January 27, 2020

I had a friend named Ruth who personally knew what Auschwitz was like from 12 to 15 years old.  When the day of liberation came 75 years ago today,  she knew it because all the Nazi guards had disappeared.  There were no liberators to tell them where to go or what to do.  She decided to start her long walk home to Poland to start her life again.  And so she did.

Although she subtitled her book, “The Long  Walk” as  A Novel, it was basically true from her own experiences.

I happened upon an old French movie called “Resistance” a few weeks ago.  I watched it because it reminded me of what Ruth had lived through before Auschwitz.   It depicted a Catholic boarding  school with kids about the age she was before Auschwitz.  They were just rather ordinary teenaged kids studying during the War when Germany had conquered France.

Two main characters became friends.  One was Catholic, and the other said he was Protestant, but was actually a Jewish boy in hiding.  Similarly, Ruth’s mother, desperate to find a way for 12 year old Ruth, and her 6 year old sister to survive, had put them in a Catholic school to hide their identity.

Horrifyingly mimicking Ruth’s story, one day a German soldier came to the school and took the Jewish boy away.  That boy, and Ruth’s own little sister, were never seen again.  Ruth was sent to Auschwitz.

After liberation, Ruth walked back all the way to that same boarding school and talked to the same nun who had been in charge the last night Ruth ever saw her sister’s arms reaching out to her in panic.

When I read that Ruth had actually seen the same nun who had turned them in to the German soldiers, I expected that she would feel rage that the nun had not tried to save them.

But that’s when I learned something else about Ruth that has stuck with me all these years.  She, much like Martin Luther King, murdered so many years later at a date close to the month he was killed, had managed to withhold rage or anger at the violent racists who wished him harm.

When I asked Ruth why she wasn’t angry at that nun, she said simply that she didn’t know what her mother had told that nun when she arranged to leave her two daughters there.  And she knew how much the Jews were hated by Polish Catholics.

Late in life, after writing her book, Ruth poured energy into talking to local high school generally underprivileged kids who were being bullied to pass on her own message that no one could humiliate her and make her feel worthless.  The teens listened carefully to her and some made her strength their own.

She never hated, and passed that on to her own children and grandchildren.  She once astounded me by saying that she had had a wonderful life.   She was a true survivor.

She died some years back before the resurgence of antisemitism in the U.S.  I assume it would not surprise her.  And it would not have changed her belief in her self-worth, or made her hate.

Written March 12, 2018, looking out at the Mediterranean Sea in Netanya, Israel.

Breathe in

Breathe out

How can it be that we are kin?  You, with your endless blue water, and me, with my puny human characteristics?  “They say,” and I do believe, that we are connected by nature.  I, the sea, the air, the wind, the birds, the land — we are all a part of nature.

Perhaps I could not bear to believe that I pass through this world for years with no connection to it — just floating by, and then into nothingness before and after me.  I have no proof of our kinship except that I feel it physically and spiritually.

I do not wish to be only another human among billions because humans are such a small, inconsequential part of nature — and certainly not the best part.  I am often ashamed of being human given all the meanness of the species.  I think of my friend, Ruth, whose worst three years of life were spent as a young teen in Auschwitz.  She endured and overcame unimaginable things to have what she amazingly was able to call “a good life.”

And then I read of quite normal, beautiful teens who commit suicide to escape bullying by other teens on social media.  And I can’t understand either the brutality or the fragility of teenagers who grew up in a world of social media.  I can’t put them together.

When I divorced, I felt opposing pulls of pain and the excitement of pulling together a new life for myself.  But now I’m old, and there are very few mitigating factors to ease the depression of deterioration.  How to sustain my spirit like my friend Ruth did through the horrors of continuing to live through evil times and cruel humans?

You, nature, are the only way I can balance the world enough to want to stay in it a while longer.  And then I will join you as an intangible, forever lasting, infinitesimal speck of dust.

Breathe in

Breathe out

Namaste

September 22, 2015

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.

January 28, 2015

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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