Friday, February 19, 2010

An American Jew at large in the world, Part 1: In Search of the Old Country

I don't know much about my family history past a few generations ago. I was raised in a rather relaxed reform Jewish setting, and when I received a set of heirloom candlesticks for my Bat Mitzvah, my mother only told me they were from "the old country." The Old Country was that mythic place our family had come from in the equally ambiguous Way Back When, but no one ever specified where exactly that was. I didn't know that my family on my mother's side came from Belarus until well into college. And I always knew my father's side came from somewhere in Poland/Lithuania, but things never got particularly specific. There was a vague date-- the late 19th/early 20th century-- and some historical events that lend clues (that area of the world was not a happy place for Jews during that time, as violence swept through rural northern Europe, leaving thousands dead.) But no one had anything concrete answers for me.

As I've grown older I've become more curious about this history. When did my ancestors leave, and why? How were they able to afford the trip over? There's not much more I can know about this. There are some records but not many. Names were changed at Ellis Island, and I don't know of any resources that would help me figure out areas of origin, let alone home villages.

As I traveled this year, through the Middle East and then eastern/central Europe, I discovered that there's a certain amount that can be learned through personal experience, through learning about myself. Even if there are no faces on my ancestors, the book is never closed on personal history. Sometimes all it takes is an unexpected reaction to a new situation to understand more about your identity; sometimes just walking in the places that your ancestors walked can make you feel more connected to what can seem like a remote, distant past.

It started in Jordan and Syria. I was told, when I left for Damascus, not to tell people I was Jewish. And so I didn't, an easy lie of omission. I've never been particularly observant, although the traditions (such as learning to read the Torah) have been meaningful to me because my family and others like me have been doing the same for thousands of years. But, to my surprise, I found that when directly questioned I couldn't bring myself to lie. This didn't happen often in the three weeks I spent in the Middle East-- in Syria it was only twice. And both times the response was the same: "That's okay, we worship the same God." But I was surprised to learn this about myself, the impossibility of denying my background, even in the face of potential consequences.

Traveling through eastern and central Europe in the fall was equally educational. In Slovenia, I stayed with a lovely family who served me traditional dishes in the warm late-summer air of their backyard. As we drank wine and talked, my host mother suddenly jumped up, yelping, and ran into the kitchen. Veronika, who was about my age, leaned over to me and said slyly, "She forgot the potatoes. Again." I didn't think any more of it until 10 minutes later, when her mother returned with a steaming pot, and to my surprise I found myself looking at a dish I hadn't seen since my maternal grandmother's death 10 years ago. I had grieved for those roasted potatoes, which I associated strongly with family holiday parties and whose recipe had seemed lost after my grandmother passed. I never expected to recover them, and yet there were again, a reminder of the things I had in common with these people and this country.

A couple of weeks later I picked my way through early-morning Prague to the Alt-Neu, or Old-New, Synagogue, the oldest functional synagogue in Europe at a whopping 800 years, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. There, an old lady next to me showed me the song book she had brought with her as a child when she was deported to a concentration camp from her native Hungary. I recited familiar prayers along with a congregation whose Rabbi was orating in a language I didn't understand. I broke bread with them in the traditional post-service snack, wandered the ancient cemetery in Prague's Jewish quarter, and thought about all the people who had done the same. For Jews growing up in the States, it's easy to feel rootless. We are new arrivals by almost all time scales (except, perhaps, the still-young USA.) But walking the streets of Prague, and, a few months later, reflecting in the mazelike recesses of the Berlin Holocaust monument, the layers of memory, power, and history were almost palpable. Running my fingers over the worn tombstones, I savored that feeling of connection to my surroundings.

That connection grew yet more powerful a few weeks later. I was couchsurfing in the charming town of Litomerice, near the German and Polish borders. I had come here for a reason: my great uncle was deported from his village in Slovakia to the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (German: Theresienstadt) during the Holocaust. He was later moved to Auschwitz, but was one of the few lucky survivors. Before his death he had asked that someone from our family return to pay tribute to the horrors he lived through. Litomerice, one of the oldest towns in all of the Czech Republic, has the dubious honor of being directly adjacent to what used to be Terezin.

