Yesterday, April 16, was the day Jews call Yom Ha’Shoah, the day to remember the Holocaust.
The Holocaust has shaped my life, which may sound odd for an American born in Chicago who never lived through the horror. My parents did not experience it either, and we never talked about it at home.
But I became emotionally involved with the horrific killing of Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals and political complainers by the Nazis in high school, from movies, books and television. I internalized the images of bodies piled up like cordwood and emaciated living corpses in striped uniforms walking around bedazed. When I could bare it I imagined myself walking into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
I had thought of going on a concentration camp tour, yet I could never find the stomach to do it, but in 1999 my wife Risa and a friend had the opportunity to go to Poland with a sophisticated guide. I engineered a business trip to Europe and caught up with them the day before they were going to Lublin, the site of the Majdanek camp.
We rode the chartered bus through the snowy countryside. We arrived at Majdanek around 6pm. It was empty. We were the only ones there other than the caretaker.
All the folks on the bus walked into the “welcoming” room, but I lingered outside. I took off my winter coat, sweater and shirt because I wanted to feel the icy cold chill in my bones. Then I put my garments back on and joined the others.
I read the signatures on the roster. The Nazis kept proper records. There were bunk beds of sorts for the inmates. Men and women were separated in each building. The building was clean, but I tried to imagine what it must have been like filled with people waiting to be killed.
Then I walked alone into the shower room where the gas had once wafted in to quietly exterminate the captives 70 years ago. I looked up at the showerheads. I tried to imagine what it was like, but how do you imitate terror? You feel it or you don’t. It was one-dimensional, derivative horror for me, nothing like the real thing.
I paused for a couple minutes to absorb my feelings, and then I walked out. My 45 minutes of Majdanek were over. I left the building, walked to the bus and saw that the camp was right in the midst of the city of Lublin. I had thought the concentration camps were in the country, hidden away, but Majdanek was right in the city neighborhood. And they say nobody knew what was happening.
We left Majdanek and headed for a hotel and dinner an hour away. We ate little and slept little under the covers.
Today, I remember my concentration camp experience. I mentally return to it on days of remembrance like Yom Ha’Shoah, but I don’t dwell on it. I never lived it. I can only occasionally grasp at a distant synthetic horror.
Most of the survivors are dead now. Europe’s Jews are going through another siege of anti-Semitism, fueled by Muslim hatred and indifference by the general population. The cover story in this month’s Atlantic magazine is a brilliant and terrifying piece entitled “Is it Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” by Jeffery Goldberg.
I read the article and I couldn’t sleep all night. Seventy years after Auschwitz, and Jews are still being killed in schools and supermarkets.
Why do they stay? Have they forgotten?