Life In Shadows
My Boss encouraged me to go and I balked. It was a sunny day. A nice day. Moreover, I was terrified to go in. Last week, we got a debriefing from the museum director about the show and related programing. "When people ask what age this exhibit is appropriate for" she said " we tell them about 10 and up for Jewish children, Middle School and up for non-Jews."
And there you have it.
Growing up in Jewish day school we were started young. Every year on Yom Ha Shoa (Day of Holocaust remembrance), the whole school was herded into the chapel where we watched videos of the most grisly, graphic death camp footage. After one such viewing in 7th grade, I was fully unable to sleep for an entire month. My poor mother had to sit with me at the edge of my bed smoothing the blankets around my legs for an hour everynight alternating between soothing small talk and impotent attempts at explaining all this to her petrified young daughter. I learned to avoid holocaust memorials, museums and exhibits. On class field trips, I begged to be permitted to wait in the lobby. Once, a teacher forced me to enter, saying I had to see it. I defied her by putting my coat over my head and crying in the steamy fog of my hot breath in the nylon tent over my face. My mother assured me that it was ok. That I would deal with it when I was ready.
12 years later, it occures to me that I'm too ready.
Passing through the threshold of the glass doors, I immediately wished I wasn't alone. I wanted a hand to hold in silence. Funnily enough, I wasn't feeling picky. I would have settled for someone who, in words unspoken, simply understood what all this meant to me (was forced to mean to me), or someone who, moving along side me, was quietly learning, or trying to learn what it meant.
I remember clearly one particular night when Jorge and I were up drinking late. We had been talking about history or identity or something and is wont to happen when he's drunk, he went off on a rampage. "What Holocaust, Abby? Whose Holocaust, Abby?" He sputtered scooping at the air with with his arms, the smoke from his cigarette tracing angry question marks over the table.
I knew he was right. And I felt ashamed. How did jews obtain exclusive rights to "The" Holocaust? The next day, Jorge apologized for being a dick but since then I've tried to qualify the term. I keep trying different things but none seem to sound right. "The Nazi Holocaust", "The Jewish Holocaust" (uh, which one?), "The 20th Century European Holocaust."
Pretty much the first thing non-jews know about jews is that they aren't supposed to eat pork. The next thing they know is that we live in the shadow of this aspect of our history. It's very hard to explain to people. One of the books I unpacked in the store that we ordered to accompany the exhibit was a giant tome. About 2000 pages thick, on the order of a massive English dictionary, it was a dossier of Jewish French children who went missing in the war. What the fuck was this book really I had to wonder, flipping through it tearily. Is this a coffee table book? If it is, can anyone understand how fucked up this makes a person?
As poets have well documented, death is intimately hinged to the deepest, desperate kind of arousal. There is nothing quite like a reminder of our mortality to drive us to lovemaking, late night whispering, the need-whatever the cost- not to feel alone.
I have only ever had one Jewish boyfriend. That was years ago, in college. He was barely Jewish really; his family had a christmas tree. Jewish only in his classic neuroticism, his affection for woody allen, jazz music, New York city, but also lineage. Jewish not because of what he did but because of what he was. I remember one night when we lay awake in bed, in the dark, sharing our family holocaust stories. I told him how my grandmother moved here from Frankfurt at the age of three because back in the thirties, my great grandfather had a strange premonition. He left everything he knew and moved his wife and 5 daughters over seas to small town Ohio. His family in Germany thought he was crazy. A decade later, they were all dead.
J___'s grandfather had been a wealthy dutchman who lost everything in the war. Moving to the states penniless, he changed his name so as to appear less Jewish. J__, being an only child, bears this family name as a middle name.
I also remember one night when we were both indescribably depressed. He and my housemate had been in a bad car accident earlier in the day and death was too much on his mind for us to enjoy the party we were at. We went back to his house and in complete silence he drew us a bath. He put on some music, a piece I can't remember, I just remember him telling me it had been composed in a nazi death camp. In the bathroom was a small blue neon light, that made the room glow eerily. In silence, we took off our clothes and climbed into the hot blue water, bringing a bottle of whiskey with us. In silence, we sat in the the darkness, the blue glow and the music and the whiskey and the weight.
I have never told anyone about this. I don't think. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. He understood nothing about me. But there was something he could understand. We could understand. I loved him very much for reasons like this, reasons that shouldn't matter but do.
I thought about all this as I moved through the show. As predicted, I shed many tears absorbing the texts and looking at the relics: worn childrens boots a three year old wore at the time of his camp's liberation, an olive green wristwatch given to one terrified little boy by his older brother who promised to come back and claim it in two weeks but never did, the rosaries and peasent blouses kids in hiding used to disguise themselves, photographs of tiny tattood arms.
Truly, identity is a project, one that takes many hands. What Nazi Germany may have started, we are constantly finishing. Over and Over. It's oppressive.
I'm a cry baby and a Jew.