These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

In Pain, but Numb.

Posted on April 11, 2013 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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From my blog:
Photo of Israeli traffic on a major road stopping for 2 minutes for Yom Hashoah

Photo of Israeli traffic on a major road stopping for 2 minutes for Yom Hashoah

Monday was my second Yom HaShoah in Israel. I was standing in the middle of the partition in the road on Rivkah and Pierre Koenig to get a good view of the people stopping their cars and getting out to pay their respects to the dead when the wail of the memorial siren sounded. Another woman stood with me, her phone out for video taping the streets during the two minutes that all of Israel stops on its tracks, and hopefully, takes the moment to remember what the world has lost. Last year, I was standing in a similar place, quietly battling an inner turmoil that comes with the day, and had been carrying around an ache that had settled from my throat to my chest, like I needed to let out a good cry, when I witnessed the unified mourning of a country at a standstill, even if only for a few moments. This year though, something happened that deeply disturbed me.

During the siren, a single car, a worker’s vehicle, came careening down the road, as if the driver not only refused to stop for those two minutes, but was driving in such a way that indicated that he wanted the rest of us who were standing and acknowledging the siren to know, that he was in no way with us on this. The woman with the camera on the partition stepped out into the road in front of the car to get him to stop, which he was forced to do, and at that point, he was caught at the red light. She shoved the camera close to his smug face through his open window, where he proceeded to present his middle finger to her, and then made an exaggerated shooing motion with his hand. The red light changed before the siren ended, and the car sped away, leaving the rest of us there, motionless in our stagnant and perpetual grief.

Some of us watched the interaction between the callous driver and the angry camera woman–since I was standing right next to them, and was close enough that I could have reached out and pounded my fist on the hood of his car, I couldn’t help but watch in quiet anger and frustrated disappointment with such a display of blatant and proud disrespect. But after the driver shattered the moment of necessary silence that we can afford to offer the dead, I forced my attention back to what remained of that moment; people standing outside of their cars in the middle of a busy street, heads bent in respect, and Pardes students lining Pierre Koenig with solemn faces, some witnessing Jerusalem’s Yom HaShoah for the first time, just as I had last year. The wind blew a man’s kippah from his head into traffic, but he didn’t budge an inch to get it until the siren had ended. People had stopped on their tracks on the street, as if frozen in that moment–their lives on hold, just for those two minutes. Most of us were not like that driver–most of us were decent enough to show some indication of respect to millions of lost lives, and to the countless lives that such a loss continues to affect, even decades later.

As we collected ourselves and went back into Pardes, I mentioned what I had seen to a couple of people. One person who had overheard me seemed upset about the whole encounter with the driver and the woman with the camera, and he asked me to repeat what I had seen as if he couldn’t believe it. So I told him the story again. Without responding, he turned away from me with a look of anger on his face, and walked stiffly back inside. So I shut my mouth about it and went back to my day, too. Back in the classrooms and beit midrash of Pardes, we watched a documentary about survivors and immigrants discussing what life in the shtetl and big cities of Eastern Europe was like before the war. We then listened to Warsaw ghetto and death camp survivor, Morris Wyszogrod, tell us his story. Both of these programs were meaningful, both important to preserve and to remember as we commemorate and mourn every year. But I have a confession to make; I felt a numbness the rest of the day after the incident with the siren that not only disturbed me, but made me wonder if there might be something wrong with me. Was it possible that I had ceased to be affected by one of history’s most tragic chapters?

The answer is of course, no. Feeling numb to the events of the Shoah, I would argue, does not necessarily make one unsympathetic or indifferent. Some students with a Hebrew school upbringing and Israelis that I’ve spoken to have described a certain sense of overkill on their Holocaust education from their upbringing, or such an awareness of it from a very early age, that eventual desensitization was the result. After years of being pummeled with stark Holocaust imagery, harrowing stories of death and survival, staggering statistics and numbers of an entire world devoured by sheer evil and inhumanity, quite understandably, at some point a person might shut down a part of themselves from over-stimulation to the shock and the pain, and what replaces it, is numbness. It’s a human reaction to trauma, in any case, a built in emotional defense mechanism that makes us resilient enough to even have such a thing as a Holocaust survivor.

I am aware of this basic human response to such trauma, but this is the first time that it has really happened to me when it comes to the Shoah. Personally, I didn’t start learning about the death camps, the mass shootings, the mass graves, the gas chambers, the ovens, the death marches, the forced labor, the starvation, the disease, the ghettos, the yellow star patches, the medical experiments, the Nazi hatred and evil, until junior high, where I was in a secular, public school, with hardly a Jew in attendance. The rest of my education has been picked up over the years here and there from various history and literature classes throughout high school and college, my own foray into Holocaust and genocide literature, and involvement with the Jewish world since the beginning of my conversion process four years ago. It hasn’t been “drilled” into me, so to speak, despite the fact that I know a lot about it and certainly don’t shy away from the topic. So perhaps you can sympathize with my feelings of guilt as I listened to Mr. Wyszogrod tell us his story, while I felt detached and aloof.

