Based on a true story.
I remember, once, when I was a kid, driving through New York on a family trip. We passed by a place filled with only Jews. Real Jews. Religious Jews. My dad laughed as we drove and said: "Ok, everybody, set back your clocks one hundred years. This is what the chosen nation looks like…"
We gaped through the dark tinted windows of army car, and wondered that there were really such people in existence. I remember the little boys running, their curly side-locks flying in the air. Women wearing hats, handkerchiefs and what my mother described as wigs to cover their hair, and the stern looking men, with full beards and dark hats. The place looked frightening to me. I couldn't imagine why anyone would live like that.
But that happened when I was ten. Throughout my teenage years, school, sports, and friends dominated my life, and who cared about anything else. My parents considered themselves tolerant of all religions, and we celebrated whatever everyone around us did. Christmas and Easter were an annual part of our lives, as was Passover when we went to visit our grandparents near the beach in Maine.
We knew there was a God somewhere in heaven, and that was enough for us. My dad, an air force engineer in the US army, and my mom, a first grade teacher, were intellectual people who had little patience for divine theories and its practical applications. So we grew up happily in Texas, a mile away from the army base.
But then, as in all such stories, something happened.
It was my history teacher's fault.
Everyone in the senior class of PS 143 hated the history teacher. Her name was Miss Jane, and she was too tall, too thin, and too strict. She was a handsome woman who perfectly resembled Cinderella's stepmother.
No one moved in her class. We sat, took notes, and counted the minutes. Miss Jane did not want to hear our questions, answers, or discussions. She was the dictator of her classroom, and we took her orders.
One day, she assigned us a history report. Our history. Each student, she said, pointing a long finger in our general direction, was to research and write up a full report on our family history, three generations back. The people, who they were, their lives, their deaths, documents pictures, and a family tree with pictures, which would be hung on the wall near our classroom. Ten pages minimum. We would learn to live history. We had three weeks.
We waited until her stalk-like body clicked out of the room to tell her what we thought of her.
I complained to my parents that night and they told me to interview grandma. She would be delighted. So I called up grandma in Maine and told her my problem. She was delighted.
It was about time I know of my history. She likes Miss Jane. She's a smart teacher.
I wanted to know if she could she tell me everything in one hour.
An hour?! Maybe two weeks.
Keep quiet, and listen. These are your great-grandparents.
So she spoke and I listened. For hours. Every day that week.
I hated Miss Jane. It was an ugly history. But I didn't care. It was after all, history. I wondered who else in my class had such a history. No one. They were all Americans, born to American who were born to other Americans. One or two foreign backgrounds with almost as boring histories, but no Holocaust in between.
I needed pictures, documents, anything authentic. But there were no pictures.
And then there were the pictures. I needed pictures, documents, anything authentic. Pictures were a must, where were they?
Pictures? What pictures? There were no pictures!
Nothing? Was there nothing to show that they once existed?
What will I tell Miss Jane?
Tell her about my little sister Chanala who was gassed. She was a beautiful girl. You don't need pictures. You can describe her. Tell them that she had pale smooth skin like a baby. Big, dark green eyes with long black lashes. Thick, black long hair… But they shaved it off before they gassed her…She looked just like my Momma, tell them. She was also beautiful. The same green eyes, and black hair. And then my Tatte. Such a big, famous professor, but they didn't care. They killed him, too. He wore glasses. Nice, round, gold rimmed glasses. And he was always reading to us and telling us stories.
Tell Miss Jane that the Nazis didn't give us time to take pictures. There were lots of pictures on the walls, and in the bottom closet near the living room window. But when the Nazis came in the middle of the night, they shot my Tatte in the head. He fell down and there was blood all over the living room carpet, and then they took us. They didn't give us time to take anything…
When the class hung up the family trees I was the only one with no pictures. On the top row of the family tree there were only names. My great grandparents, born: Poland. Died: Aushwitz. And then there were the rest; Yossele, 18, Chaim, 16, Ester, 15, Rochel, 11, Moshe, 8, Chanala, 4, born: Poland. Died: Auschwitz.
I was one of the first ones to read my report out loud. But first Miss Jane wanted to know why there were no pictures or documents. A crucial part of researching history were finding the authentic documents. She wanted to see my history in paper. Without it you could not prove history.
I told her that there were no papers or pictures. They came from Europe with nothing.
She stood near the wall, scribbling something on paper. Without looking up she sternly reprimanded me. Everyone managed to get some pictures. My report could not be validated.
We had no pictures. But the Germans could validate it. They had the documents; they had the pictures.
I told her she was right. My report could not be validated. We had no pictures. But the Germans could validate it. They had the documents; they had the pictures. The Nazis were excellent historians. They had records and documents of everything. And somewhere on those records, I'm sure they could check it up for her, it says that my grandparents, and Yossele, and Chaim, and Ester and Rochel, and Moshe and Chanala, were gassed at Auschwitz in 1943. And the pictures. Yes, the pictures. There could have been pictures, there should have been pictures, there would have been pictures, but the Nazis were in a very big rush that night in 1943, when they shot my great grandfather in the head and threw them all into a cattle truck. They were in such a rush that they didn't even have time to put on their shoes. Or to take pictures.