It was entirely coincidental that my visit to the former camp grounds fell on the most important and solemn Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, but it certainly added to the weight of the visit. My couchsurfing host, who worked in the camp historical office as a kind of educational liaison for visiting German and Austrian schools, walked me around the village (which, disturbingly enough, was resettled by unknowing Czechs at the behest of the new government after the war, before the details of what had happened emerged) and narrated its history. As we visited the secret synagogue, the barracks, school, and other trappings of "community" that made this place perfect for pro-Nazi propaganda, he told me about the horrendous conditions that caused disease and starvation, the fear, the anger, the stench of the hungry and sick. At the cemetery I stopped and said the mourner's Kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the departed) for the buried dead and for those who were never buried, with my eyes resting on the crematorium in the middle of the field. On the one day out of all the year when one is called to reflect on one's sins and think of one's ancestors, I was glad I was there to honor those who could not honor themselves.

The cemetery, although fairly sizable, struck me as paltry and out of scale. Terezin was a major transportation hub for deported Jews, Gypsies, and Catholics in central Europe. Out of the masses who had arrived here, the vast majority died in death camps in the east or, if they were lucky, of disease and hunger in the horrific conditions hidden behind Terezin's quaint streets. I never knew my great uncle, as he died when I was still a toddler. But that day I felt I understood something essential about him, and about the nameless, faceless family in the Old Country, who, whether they fled the atrocities of the 19th century or simply suffered a difficult, hungry existence, looked to better life across the ocean. After a few minutes I left the field, but that feeling of intimacy stayed with me for many weeks. Somehow, just standing where so many had stood and suffered helped me take another step to understanding both where I came from and where I'm headed.

That may seem like a fitting end to a geographical search for identity, but it wasn't. A few months later I found myself in Antwerp, Belgium, and all of the neatly tied-up lessons I thought I had learned about my Jewish identity started to unravel.


Mark said...

Somehow I stumbled on your blog and enjoyed reading your post, but I'd like to offer a couple of corrections. Terezin -- though horrible -- was not an extermination camp per se. It was a holding camp. Around 150,000 Jews from around Bohemia and neighboring areas were sent there during the war. Most -- about 80,000 -- were sent to Auschwitz and other camps in Poland, leaving around 30,000 who died in Terezin. Most of these deaths were brought on by disease, starvation and maltreatment. There were no "killing chambers" per se, though there was an area where political prisoners were executed.

Following WWII there was no pro-Nazi government in Czechoslovakia. The Germans who survived the war and who lived in what is now the Czech Republic were either killed or expelled after the war. Terezin was presumably resettled by the post-war government or the communists (who took power in 1948). There was a housing shortage after the war, and the buildings in Terezin were still intact. Whether the new residents knew what had happened there is subject to some debate. Probably some knew and some didn't. I take your point that Terezin is still a very sad and depressing place to visit. Mark Baker

Alissa said...

Thanks for the fact-checking, Mark.

I didn't mean to imply that Terezin was an extermination camp-- I don't know what those chambers were used for, and perhaps there was a miscommunication between me and my host on that one. The numbers that you provide me with were much smaller than those I found in the camp/at the Jewish museum in Prague. I'll do some further research and edit the entry accordingly.

Mark said...

The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC has a good site with lots of information on the concentration camps. Here is the page on Terezin:

Their numbers are slightly different from mine (by a few thousand), but are roughly the same.

You may have been mistaking Terezin for Auschwitz-Birkenau, where your grandfather was eventually sent. There, the number of prisoners who died or were killed is estimated at around 1 million, with about 10,000 escapees, which is more or less your figures in your post.

The most interesting aspect of Terezin was the way it was used by the Nazis to dupe the International Red Cross. The Nazis used Terezin as a show camp to show the world their "benevolent" policies toward the Jews. That's why the prisoners there were allowed to have things like schoools, theaters and hospitals. The Red Cross did indeed visit Terezin and described it as humane, much to their discredit.

But keep writing ... it's interesting to read your perspective.


Alissa said...

I've edited the entry to be both less dramatic and less specific about numbers. I don't think it detracts from the horrors of what happened in Terezin, but of course I want to be as accurate as possible. Thanks again for your feedback, Mark. Let me know if you have any further thoughts
(and, since this entry interested you, check back tomorrow for part 2)

Mark said...

Hi Alissa,

I like the changes. I think you captured Terezin very well. I have one small comment on the word "Catholics" vis "transport hub for Nazis, Gypsies and Catholics ...." Though undoubtedly there were many Catholics among the victims, Catholics per se were not a persecuted group. Terezin was a major transport hub for political prisoners, however, particularly left-leaning Czechs (socialists and communsists) who vocally disagreed with the Nazi occupation. You might trade the word "Catholic" for "political prisoner" or similar term.

I will definitely read Part 2.