Gates To Hell
All my life I have had a conflicted relationship with the idea of Germany. When I close my eyes and think of that country all I can see are those images of my ancestors... emaciate, tormented, and waiting for the release of death. When I think of the German people I still have a hard time thinking of them as anything in particular. Yet when I think of their country... hate is the only thing that describes it.
Its odd how the legacy of genocide does that...
When I walked toward that crematorium a part of me couldn't help but feel the weight of where I was headed. My soul ached as the thoughts of my family who had made this walk before me rushed through my mind. Though their footsteps had been on Croatian soil, the fact that I was in Germany didn't make the pain any less. I had planned to visit Buchenwald because I felt it would somehow be easier than seeing the place my own family had been sent to die. Yet it wasn't... nothing prepares the heart for that long walk. Nothing prepares the soul for being there. Nothing.
My family came to America by crossing through Europe till they finally found their way from the old world to the new. They were even poorer than I am now. Yet they did everything they could to make sure that their children and their children's children wouldn't have to live through that hell again. Spending every penny they had, those who could, they got out.
I wasn't born into freedom by chance. There has always been someone before me who fought to keep hope alive. I knew that the moment I boarded that plane and left for Germany. I knew that I was going back to a place my forefathers had struggled to leave.
Those hills covered in blooming mustard were the things old painters dreamed of. The little villages tucked up along the hillsides with gentle streams all trickling back toward the Moselle River... that was the Germany my family crossed through. They passed those vineyards, those little countryside farms with sprawling pastures, those wooded valleys... none of which they could stop to enjoy. Yet there I was in this land that caused their pilgrimage out of Dalmatia.
My journey would take me from London, the place that was too full for them to stay, to Germany, the place that had created hell on earth, to the home of my family. It was a short, yet bumpy, journey backwards through time. It was my way of going back to the places that made me who I am today.
I arrived in Croatia in the dead of night. Zadar was only a short drive north of my family's old homeland. Yet the transition from that somewhat flat patch of land to those sacred mountains was evident to me even in the midst of that pitch black night. I felt like I was home in the shadows of those rocky mountainsides.
Just south of Split I found where home was. Along the edge of the Adriatic, tucked up alongside olive trees and rocky outcroppings, I found where my family had lived all that time ago. Rosemary bushes and sage jutted upward from every spare patch of dirt those boulders of mountains seemed to offer somewhat reluctantly. This was heaven to me... almost.
That first morning when I put on my tallit and prayed I couldn't help but think of how I was the first one in my family to be back here doing just this... It was a moment when my prayers stopped for just a moment as the reality of it all sat in. It was a moment where all my heart could find no better words to offer my Creator than a simple thank you.
Walking out onto the balcony I stood there and looked over the sea and let it all sink in. To one side there were those mountains reaching out into the sea like and outstretched arm. To the other side was the sleepy village clinging tightly to the steep drop from the mountain road above us. For all it's beauty, for all the awe that had filled me... the sight of those mountains still reminded me why I was there.
My family had been taken up into those very mountains. The Ustase had attempted to cleanse all of Dalmatia of it's Jews. Up in those mountains they had taken my ancestors to what could have been the end of my story. Those who didn't die there were sent north to camps. And those who were lucky enough to escape did everything they could to evade death as they walked the line between Bosnia and Croatia.
I don't know the every detail of where and when the family members that did perish actually fell. The brutality of Croatia's genocide makes some things impossible to know for sure. But I do know the story of those closest to my own bloodline. And those were the stories that came to mind as I stood there looking up into the rocky faces of those mountains. That blood was still, in my mind at least, tainting this place that looked so much like paradise.
Most of those who had lived here were killed outright. Those capable of making the journey north were later sent to Auschwitz and/or camps in the Ukraine. They weren't seen again. Between what the Ustase had already done and what Germany would do to them, they seemed to disappear into the industrialized death machine Hitler had created across Europe. Their stories are ones I still am searching for to this day.
The one woman who's blood I still carry to this day did the unthinkable... she fought back.
Surviving the pogroms, the rape, the torment, the wilderness, and Tito's war of liberation... her blood carried that desire to fight. Her legacy, her stubbornness, her tenacity; all of these things still linger even though she has long since passed away.
I know I'm here today because when one person had every reason to surrender, every reason to just lay down and accept what seemed like fate, she decided to stand up. I'm here today because her unwillingness to look away from the suffering of her people in their greatest time of need. I'm here because in her darkest hour she decided to hold her head up high and do what she knew was right.
She lived through things that I don't understand. She did things that I can only hope I would had been strong enough to do if I was in that same situation. She saw things that I'm not sure I could bare to see first hand. And yet here I am today.
When I left Croatia I knew that the hardest part of this journey was still ahead. I was going back to the Germany. And this time I was going to a place I hated more than anything else. This time I was following in the footsteps of those who stolen from us. This time I felt like I was chasing the ghosts my family had left behind.
I had told myself that visiting Buchenwald would be different than actually finding the camps where they were taken. It would somehow be better than actually having to stand in those places where they were gassed, where they were worked to death, where their lives were forever extinguished by the hatred that had engulfed this land. Yet the moment I passed through those gates.... that moment when I ran my hand over the tattoo I had gotten to across my wrist to remind me of them... a part of me broke.
