I am haunted on this day. I could not focus on work, health, family, even baseball.
My blueberries I ate for breakfast even evoked thoughts of blue forearm tattoos with numbers.
The light blue sweatpants I wore for a workout on my treadmill brought up visions of blue striped prisoner’s pajamas.
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, have sleeted into my memory. I’ve spent hours watching and listening to trailers of Holocaust films today.
It’s odd. My parents never discussed the Holocaust with me. It was not a school topic. I was naive, and I didn’t read much as a kid. Mainly I shot baskets and practiced pitching and hitting. But my life changed in 1959 when I heard about the book by Leon Uris called Exodus, immediately followed by the movie by Otto Preminger in 1960 starring Paul Newman. It was about the aftermath of the Holocaust and the passionate founders of the state of Israel.
The story totally captivated me. I read the entire book and I had never read a book of that length. I was 14 years old. I had had a Bar Mitzvah the year earlier and went through the motions, but I was a different person after the book and the movie. I was an ardent Zionist, even if I found the synagogue to be a stale place for old people.
I continued my education mainly through movies and TV programs. I followed Israel politics. I contributed heavily to Israel charities. My wife Risa shared my feelings, but she had something I did not have — a summer in the country in 1967 with her camp group.
We visited Israel as a family in 1985 and afterwards. Her Uncle Ed moved there and we stayed in his lovely apartment in Tel Aviv as a family. And we visited the Holocaust Museum.
A turning point in my life came in 1999. My wife took a trip to Poland with her close friend Judy to see where her mother’s parents came from. I had a simultaneous business trip to France, England, and Poland, and met up with her for an arduous bus trip to Majdanek concentration camp.
It was winter and we ran into light snow and icy roads. When we reached Majdanek, which to my amazement was in an open space next to a residential neighborhood in the city of Lublin, everybody got out of the bus but me. They went in the tourist entrance but I was too gripped by emotion. I took off my coat and then my sweater and shirt in the cold. I desperately wanted to try to connect with prisoners arriving there in trucks and trains to be gassed and cremated after their teeth had the gold fillings extracted.
After a few minutes, I walked in and envisioned myself in striped pajamas and then I walked into the rooms where the cremating ovens were. My brain was numb. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing, and then it was over.
I do not remember much more except the Christmas lights in the residential neighborhood across the street from Majdanek. It was weird.
We stayed overnight. Then Risa went on with her trip and I checked out some well used Wickmans in Poland.
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. My mind cannot leave the roster that I read at the death camp. It was not just Jews, but Roma and political prisoners that the Nazis wanted to quickly get rid of and forget. And I think of the pajamas that the emaciated survivors were dressed in when the Allied soldiers liberated the camp in 1945.
I find it sad that the Holocaust is a fading thought to most younger people today. But I find it wonderful that Ken Burns felt compelled to spend many years on his recent documentary about the United States turning its back on the millions of European Jews who begged for entry in the 1930s and ’40s.
I will never forget. I will try to sleep tonight, but those striped pajamas will make it very very hard.