Tonight is the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.  The chanting of Kol Nidre draws me.  I look for the old audio tape my father made so long ago.  My aged Walkman no longer works, but I remember one other combination CD and audio tape player I can use.  I slip in the tape, plug in the Yahrzeit remembrance candle, turn out the lights, turn on the tape player, and settle into my comfortable chair.  I wait expectantly as the sounds of the shofar fill the room, and then feel a comforting sense of familiarity as the music and first words begin.

As I look at the remembrance candle, tears for my dead son, brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles fall.  These are the tears of the last branch of our Wiseman family tree; of the senior who is now older than all her living relatives.  My mind imagines me walking into Auschwitz with my friend Ruth, and the numerous relatives I never knew.  If my great-grandparents hadn’t moved to the U.S., I would have suffered the Holocaust with them.

I cannot say I’m religious, but I am very Jewish.  My Jewishness is not by choice.  It is in my genes.   My Catholic Girl Scout leader introduced me to Jewish services when she took our scout troop there.  I was so moved by the service and the singing that I volunteered for the next few years to make the tea and put out the cookies for all the oneg shabbats after Friday services.  After that, I was a regular member of Jewish teen groups and learned more about Israel and Jewish history.  I fell in love at 13 years old with a wonderful 15 year old Jewish teen in my hometown who became my husband 7 years later.

At the age of 40, I began my years of being the proverbial wandering Jew, starting with immigrating to Israel.  It was in Israel that I met the Sephardic Jews of eastern countries, the Ethiopian Jews who were then being brought into Israel in large numbers, and the Arabs both inside Israel and the surrounding territories.  A few years later, I signed up to work in a program to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews living inside Israel.  I lived for 18 months in a small Arab city called Shefaram that held within it Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druse, and one Jew – me.  That ended with the Intifada of 1988 when my car was bombed one dark night while I slept.

I loved so many things about Israel, but in the end I was not strong enough to live in the tension of daily life.  I wanted to believe that Arabs and Jews could coexist, but didn’t believe deep inside me that it would ever happen. Although I kept looking back at Israel, I left and continued my wandering years mostly in Asia.

I may have been the mother of a black child, and become the grandmother to 7 Chinese children, but the wailing words of Kol Nidre still deeply affect me.  Jewish prayers are often sung like crying.  Perhaps that is because most of Jewish history has been sad.  Kol Nidre helps me remember not only the sadness, but also the joy of being Jewish.  The Jewish New Year offers renewal and that elusive word – hope.

Tomorrow, on Yom Kippur day, I will take my thoughts and go to the sea close to my home.  The depth and beauty of the sea is the holiest place I know.

After Auschwitz

28 Jan
0

For over a million people, there was no “after” Auschwitz.  But, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their freedom,  some of the remaining survivors traveled there again, most for the last time.  A few were interviewed for a CNN “Voices of Auschwitz” program.  My friend, Ruth Treeson, died a year ago.  But her book, “The Long Walk,” and personal conversations with Ruth about her years in Auschwitz between her 12th and 15th birthdays made Auschwitz more than just a chamber of horrors for me.

Like the survivors interviewed in the tv program, Ruth had also come from a warm and loving family.  Although she had no particular talent or skill that kept her alive, she had an amazingly well-developed ability to daydream that helped to keep her alive.  Like the survivors interviewed in the tv program, Ruth not only survived the death camp, but had to figure out how to survive without family after the war.  Where to go?  What to do?

Each of them had to renew their physical and mental strengths to once again add vitality and direction to their lives.  Grieving was necessary, but so was pushing beyond the grief to a life they had never dreamed of without their families.  Like the others in the tv interviews, Ruth pulled herself together and fashioned a new life for herself.  I was stunned when she once said to me that she had had a “good life.”  Education, marriage, children, grandchildren, and the skill of writing made her life worth living.

Although she used her poetry to describe many aspects of her life, it also searingly expressed the pain of such experiences as a child’s terror of what she feared was coming, and the footsteps of the freezing, endless forced march that killed so many not long before the war ended.

“The Long Walk” was written toward the end of her life.  I never asked her why she waited so long to write it, but she used the last years of her life speaking to groups about her book.  Her favorite listeners were troubled high school youth who felt alienated, alone, and humiliated.  Her message was that each person was in charge of how s/he thought about him/herself no matter what the conditions one lived under.  Certainly the Nazis had done their best to make her feel worthless, but she kept her dignity and humanity.  And, amazingly to many of the teenagers who listened to her, she harbored no hatred or malice toward anyone.  The Nazis not only lost the war, but also lost in destroying her sense of self-worth and tolerance.  She treasured the many thank you letters she received from those high school students.

The survivors left behind their stories to be preserved and heard by the rest of the world.  The importance of first-hand accounts of anything historical are to be honored and studied.  Unfortunately, those words, pictures, images, don’t stop such things from happening again.  Anti-Jewish sentiment is once again strong in the world.  The term “never again” is an unachievable dream against the many forms of racism and hatred in the world.  But still we humans continue to read and listen to the voices of the witnesses of inhumanity.  Why?

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