We had walked along the railroad tracks that had carried prisoners into Buchenwald. Every time I blinked I could almost hear the carts rattling as their damned cargo struggled to breathe inside those cramped quarters. I glanced over to the parade grounds where the soon to be dead had once gathered to hear their death sentence.
I looked to my right and saw the chimney reaching upward into the cloudy sky above. Rain trickled down across my forehead as my hair clung to my cheeks and the back of my neck. I couldn't help but think it was fitting that G-d had given us a rainy day upon which to visit such a wretched place. I almost thanked Him for setting the mood that had already settled over my heart days before.
Then came the walk I had been dreading. I turned and headed straight for that crematorium. It was the longest walk I have ever taken in my life. What was barely 50 yards away felt like it was in an entirely different world all of it's own. Every step felt like I was going backward. Every heartbeat felt like it was breaking down what little strength I had left. And yet the realization of how many had made this trek before me made it impossible to pause.
German Citizens Forced To Face
What Was Done In Their Name.
I entered the same way my ancestors would had done all those years ago. The stairwell down into the gas chamber was right there ahead of me. There was no way to mistake this place for showers. In Buchenwald the Germans hadn't tried to fool anyone that was forced to walk down there. This was simply a stairway down into the slaughter house.
I entered the doors above and first went into the rooms where German doctors had performed experiments and lethal injections. Their tables were designed to catch the blood of their victims so as to make clean-up easier. There were still markings along the wall to measure their victims. The instruments of their torture chambers were still preserved. The methodical way in which the Germans had documented their callous crimes was evident everywhere you looked.
For me however, this was just my way of easing into what still awaited me down the hallway. Just beyond those rooms sat the entire reason for this building. Rows of furnaces lined one side of that wretched place. These gates to hell were flung wide open for all to see just how the victims were cast away forever. A cart stood there to show how the task of disposing of a corpse was made only slightly easier... so as to speed the process up.
When I entered that room I froze right there in front of that first furnace. For moments it didn't matter that there were people walking behind and all around me. For those moments all I could see was the open mouth of that tomb where flames had consumed my people. For those moments the world around me seemed alien. The hatred that had led to the creation of this place surrounded me. The stench of it still felt like it permeated that space regardless of how much time had passed. It was as though every soul that had passed through that gateway still cried out... pleading that we never forget.
I finally found my place in time and the strength to keep walking.
Down those stairs I went.
Standing there in that gas chamber I felt like the family I had never known was suddenly fresh in my memory. I might not have been able to say that this was were uncle so and so had perished. But the thought of how many had found themselves in rooms like this was still there. The realization that this country, Germany, had put them in places like this was right there with me in that moment. Looking up at the hooks where their clothes had been hung before the gas was dropped in... I couldn't help but think about them.
They may have died in camps to the east. This might not have been the room in which they were killed. And they may have very well been placed in open pits and burned in the open air. But this was the most common ending place. And this was the end for me.
A Never Ending Journey...
Walking the grounds of that camp I prayed that G-d would give me some understanding of why... I prayed that I could find some reason as to why this had all happened. I prayed that I could understand why this continues to happen. I prayed for the strength to keep up the fight my ancestors had left burning in my bones.
It has taken a month of thinking about those prayers to find anything that resembles reconciliation with why I needed that trip. My ancestors may have perished almost an entire generation ago. They all may very well now be history to this world. But the struggle they had been forced into has not become history. That fight continues. And maybe, if only for my sake and the hope of making some sense of all this, just maybe... those who they left behind are the ones who should be fighting hardest.
Looking toward Syria, Burma, North Korea, and all those darkened parts of our world; I can't help but think that those of us should be following in their footsteps...
Unlike them, however, we don't walk defiantly into the gates of hell this time. Instead we rush toward those killing fields to make sure that the next generation of survivors has a voice... the voice our own ancestors were almost denied. This time we stand between the persecuted and their tormentors. This time we intercede where others had failed to do so when our ancestors needed it most.
The most astonishing thing you realize when you stand in places like Buchenwald is just how close these killing fields were to houses of common German citizens. The smoke from that chimney would had drifted over the village just downhill from Buchenwald. The people living in the shadow of that camp could not have escaped the reality of what was being done just one the other side of the treeline.
Today the world has grown smaller. Killing fields are often just on the other side of our computer and television screens. Bosnia and Rwanda happened as the the world watched. We didn't have to have American GIs force us to walk past piles of dead bodies like in Buchenwald. We get nightly updates, we get tweets, we get news broadcasts... the death toll is always there on display.
Looking toward those killing fields I can't help but think that this journey I've been on doesn't have an end. The legacy my ancestors left for me... this endless fight... that is something that this trip reminded me of most.
Alder's Ledge takes it's name from my own family's history. We only exists as an organization because of what was done to my ancestors. We are only here because of the fire that burns within my bones... my soul. It is a fire that many of my staff have been given by their own ancestors as well. It is a legacy that we can't turn away from. And all we ask now is that you join us.
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