- On Survival and the Need to Bear Witness:From My Journal 2001-2003, and Beyond
I am invited to write a brief (200 word) essay about something "inspiring to women" for a conference titled "Women United." The deadline is past, but I am assured that if I submit something right away, it will be considered. At first, I cannot imagine that any of my thoughts would be inspiring to anyone, and I'm too busy to condense anything into 200 words. (The friend who encourages me says she is sure I have "a paragraph lying around" that I can use.) But in the early hours one morning, I decide to make the effort. Otherwise, I fear there will be neither a Jewish, nor a Holocaust, presence in the anthology that is being prepared. At this time there is simply no other subject for me. The title: "On Survival and the Need to Bear Witness." I am surprised it is accepted, because it is not the overtly feminist contribution they want, and I honestly do not believe I have served the subject well. I don't know that I ever can. Here it is: [End Page 50]
We are all survivors of something, if only our lives. This summer I visited concentration camps: Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Teresienstadt. I needed to bear witness to what had been and remains, some of it in camp "museums": heaps of hair; 800,000 shoes; wheelchairs and crutches; kitchen utensils hopefully, carefully packed; suitcases neatly labeled with names and addresses, to which no one would return. Everywhere we stumbled on bits of human bone, remnants of incineration; a monument of human ashes, atop which someone had flung a red-and-white Marlboro box.
At Auschwitz I asked someone if he planned to walk to Birkenau, the extermination camp, or ride the bus. His reply: "They walked. So can I."
Our Auschwitz guide, Wanda, a non-Jewish native of nearby Oswiecim, said townspeople claimed they didn't know about the camp. Wanda's daily work is to bear witness to what they chose to ignore.
I learn from the example of Dr. Janus Korczak, head of an orphanage. When "his" children were deported, the Nazis said he was free to go. Instead, he went to his death with the children in his care.
Hope lies, I believe, in such actions. We create meaning when we are united.
Few will see my 200 words' worth. I'm told there was only enough funding to print 50 copies of the anthology—almost all of them purchased by contributors.
Once a month I have dinner with five women friends. We call our little group Hungry Women, though we don't speculate just what it is we are hungry for. I love each one of them, and they say they want to see my pictures and hear about the trip. Yet it is difficult for me to discuss. I have been trying to write about it for a long time. What I have is an amorphous blob of words that continues to grow like the seemingly endless red afghan a woman knitted for two semesters in a Western World Literature class I once taught. (I don't think she ever took a note.) And I remember the 137th psalm, the harps hung up on the willows by the rivers of Babylon. How do you sing the lord's song in a foreign land? And with a "geplatste strune" [a string that has burst], as Sutzkever might say?
In the last few years there have been many deaths in the worlds of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit; of course, even one death is too many. I do not know what my place is in this world. Today I hear myself tell Chaja, my dear friend, a survivor of Westerbork, Bergen Belsen, and Teresienstadt, that I have finally decided what I really want to do with my life: I want to join the Resistance. We laugh; she assures me that she will help me find new possibilities for resistance.
Later the same day:
Seeking connection, still. In a message Chaja writes for my 70th birthday, she says I know...