14 Adar 5764
LOOKING BACKWARD, MOVING FORWARD
By Mrs Shaina Medwed
Gila Moskowitz, a teacher in a Hebrew Day Academy and young mother of three, lives in the Southeast. In this story we see how a trip to Poland’s death camps as a teenager forced her to take a good, hard look at her lifestyle and evaluate whether her commitment to Judaism was real or superficial. This vivid account of her very moving experience on the last day of the tour shows us how one young woman forced herself to wrestle head-on with the fact of the Holocaust, and what it meant personally for her life choices. Her turning point is a story that will be handed down in her family for generations to come.
It had been a difficult year for Gila. She felt as though she were caught between conflicting worlds. Her parents were modern Orthodox in their observance but very, very liberal in allowing her to make her own choices, especially when it came to school and friends. So, although she always went to Jewish day schools, she had a wide spectrum of friends. Sometimes when she came home from one of their social events she felt like she was living a schizophrenic life.
Now she stood at a major crossroads in her life. She had just received her letter of acceptance to a Teachers Academy. Going there meant a deeper commitment to a Jewish way of life. She was sure that it also meant losing some of her friends. She decided to postpone her decision. She requested a month’s extension from the school and asked her parents if their offer to send her on a Jewish history tour of Poland was still feasible. The previous year when they had first mentioned it, she hadn’t wanted to go, more out of fear than anything else. But now she felt that the trip might help her put her decision into perspective.
Gila stood at the entrance to an Auschwitz barracks. It was empty. The entrance was hidden by overgrown bushes, and a small windowpane was covered with cobwebs and dust. It was the last day of her high-school tour of Poland and she still felt like her heart was a heart of stone. “What’s wrong with me?” she thought. “I’ve stood in the actual gas chambers where the walls were scratched by the fingernails of dying Jews, and I haven’t shed even one tear.” While most of her friends were having a very emotional, tearful experience, she was beginning to wonder whether or not something was wrong with her. She kept trying to arouse her emotions, screaming inwardly, “Look where you are standing! Look at what you are seeing!” But try as she might, all she felt was a complete blank.
Even though she had been “touring” concentration camps for the last ten days, the fact that six million Jews had perished was something that had not yet moved Gila’s heart. Yet, being the sensitive, thinking person she was, it was impossible for her to just shrug off the experience. She knew she had to break herself open to feeling. But how? She decided to wander off on her own, far away from the other sin the group. Maybe then the experience would have more of an impact.
She walked through the mid-afternoon summer air, past barrack after barrack, until she found one almost totally covered by a tangle of vines. She felt sure that no one else would go in there. Scared, but determined to jolt herself awake emotionally, she pulled some of the growth away from the door and walked in.
Inside, the air was hazy with thick dust. Dirt was everywhere. Layers of decades-old dust covered the beds, where bits of straw and decaying blankets still lay. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and clung to the walls. Dim light filtered in through the tiny cracked window. Gila stood there in silence, taking in the scene in front of her, trying to imagine this prison that she had forced herself to enter as it had been 50 years ago, full of Jews. But no – she stopped herself – it was more than that. “It wasn’t full of Jews, Gila,” she said to herself. “That’s just a cliché. It was filled with people. Each and every person who was killed was a whole world. Mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and aunts and uncles. Think of your own family. Think of all the generations of people who were never even born because their mothers and fathers died here.”
Just as she was beginning to feel a tiny stirring in her heart, she heard the door open behind her. “Oh, no,” she thought, “someone else is in here.” She turned around and sure enough, a friend from the tour had walked in and was equally surprised to see Gila standing there. They had both come for the same reason: to be alone. They stood there, saying nothing.
All of a sudden a loud crash of glass broke the silence. They both froze for an instant and then ran out. The other girl was closest to the door, so she got out first. Once Gila was safely outside, though, she caught herself and said “Don’t you dare run away. You are running from the sound of glass shattering? The people who were here had to life and suffer in these very barracks with no escape. You go back in there and prove to yourself that it was nothing.” She felt that if she ran away she would be rejecting her collective history as a Jew, her ability to somehow bring into her young heart a thread of connection with the people who had died there.
Shaking with fear, her hands cold, she reopened the door. She felt she had to prove to herself that what she had heard was not a ghost. She was walking around the barracks slowly when suddenly she heard another crash, this time not as loud. She followed the sound. It was coming from the far side of the barracks. Between two beds, a bottom bunk and a top bunk, there was a square window. She stood in front of it and saw a little baby bird. The bird was sitting on the windowsill. The baby bird jumped up and hit the window and fell back down onto the windowsill. Then it jumped again and hit the window, and fell back onto the sill. She watched, fascinated by the stubborn persistence of this tiny bird. Then in one final attempt to get out, it jumped up, and flung itself with force against the window. The force of the blow repelled the bird and it fell backwards through a crack in the bed onto the floor.
Gila felt panic rising within her. She knelt down to look under the bed, but could not bring herself to reach through the thick net of cobwebs that spanned the length of the bunk.
At that moment, every emotion she had wanted to feel, every emotion buried so deeply inside of her, came pouring out. She fell on the ground and started crying like she had never cried before, sobbing and sobbing without being able to stop.
It was then and there that it hit her – the bird represented her people. They too had been trapped inside, desperately longing for freedom. They too had seen the sun and the world outside that tiny window, yet all they had been able to do was throw themselves against it in vain, only to fall back down into darkness.
She, Gila, was free. But really, she asked herself, how free was she? Free to go to parties and dances and shopping malls with her friends, free to wear the latest fashions and trade glossy magazines with her girlfriends, free to take long walks and do nothing but think about the meaning of life….
What kind of freedom was that?
Sitting there on the fetid, filth-ridden floor of the Auschwitz barracks, she realized for the first time in hr life that, as a Jew, she had a responsibility to herself and her soul. Being a Jew was something those six million had died for. It didn’t matter if they were religious or not. Anyone with a drop of Jewish blood was taken, not matter how assimilated they were. They died for their Judaism! Not it was up to her – she had the chance to get out of this barracks and go back into the real world and life for it.
Slowly, she rose and dusted herself off. She wiped her face with a tissue and rubbed her eyes. Now she knew with absolute certainty that somehow, within this incomprehensible suffering, G-d was hidden. He was hidden, but He was there.
She stood at the doorway looking back down the length of the barracks at the tiny cracked glass in the window. No one else was there, and in a few minutes she would leave this place forever.
“Shema Yisrael,” she whispered. Then she said it louder and louder still, finally shouting at the top of her lungs, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!”
She walked up and down the length of the barracks crying and shouting. And she knew that she would never look at life in quite the same way again.
Sure, she couldn’t wait to get home to her family and her own room. But she now knew that as a Jew she had a responsibility and an obligation not to take her life for granted. She had to go and learn…because that was the only way she was every going to be able to fly.