Posted on January 27, 2016 by Ma'ayan Dyer
When I decided to go to Germany with Pardes and other young Jewish North Americans this month, I did so for several reasons. For one, Germany has always been a country to cross off on my long bucket list for travel, having studied the language. For another, in all of my 30 years, even after making the big move from the USA to Israel, I have never had the financial means to travel as much as I would like to, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. The fact that this trip would have a Jewish spin on it made it seem all the more like it was really tailored especially for me. With that Jewish theme, of course, the inevitable specter of the Holocaust loomed over some of our itinerary; there’s obviously no way to encounter German-Jewish history without walking up to that terrible shadow, looking right into its abyss, and somehow not become engulfed in it. But after numerous history and literature classes on the Shoah and other genocides, after reading book after book on the grim destruction of Europe’s Jews, I figured that I could handle it. That was then and this is now, after all, and there are plenty of other rich moments in German-Jewish history that are entirely removed from the Shoah, and I was determined to believe that those moments would eclipse the dark stain leftover by the Holocaust while I was visiting Germany. I had expectations that the trip would be a fun adventure, and really, it was. What I didn’t expect however, is that getting onto that El Al flight to Berlin was an oblivious step onto an emotional rollercoaster that would go up and down for the next ten days, and continue even after returning to Jerusalem.
Berlin is a beautiful city, full of character, culture and such a rich urban feel that for a city lover such as myself, it’s hard to not be taken in. While the city’s Jewish population is made up of mostly former Soviet Union transplants and secular Israelis, German-Jewish life does exist, mostly thanks to former Soviet Union Jews. There is a kosher supermarket with plenty of Israeli imports filling up the shelves. There are shuls with modestly sized congregations, a kosher hummus restaurant, a kosher catering company, and the Abraham Geiger Kolleg trains Reform and Conservative rabbis who appear to feel passionate about their calling to become rabbis in Germany, the birthplace of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Why stay in Germany, one of our group asked the rabbis-to-be at our dinner with them? Because Germany needs us, they answered. Why not Germany? Davka, Germany.
Each of these encounters with Jewish Berlin were not meaningless or hollow to me. Each moment seemed like some ray of hope about what the future holds for Jews in Germany. Like a mantra in my mind, I kept thinking of the phrases we hear over and over when we talk about the Holocaust. The Nazis didn’t win. Hitler didn’t succeed. We are still here. Never again.
But then came the awful realization; the Nazis did win during the years of their horrible reign. Hitler did succeed in so much destruction. Plenty of us are not here. “Never again” seems like a hope or a plea, rather than a statement. We visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside of Berlin on a particularly frigid, gloomy day where you can’t help but realize that being cold means nothing compared to what it meant to be cold as a prisoner behind those walls, barbed wire and electric fences. We stood at Track 17 where the old train tracks now memorialize the Jews that were transported to their death and destruction by day, by number, by hellish destination. We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sprawling museum that, like Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, attempts to give some name, face or individual identity, some scrap of humanity to the unfathomable 6 million—a picture from before the war. A journal entry. A letter home. A piece of evidence that they were once like us, before the piles of lifeless bodies, before the endless remains turned to ash. They were living flesh and bone. They smiled in their family photos. They fell in love. They got married and had weddings. They had children and family outings. They had anxiety about the terrifying future. They held onto hope when there wasn’t any. They missed the people they loved. They tried to survive. They wanted to live another day. They wrote poetry. They prayed our prayers. They are us.
In the museum, I walked silently through the rooms and read the placards on display. I stared at the family photos wondering what untold, voiceless stories they held before a sea of hatred swept the people in them away, and man’s demonic ability to destroy left those stories unfinished, cruelly cut-off in mid-sentence. I sat in the dark rooms, and listened to the survivors recount what happened to them on an audio-loop. The darkness got bigger and bigger with each moment, and eventually, as I felt an unsettling disconnect between myself and the other museum goers milling about the displays with grim, solemn faces, it swallowed me up. This wasn’t like the classes I took, or the books I read. This was a different kind of monster to face, and it would bring nightmares to me that night. Each voice I heard, each face I saw, were like ghosts, untouchable and unknowable. I had this overwhelming desire, this intense need to know who these people were. Every time I read a name or saw a face looking back at me from the display, I felt the tragedy of the world not knowing them nearly enough before their lives were stolen from us. I lost all sense of time and place. I would never meet these people. How tragic that the world was spilling over the brim with the death of people who would never cross paths of those of us fortunate enough to be alive. The world was robbed when the Nazis and their collaborators turned the earth into a mass grave with these unfinished lives. It was difficult for me to grasp the enormity of that one, terrible truth.
And then I met Miklós Radnóti.
Miklós Radnóti was a Jewish Hungarian poet who was murdered on a death march in 1944. We met briefly in a museum display where letters of those who were killed are projected on the ground, an eerie source of light in the otherwise dark room. I met him via a poem he wrote on scraps of paper that he kept with him, which was now projected up at me from my feet, as it illuminated my path:
I fell next to him. His body rolled over.
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head- “This is how
you’ll end.” “Just lie quietly,” I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
“Der springt noch auf,” I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.
October 31, 1944
Miklós Radnóti’s body was exhumed from a mass grave in 1946 and was identified by the notebook in his shirt pocket, which contained this poem. He continued to write, continued to create art, continued to have a voice, even on a forced death march that slowly destroyed him over a period of months. It didn’t destroy his humanity, however; this poem was written for his friend and fellow death marcher, Miklós Lorsi, a Hungarian Jewish violinist who was randomly shot by an SS officer during the march. Radnóti attempted to help his injured friend along, but Lorsi was shot in the back of the neck by the officer after they tried to continue on. That shot took Lorsi’s life from his body, like the “tight string before it snaps” that Radnóti alludes to in his poem. Radnóti was later beaten by an officer for “scribbling” and was murdered himself.
As graphic and dark as the poem is, the way in which it gives voice to the unspeakable caught my attention. He is speaking to me, I thought. He has something to say that needs to be said. I stared at the words for a long time. I turned them over in my mind. I wondered what they would sound like in his native Hungarian tongue. I tried to imagine what his voice sounded like. I wondered what I would have said to him if I could respond. Were you scared? You seem resigned to your fate. Why did you continue to write your poems? Did you know that I would read them one day? That many people would read them one day? What were you like before your pen put these words to the paper? What does the world do now that we’ve lost you? How can we ever come to terms with such a loss?
I snapped a picture of the poem and left the museum thinking of Miklós. I thought about what it means to write poetry on a death march, what it means to write a poem for a friend murdered in front of your eyes, or to be buried with those words, like a lost memorial that was somehow exhumed, found, and read decades later in another memorial—a sort of memorial within a memorial.
My days in Germany were not all like this. The fun and adventure that I mentioned at the beginning of this post also happened, and I left Berlin in love with the city, despite its terrible past. But even as I left pieces of my heart in Berlin, broken shards of my heart, I took Miklós Radnóti’s words with me, and they will stay with me. I am not completely sure what it means to write poetry and create art on a death march, to be beaten to death for “scribbling”—it’s something that I don’t believe is comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves. What I do know is that the human capacity to create, to speak, to hold onto the shreds of individuality and dignity in the face of such brutish evil, is a light that fends off that shadow that swallowed me up in the museum. That light exists because we are human beings. Because we have it in us to help a dying friend just a few more steps forward, despite knowing that the inevitability of death is moments away. Because we are able write poetry on a death march.
Some things can never be completely destroyed.