Mr. Morris Wyszogrod, a Holocaust Survivor speaking at Pardes on Yom HaShoah. Photo by Rachel Rosenbluth (Spring '13)

Mr. Morris Wyszogrod, a Holocaust Survivor speaking at Pardes on Yom HaShoah.
Photo by Rachel Rosenbluth (Spring ’13)

How could I feel such a way during such a remarkable story, told to me right from the mouth of the man who had lived it? Morris Wyszogrod is small in stature, perhaps shorter than myself at 5’4″, and is old enough to warn his audience, that if they have questions for him, then they need to shout or get up and come ask him to his face because, “his hearing aide needs a hearing aide.” And there he stood, in the middle of the beit midrash in Pardes, in Jerusalem, the capital of a Jewish state that did not exist when he was suffering through the war, speaking to a room full of mostly young Jews embracing the Jewishness miraculously afforded to us in the post-Holocaust world, and with great enthusiasm, a kippah clipped onto his silver hair, and with a humble disposition, despite his harrowing story of survival. Wyszograd is a graphic artist by trade, and he brought us some of his sketches of the horrors that he’d witnessed in the ghetto and camps, each with their own ghastly story. Usually, I’d be fighting back tears at a lecture like this.

The one thing that seemed to snap me out of my inability to really feel much during Mr. Wyszogrod’s presentation, was when he choked up a bit while discussing a friend of his who didn’t survive the war, and when he told us that his mother didn’t make it, but he would spare us the details because, in his words, he didn’t want to make us cry. I suppose it was seeing the emotion on his face, and hearing it in the break of his voice, even after all this time since his loss, that got to me. A wave of emotion hit me, and just as suddenly as it hit, it quieted down again. His emotions came back under control as well, and he continued with his story. That was when I wondered, does he feel a certain degree of numbness too, a detachment that is perhaps necessary when one experiences trauma, in order to move on from it?

It makes sense. If we were to constantly feel the effects of trauma all the time, in their most vibrant, intense forms, then how could we ever carry on? As I pondered this, I thought back to the driver from that morning. That incident had angered me, and to a certain degree, that anger came from feeling powerless. I can’t make someone show respect in a situation like that, and what’s more, I can’t make them feel respect for the situation, either. I know with certainty that the driver was not a Jew, and while I appreciate and have a good grasp of the tensions that exist in Israel, and the reasons behind those tensions, and the fact that real people on all sides of the issue suffer unjustly for it, there is a limit to my ability to be understanding and sympathetic–six million Jews were killed in the most inhumane undignified way possible. Perhaps I live in an area of the world that commonly dismisses our narrative for political reasons as a lie / embellishment / propaganda / “Jews are evil, so who cares anyway?” kind of sentiment, but all reasoning behind such open displays of contempt like that driver showed are rooted deeply in antisemitism. It’s not for the same reason that a Haredi person might decide to ignore the siren–he or she is doing it for a much more complex reason that illustrates the tension between Haredi and secular Jewish establishments and ways of life in Israel. The reason this driver decided to not only ignore the siren, but show such utter contempt for the situation, and did it with unmistakable intent, with his middle finger extended, stems from a dark, sinister place, where antisemitism comes from.

After that incident on Yom HaShoah, I sort of shut down, emotionally for the rest of the day. While it was nowhere near the type of shutting down that one experiences after suffering through intense trauma, I think it was a way for my psyche to take a deep breath, swallow down the anger, and keep going. The numbness and detachment eventually faded, like a drug used to mask the pain of an injury. The pain is still there, underneath the numbing effects of the drug, but perhaps duller, more distant, and easier to manage. If antisemitism is a chronic condition that the world seems to suffer from, then we have to manage, somehow. I only hope that, if Mr. Wyszogrod noticed a stone faced, glassy eyed member of the audience sitting with her arms and legs crossed and her back hunched as he told his amazing story, he understands that I’m grateful for the hope that he gives the rest of the world and for the fact that he can share his life with us. I just had to watch him from behind a wall that was necessary for me to erect in the moment, a safe distance from the darkness I had confronted in two short minutes that morning, despite the fact that all around me, where I wasn’t looking, nearly the rest of the country had the decency to acknowledge the Holocaust.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I witnessed that driver’s actions during the siren. We always say, every year, “never forget.” I won’t ever forget that driver, that look on his face, that crude gesture he made so proudly, the way he sped off, the siren still blaring through the air. He may never know it, but he is one of the sad reasons why I know that I won’t ever forget.