“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur is sealed; who will live and who will die.” This text from our High Holiday liturgy flooded my mind as I entered the gas chamber at Dachau Concentration Camp. The guide had explained that the word “Brausebad,” painted in black above the doorway, is no longer the German word for “shower.” After the Holocaust, the Germans started using a different term because “Brausebad” was the last word that so many millions of people saw before their deaths. When the year begins, we don’t know who will live and who will die. The victims of the gas chamber did not know either. I walked in, I saw the false shower heads, murmured the Mourners Kaddish in the middle of tiled room. And then, thanks to the timing of my birth, I walked out. 70 years ago, the only way out was through the chimney, and here I was, in July 2013, just walking through, processing the moment through my camera lens, like I always do – breathing, living, remembering. I visited Dachau this summer after spending a week in Berlin with Germany Close Up, a program designed to introduce young American Jews to modern Germany, heavily subsidized by the German government. A Holocaust survivor I know told me that if the German government was paying to bring young American Jews to Germany, it was for one reason only. But she was wrong. I returned. I am safe. I went to two concentration camps, and felt a surge of elated energy as I passed through the gates on the way out, overwhelmed with gratitude for my continued liberation.
I went to Germany with questions, and like any good Jew, I returned with more questions. I returned on the cusp of the month of Elul, the month when Jews, as Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) says, look at the window instead of looking through the window: “When the shofar blows on the first day of Elul,” he says, “and every morning thereafter, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, and to place judgment at the gates of our consciousness, to shift our focus from the outside world to the considerable activity taking place in the window through which we view it.”1 In this prelude to the High Holidays, Jews deepen our awareness, apologize to those we have wronged, and make plans to grow as human beings over the year to come. We have the opportunity to look back, to remember, and to learn how we can move forward in the new year.
Berlin taught me a lot about looking back. For the first time, I had the opportunity to ask non-Jewish Germans, outright: What did your family do in the war? Most of them had no idea. It wasn’t something you talked about, their families said. It was something you remembered. You can’t walk anywhere in Berlin without remembering something. The city itself seems to have PTSD. Look down at the cobbled sidewalks and you see gold stumbling stones inscribed with the name of a Jew who lived in that spot, noting the date of deportation and the place of their death. Look up and there’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, tremendous and dominating, so much a part of the landscape that children have snowball fights amid the giant blocks during the winter. Turn the corner and there’s another memorial, in Hebrew, English, and German. Everywhere, the memory of someone we lost and the culture that went with them.
I don’t think anyone in Berlin has the chance to forget, even for a minute. It was like a tour through my own psyche. Yes, my psyche – I’m an American Jew, three generations removed from the Holocaust. I grew up reading too many books about the Holocaust, and had nightmares in which Dr. Mengele shot my mother while I had to watch. I was 10. I’d never been to a concentration camp and I did not know my own family’s Holocaust story, but somehow, these memories became my own. My favorite author, Jonathan Safran Foer, says “Jews have six senses: Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”2
Visiiting Berlin, I got the sense that the city itself remembers the way Jews remember, with a sixth sense. Young German non-Jews who have no connection to the Holocaust still feel guilty when they meet someone Jewish. Holocaust education in the schools is extensive. Most highschool classes visit a concentration camp. All are required to visit a memorial.By the time they get through school, they are tired of hearing about it, tired of feeling guilty, tired of questions that don’t have answers: What did our family do in the war? What can we do about it? How can I live with this history? The trauma of the Holocaust has been passed down, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, among Jews and non-Jewish Germans alike.
The psychology of trauma teaches us that exposure is the only way to heal. Talking about it. Recognizing the pain. Being with it. Germany Close Up provided an opportunity for us to do that together. I don’t know if a r’fuah shlemah – a complete healing – is possible. But I do know that confronting the issue through compassionate conversation, sitting with the pain together, was itself a healing experience. As Rabbi Lew says of our sins, “What’s done cannot be undone— but it can be healed; it can even become the instrument of our healing.”3
We are good at remembering, but confronting trauma is much harder, and there comes a time when “never forget” just isn’t enough. For me, that time was this summer. I went to Germany because I was ready to explore some of the deeper issues in my own memory and in our collective Jewish memory. I engaged directly with the site of the trauma, with contemporary Germans, and shared a Shabbat dinner with the new Jewish community in Berlin. I also learned that Israelis love to visit Berlin and that Germans love to visit Israel. It’s harder for American Jews, and I’m not sure why. We remember. We’re not ignoring the trauma. But many of us are not coping with it either.
This is just one example of an evaded issue – the largest unresolved trauma of the 20th century, and part of our collective Jewish memory. I know that some are not yet ready to get on a plane and fly to Berlin to cope with it. But I wonder if each of you can take this opportunity over the next ten Days of Awe to consider other evaded issues in your personal experience. What other traumas have you been ignoring? What is it that you are remembering, but not facing? What would it be like for you to engage directly with a painful experience in your personal memory – perhaps the death of a loved one, a challenge to your identity, a moment when you were unkind to someone who reminded you of something you fear in yourself? Can you acknowledge your failings and traumas without allowing them to consume you?
On Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, another traumatic story in our collective history. I have often wondered what it was like for Isaac, who lived the rest of his life knowing that his father was seconds away from sacrificing him. How did Isaac walk through the world carrying this trauma? Did he relive that slow walk up the mountain in his nightmares? Did he wake up relieved that he could move his arms and legs, that he was not bound after all, to the memory of the wood, the knife, and the imminence of fire? I’m sure Isaac never forgot the terrifying moment Abraham stood above him with the knife. What traumatic moments do you replay in your own memory over and over again? And are you hiding behind the memory itself, instead of engaging in the more painful but rewarding task of confrontation?
It is not for me to say that you need to enter your personal gas chamber so that you can walk out. Only you can decide when you’re ready to confront your own trauma, and you get to decide what that means for you. All I’m asking is that you take this time during the Days of Awe to notice the window you’re looking through. Then, when you’re ready, you can open it.
Note: Hillel at Stanford is now partnering with Germany Close Up, so I will be staffing this trip over spring break 2014. If you are a Jewish student at Stanford and you want to know more about how to get involved, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are not a Hillel at Stanford student and you would like to do this program, check out the Germany Close Up website to learn more!
1. Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 78). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.
3. Lew, Alan (2003-08-01). This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 29). Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.