I apologize for the lack of pictures and so does my grandma. She wants the pictures even more than you do. But she did want me to describe her youngest sister, Chanala. You don't need a picture to describe her. My grandmother remembers her exactly. She had pale, smooth skin like a baby. Big, dark green eyes with long black lashes. Thick, black long hair… but they shaved it off before they gassed her… She was also beautiful. The same green eyes, and black hair. And my grandfather. He was a big, famous professor, and a scholar. But they didn't care. They killed him too. He wore glasses. Nice, round, gold rimmed glasses. And he was always reading to them and telling us stories.
But there are no picture, so who cares?
And I dropped the report on her desk and left the classroom.
Miss Jane never said a word about the incident. Two weeks later she handed the reports back. There was a small, red A on top of my paper. My history had been validated.
Something changed since that day. Maybe it was only in my head. Life behaved as it always had. I had the same friends, sports, and games coming up. My favorite shows, the prom, and graduation trip were still on schedule. But I was different. Maybe it was only in my soul.
My history had shoved itself into my face, and I couldn't make it disappear.
Something big had happened that I didn't want to know about. My history had shoved itself into my face, and I couldn't make it disappear.
…Big, dark green eyes with long black lashes. Thick, black long hair… but they shaved it off before they gassed her… Yossele, 18, Chaim, 16, Ester, 15, Rochel, 11, Moshe, 8, Chanala, 4, born: Poland. Died: Aushwitz.
I read all about it, but the more I learned the less I understood. A long cycle of hatred beyond logic, that rolls on forever.
My parents tried to stop me. Things were different then, they explained. It can't happen again.
And then, one day at school, I found a red, small, cut out swastika lying in my cubby.
"Go back to where you came from"
The school authorities were horrified. The culprit was quickly found and expelled. He was a dysfunctional student from a broken home. Nobody was surprised.
My friends and parents stood firmly behind me. Sometimes I felt they wanted to shake me back into the old reality, but for me it was gone.
I graduated high school with honors, presents and lots of balloons. By August I was in New York as a student at the New York University. There were still a few weeks until the fall semester began, so I spent the time touring the city. A Jewish organization had hung up posters on the billboard in the dormitory excitedly promising all Jewish students the perfect cultural experience. Just call up this number and they would place us in Jewish homes for weekends and holidays. The poster was signed off: Experience New York from the spiritual perspective. I called up, and with a newfound Jewish friend from my dorm spent many weekends in just about every Jewish community across the city.
There was Williamsburg, and there was Queens and Monsey and Borough Park and Flatbush… Jews, and Jews and more Jews, thronging the streets, filling the neighborhood, routinely displaying an ancient heritage that had stubbornly disregarded time.
Flourishing, building, growing, unthinkingly inhibiting the living mirage of the past. Barely aware that they were a misplaced entity of mankind, taunting history, nature and the cycle of humanity.
But history was kind and seemed to stretch out forever. New York was like an opaque, solid air bubble sealing them off from the inevitable. It was a convincing illusion and I wondered how long it would last.
It was a good year in New York, and I was thinking of spending a semester in Israel and maybe take some Jewish courses in the Hebrew University. I arrived in Israel in July and spent the summer touring the land. My land.
I met my great uncle in Tel-Aviv. One I never knew I had. My parents gave me his number a few days after I arrived. He was my father's mother's brother. They had lost connection with him long ago, after the war. My grandmother had dissolved as well as she could into the great American melting pot, while my uncle fought fiercely for the land.
He was an old man, barely religious, but his complete pride in the Jew radiating from his deep-set black eyes. He proudly showed me the medals hanging on the walls, and hundreds of pictures filling his closets and draws. Pictures of the land, pictures of the people -- religious, chassidic, secular. All Jews, and that's all that mattered.
I walked from his apartment to the bus stop that would take me to the Wailing Wall. I would meet my friend there and we planned to tour the Old City. I must have been smiling to myself as I thought of my great uncle's invigorating spirit when a harsh, strident sound slashed through the air.
"Why don't you go back to the ghettos where you came form?! Who needs you here…! You think you're so great? Go back to Europe where they never finished to kill you!"
I saw only her eyes, gray swirls of self-hatred hurled savagely at the bearded young man in front of her. She stood stiffly, one long painted fingernail thrust toward him, menacing, and the harsh sound carried on.
There was complete silence as the shocked crowd looked on, and then all at once everyone was involved. There was shouting, explaining, quieting and arguing and the stunned, young man was surrounded by others. The bus pulled up, and I got on and left them behind.
I tried to sleep on the hour-long ride, but the harsh, strident sound became louder and the long menacing finger pointed angrily.
The driver announced the last stopped, and as I walked towards the massive, ancient stone wall, her gray eyes still followed.
"Go back to where you came from…!"
I held on and prayed -- like the millions before me and the millions that would follow.
I pressed myself as hard as I could against the Wall, but it wouldn't give. I closed my eyes and listened. Broken sighs, quiet tears, and wailing prayers. I heard a soft moan from the woman clutching the stone near mine. She was a young woman, in fitted bell pants and long red hair. And then I heard crying -- agonizing, pain-filled, wondering -- and I thought they were mine. But they belonged to a girl who almost touched me. Her shoulder length braids swayed along with her prayers, and I noticed the thick black socks under the August sun.
There were hundreds of women and I recognized no one, but they were all praying for me. A misplaced entity of mankind, taunting history, nature and the cycle of humanity. I held on and prayed -- like the millions before me and the millions that would follow. And I let the pain and the faith pull me in and upwards toward the azure skies that nearly touched the Wall. And even the gray eyes that followed behind me lost itself in the yearning, fading somewhere into oblivion.
Original article copyright (c) Hamodia. This edited version is reprinted with permission from Hamodia.