Elise Goes to Auschwitz

Sometimes on a Saturday night, my little family island is flooded by youth. And no, I’m not talking about Retro Night in my mirror-balled basement – I mean actual young people, teens and twenty-somethings. You might call it clear evidence of local warming. Or you might blame it on Tropical Storm Elise. She blew into my living room last week.

Elise is a university student, a colleague of mine when she’s not doing that, and a WOW (Woman of the World) pretty much all the time. When her college offered her a chance to go to Poland for the Walk of the Living – an international youth gathering to commemorate the Holocaust – she leaped at the chance. And we all jumped at our chance to find out about the Walk she made. And how it affected her idea of Living.

The story was intriguing right from the start. The Canadian Jewish Congress decided, on this 60th anniversary of World War II, that the trip wouldn’t be just for raising the consciousness of Jewish kids, as it had been in the past. This time, they were joined by Christians (hi, Elise!), Muslims and those of no particular faith. Interviewers asked tough pre-selection questions: What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever gone through? How does tolerance show itself in the way that you live?

That didn’t prepare them for airline security – they were flying El Al, Israel’s state airline. Saying they’re careful is like observing that Michael Jackson is a little unusual. Elise was embarrassed, tired, a bit angry (“Didn’t I already answer that? Another scanner? I have to take off what?”), even when she knew the routine was for her own safety. And that the visibly Middle Eastern students were put through a wringer even tighter than the one squeezing her, fair-haired and blue-eyed as she is. Yes, she thought. This must have been how it was. A little bit like that.

And then it was a trans-Atlantic plane ride, and then it was get-off-and-get-on-the-bus to Auschwitz. The bus to Auschwitz. (Quiz: What do you do if you’re losing the war and your enemy is closing in on your concentration camp full of human skeletons whose only crime was ethnicity or lifestyle? One answer: A forced march with beatings can be effective; 56,000 human skeletons were convinced to stop living in only five days.) Auschwitz is now a museum of memory. Display case after display case of human hair. Shoes. Star of David armbands. On and on, all the artifacts of the long and horribly dead. The Genocide Show.

Elise felt terrible because she didn’t feel worse. No tears yet. Jet lag, exhaustion, and a wicked culture shock, sure, but not the tidal waves of empathy and disgust and sorrow that (she guessed) she was looking for. She wondered if something was wrong with her heart. This was Auschwitz, and she was numb. Perhaps just a little, she later thought, like the Jewish people unloaded from cattle cars at this same Polish camp more than six decades before. The same ones who’d been harassed, then restricted, then rounded up for “resettlement”. Disbelief. Shock. Numbness. They must have felt this, too. A little bit like this.

You’ll be glad to know that Elise’s heart was fine. Through the March of the Living between Auschwitz and Birkenau, where the gas chambers killed over a million Jews and thousands of other political prisoners; through visits to the Jewish ghettoes in Krakow and Warsaw; through the visits to concentration/extermination camps at Plaszow (where those that Mr. Schindler couldn’t protect ended up), and at Belzec and Majdanek (where Elise spent Mother’s Day); and, through wrenching conversations with survivors, with the “hidden children”, and with her fellow students, Elise’s mind and heart were stretched and shattered and consoled and shattered again.

For her, the calm centre of this hurricane of feeling was always Anita. Anita rode the bus with the non-Jewish kids. It turned out that she was one of the “hidden”, a Jewish girl whose family had been herded into a ghetto, who was passed secretly out of that ghetto in a burlap bag just before her parents were murdered. (She was 8 when her father dug his own grave before being shot.) She, like many, was sheltered in a Polish Catholic family and raised as a Christian. (One of the other “hidden children” grew up to be a Catholic priest who found out, many years later, that he was Jewish.) Anita’s story became the understandable, human-scale core of an incomprehensible crime.

And these were the questions that the Canadian kids from all backgrounds asked themselves: How did this get started? (Shunning, blaming; from burning books to burning the people who own them is not so big a step.) Where was humanity when all this was going on? (A better question, surely, than “Where was God?”; we don’t seem to care as much where God is when stock prices are high.) Where does hope come from amidst such industrial-strength inhumanity?

Their answers were powerful, life-changing, and ultimately hopeful. For Elise, the most pressing question was simple: What are we going to do about what we have seen? Her commitment, and that of a tightly-bonded group that had been strangers five days earlier, came from a Hebrew expression – Tikkam Olam – which means “to repair the world”. The experience made them want to take on this repair mission personally. To bear witness. To speak their truth. To move the world, just a little.

And that is why Elise was in my living room, and that is why a whole bunch of kids came to hear her. The world feels a little less ragged after a night like that, though my heart was a bit frayed.