A Badge of Shame .

Over a decade ago, I went to Poland with my oldest daughter. I had hoped to support her as she learned. I didn’t need to learn anything because I had read EVERYTHING, knew EVERYTHING…and quickly learned that for all I had read, for all that I had learned, I knew nothing, needed to learn as much, and probably more than my daughter.

For eight days, I saw, I cried. I asked why…no, not why the Holocaust happened, but why Israel didn’t pull up all the graves, all the bones, all the ashes, and bring them home to Israel so that in death, they would get the respect denied to them in life. Why would we leave our precious souls in the cold grounds of Europe? And when I met some of the few Jews who remain in Poland today, I couldn’t stop myself from asking why they lived there still.

I spoke to a woman who was born in 1946 in Poland. Are your parents still alive? I asked her. No, they died long ago, she answered. She even has a daughter living in Tel Aviv and when I heard that, I lost it, “WHAT are you doing HERE?” I asked her. She just smiled and said she knew no other home. I stopped asking people after that; it was something I knew that I would never understand.

For the past few weeks and months, I have been writing wherever I can, asking Jews of Europe to leave. I am one person, not a politician, not well known. A mother, a writer…one voice…but there are so many other voices saying the same thing that I have hoped they would listen. Some are, some have written that they are trying. Many know the time is fast coming.

For the last day or so, I have been staring at a picture that reminds me of Poland and the days I spent there. My first two days in Poland involved visiting cemeteries, many desecrated, all abandoned and decrepit. I visited mass graves in forests and parks, as Polish families played and picnicked nearby.

As we approached our first concentration camp on the tour – Maidanek. I walked next to my daughter and her friend and heard we were approaching “Har Effer” (or maybe it is called Har Ha’Effer). “Har” means mountain in Hebrew. I struggled in my mind with the word “effer” and finally asked my daughter, whose Hebrew will always be stronger than mine.
“Ashes,” she replied.

I looked ahead and saw what resembled a spaceship, a concrete mountain with wings coming out in a perfect circle…I thought for a second that it was a symbolic name – Mountain of Ashes…and then, to my horror, I realized it was most definitely not symbolic.

As we entered, I saw that indeed, there was a mountain of ashes…really…in the center and the spaceship-like structure was simply meant to keep the ashes on display despite wind and rain. I looked at this huge mountain…I had two thoughts.

The first was that Jews don’t do this – we don’t put our dead on display. What little dignity in death that mankind could have afforded them after they were rounded up, gassed, and cremated by the Nazis, was being stolen from them by the Poles and their “exhibit.”

My second thought quickly pushed the first away as reality finally hit. I walked over to one of the Israeli guides. Most of our conversations until that point had revolved around my asking why Israel allowed this cemetery to remain, desecrated like this. Why we had not taken the graves to Israel? Each time, he didn’t really give me an answer though he was patient enough to listen.

In Maidanek, before the ashes of only God knows how many, I looked at him and finally admitted the truth to myself and to him. “There isn’t enough room, is there? In all of Israel, we could fill the country and there still wouldn’t be enough to bring them all home.”

Only one other time on our trip did the topic of bringing the dead to Israel come up again. The main guide, Chaim, took us to his grandfather’s grave. His mother’s father was buried with 85,000 other Jews and though the grave was not marked at the time, the Poles had recorded the man’s name and the grave location.

With two different Polish guides, Chaim was able use the plot number to find the exact location and when he found the grave and was sure it was right, he decided that he wanted to bring his grandfather to rest in Israel. He told his mother and uncle what he wanted to do.

His uncle responded with unexpected anger, asking what of the other 84,999 Jews buried there. “Will you bring them too?”

So Chaim did what he could. He arranged to have a stone marker made for his grandfather and left the grave in Poland, one of 85,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis in that field.

All this and more came to my mind when I saw a picture of desecrated graves in France. It isn’t enough, I thought with anger, to attack the living in France, they are also attacking our dead. They believe, in their incredible stupidity, that the dead can be made less, can be hurt, insulted. Each swastika is at once a badge of shame for Europe, and a badge of pride for the Jews buried there. What they fail to understand, these individuals who hate us so much, is that even in death, even years later when the physical bodies have turned to bone and dust, their swastikas simply confirm that in death, they are what they were in life…Jews.

Jews in life, Jews in death. I think they would have considered that a great honor. Through my fury, I keep telling myself that the writing on the stone is nothing to them, just as the twisted and desecrated stones in Poland were nothing to the Jews buried below. We remember the great rabbis who lived before World War II, their legacy lives on in their descendents and in their teachings. What does it matter if the Poles smash their tombstone or someone in France puts a swastika on stone.

There is something particularly horrible about attacking the dead. Of course, I guess it’s better than attacking the living but somehow, it comes back to the aliyah issue. This is what they will do to you, if you choose to die in that foreign land; for all eternity, you will rest among strangers.

And even if we visit you, you’ll never rest in soil that is yours, in a land where your memory will never be desecrated.
There are many reasons to make aliyah and I guess, though it is hard for me to admit, there are many reasons not to. When we first came to Israel, my husband came here before us and found us a place to rent. I told him I would be happy in a caravan, he found us a villa.

To this day, I feel the same way. I’d rather live very simply in Israel than extravagantly anywhere else. I’d rather eat basics, have the simplest clothes and spend whatever non-working time walking the mountains and streets of Israel, than eat in fine restaurants, wear fancy clothes and vacation anywhere else.

So long as the reason someone doesn’t make aliyah is because they aren’t sure about the economic realities they’ll find here, their situation isn’t nearly as desperate as it was for the Jews of Germany, Poland, and other countries from which so many Israelis came. Had there been a way, they would have come, even if the degree they had would not be honored here, even if they had to prove they could drive all over again, even if they had to work sweeping the streets. Life and death…they would have chosen life. The problem is, all too often, when it finally gets down to that moment when it is life and death, seldom are we actually given the choice to choose life. Or, more accurately, we missed all the opportunities and only death waited for us.

Israel is here for those who feel Israel is the right place for Jews to live; Israel is here for those who feel it is the only place for Jews to live.

Israel is here for any and all Jews who are alive today but sadly, as I learned that day in Maidanek, there isn’t enough room in all of Israel for those who spent their lives elsewhere and died there. Their souls are in the Heavens, but the physical remains will always be there in the earth where they lived and died.

If it helps any, a swastika painted on their graves is a badge of honor, bringing shame only to those who painted it, those who support them, and those who live in a country where this could happen.
First published at ‘A Soldier’s Mother’ Blog

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One comment

  1. Paula, yes, Europe is a graveyard for Jewish souls and it’s not just Poland and Germany that brings this home to us. Throughout Europe, with very few exceptions, Jews were massacred simply because they were Jewish. Last year I reluctantly had to go to Munich and environs, the place where Nazism started, and was uncomfortably aware of the ghosts of the past. My mother-in-law fled Munich, but tragicaly many of her family, including her young sister, perished.

    Israel is the home for all Jews, but not all Jews choose to go there. Maybe, as you say, it is because they would give up what is essentially a materialistic lifestyle. But I think for many, while they are scared of staying, they are equally scared of going, and not just for materialistic reasons. After all Israel is surrounded by enemies whose barbarity knows no bounds. Jews in Israel face constant attacks just walking along the streets or going to the shops, and parents have to face the reality that their children will grow up to join an army which defends Israel against these barbarians. It may sound cowardly, but it’s a natural reaction for a parent to fear losing their beloved child to an implaccable enemy.