century by the great Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi. “HaLevi said . . . when you [the Jewish people] have a state, let’s see how you behave . . . . He was saying, we have the means in Judaism to fight against the national human tradition to be animals. He was saying: we can do it, all people can do it. But then Himmler once said, ‘Only those who really carry the “holy mission” can do it, but other human beings will be disgraced by it.’ “
He pauses then, and rubs his beard: “But, see, it is up to us to realize that . . . we’re both animals and holy creatures. And in some ways, we have the easiest task of all the groups here, which doesn’t mean it’s not also the deepest. The Germans have the most difficult task because they have the clearest sense of guilt and they know that it is their country [that did this]. The Poles are also facing an enormous challenge, almost impossible. You can bet they are accused of being Jewish [for being here, with us], which in contemporary Poland is a terrible accusation. For the American Catholics, they know Christianity bears a deep sense of anti-Semitism. The liberal Catholics have an easier task—they can say this is part of our tradition but we don’t accept it. But if you’re more conservative . . . you bear not only responsibility but also guilt. We Jews are the only ones who can mend this—even with the amount of vodka we’ve had, which is very significant. We can bring mending to the seminar.”
“But what do we get out of all of this?” demands Gabby, asking the question I’ve been thinking.
Yoki frowns, then says: “For the first time in Jewish history, we get to get rid of our exclusiveness. If the God of Israel is only the God of Israel, that God is gillulim [idolatrous], and Judaism is practically idolatrous.” He looks up at Gabby, and around our small circle. “And this question, What do you get from this? At the end of it, you might be a better Jew.”
There is a long silence and Yoki speaks again. “You know what a Hasidic rabbi once said about the Shoah?” he asks. We shake our heads no, we don’t.
“He said, ‘It could have been worse. We could have been the murderers.’ “
We stare down at our vodka, and no one speaks for what feels like minutes. But then Benji raises a glass and offers a toast. “L’chaim,” he says, smiling at all of us. “L’chaim,” we echo him, raising our shot glasses. “L’chaim,” we repeat. “To life, to living, to life.” We say it again and again, watching one another.
There’s nothing else to say, I think. Nothing to say.
We leave the pub then and walk crookedly back to the monastery. I am drunk and depleted, woozy and exhausted. My head feels fuzzy from the vodka and my limbs are warm and loose. I never drink this much, and can’t imagine how I’ll stay awake through the next part of the seminar, but the day is not over yet. To begin the afternoon, the German students will reflect on their personal histories, and their relationship to the Holocaust. We are all dreading this. It has been a long day, and we don’t want to listen anymore.
When the German students begin to talk about their personal histories, the room is absolutely silent. Most of the German students have never met a Jew before, although they grew up in cities like Potsdam and Augsburg. Nazism, they tell us, still runs rampant in small towns all over Germany, towns where there are no Jews left. The day is not getting easier. But after long days of silence and far too much vodka, I hear myself speak: “I have a question for all of you. After the Shoah, in the Jewish community there was a great deal of theological discussion about whether God died here, about whether God died during the Holocaust. How do you answer this?” One of the German professors begins to tremble.
A German man in his 20s named Uwe, who has not said a single word publicly all week, speaks. “I think,” he says, and then starts to cry. “I think,” he begins again, but each time he tries to talk, he bursts into tears. Finally, after a few minutes, he says, “I think that if we can all stand together at the mausoleum at Majdanek and pray, there must be a God.”
No one speaks. No one moves. But I think, thank you.
It is not all so straightforward. Just as we are leaving Majdanek, one of the Notre Dame students says to one of his colleagues from South Bend, within earshot of another rabbinical student, “I am so glad that Jesus stopped the evil here, through the rosary.”
The rabbinical student who repeats this statement back to me is confused—he’s not sure what it means. But I think that I am, and I’m furious. I feel like a fetish the Notre Dame student is using to work through his theology and his guilt, and although I never confront him, it will become impossible for me to be in his presence for the remainder of the trip. I am so angry; I can’t even look him in the eye.
Three days later, I walk into my apartment in New York and put down my bags. The flight back from Warsaw was direct and overnight, but I was awake the entire time, nine hours of reading for all the classes I missed this week. I am bleary-eyed and exhausted as I crawl into bed, but after 24 sleepless hours, I find that I can’t fall asleep. So I turn on the TV. And there, on HBO, is Sacha Baron Cohen starring in Borat.
It is the beginning of the movie and he is participating in “The Running of the Jews.” The first time I saw this sequence in theaters, I laughed until my stomach hurt. And I laugh now, too, lying in my warm bed in Brooklyn. As the running continues and the requisite jokes about anti-Semitism are made, as Cohen mugs for the camera and mocks the stupidity and bigotry of anti-Semitism, however, I realize that my face is wet. I’m not laughing anymore. I’m crying, and I can’t stop, but I don’t want these tears. I choke them back, turn off the TV, switch off the light, and pray for sleep.
A week later, I call my friend Rabbi Melissa Weintraub. I tell her about the week in Poland and I tell her how, for the past week, I’ve been unable to sleep, how each night I fall asleep quickly only to slip into nightmares. I haven’t had nightmares since I was a child, but now, every night, I dream violent, terrifying dreams that wake me from the deepest sleep. I need to do something, I tell her. I need to let go of this, I need to forgive, and if I can’t forgive, I need the solace, right now, of forgetting.
I remember, I tell Melissa, how in Israel, at cemeteries we wash our hands at the exits in clear, freezing water. In Judaism, it is traditional to wash yourself in cold water after contact with death, to purify yourself so you can return clean and new, back to life. I tell her that the entire week in Poland felt like walking through a cemetery. “Everywhere I stepped,” I say, “felt like walking on graves. Please”—I am surprised by the ease of this request, its clarity—” Please can we go to the mikvah?”
Melissa agrees and the next week, on a cold autumn afternoon, just before Shabbat is about to begin, we take the subway to Broadway and Seventy-fourth Street. When we arrive, an attendant ushers us into private bathrooms, where the instructions are clear and precise, rows of black letters on laminated paper: Undress completely. Remove your jewelry, remove your nail polish, wash away your make-up. Brush your hair. Clip your nails. Wash between your toes, between your fingers, behind your ears. Shave. Scrub under your nails, behind your knees and in the crease between your forearm and bicep. Don’t forget anything.
When we are done, we walk to the mikvah, and Melissa recites the blessings and I immerse three times. The water is warm and clear and when I dunk under, as custom dictates, I raise my hands and feet from the side and floor, so every part of me is naked and floating, held in the gentle sway of the warm water. Under the water, there is a quiet swish and slosh and I watch as a slow line of bubbles rises to the surface. I come to the surface and take a deep breath, walk up the stairs out of the water, and wrap myself in the bathrobe. It’s over, I think, wrapping the belt tight around my middle. Finally over.
Back in the bathrooms, we take showers to rinse off the mikvah water, and prepare ourselves for Shabbat. And as I am washing my hair, I am surprised to feel my hands stop, and drop to my sides. I am crying, and this time, I won’t try to stop. This time, I weep.
Jordie Gerson is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and a freelance writer. She received a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2004. She is currently working on a memoir about her first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem.