After shabbat, on Sunday morning (7/17), we boarded the bus for Yad Vashem (The National Holocaust Memorial & Museum in Israel) . . .
I trembled as I walked into Valley of the Communities. The towering walls of stone etched with the names of the towns, but it was if all of the faces of the people from those cities were staring back at me. As I walked through the maze, I wondered if this was how it felt to be in a ghetto, surrounded by walls, only able to look up, and not out. The world was blotted out by the stacked stones.
All the towns and cities with a Jewish population were represented. The cities were written both in Hebrew and English. The larger, major cities were written in a much larger size. Vilna, were my family is from, where I come from, was one of these larger population centers. Jared, our friend and guide, sweetly asked if I would like to stop and talk at Vilna, or if I would be to much for me. I was do touched by his kindness, and I told him how much it would mean to me to sit and talk in “Vilna”.
As we walked into the clearing and I saw the words “VILNA” in big bold letters, it was too much for me. The tears streamed down my face as I started to sob. It was so hard to look at the words. It was as if I was staring at all of the lives that were stopped short. I stood, one hand on April, the other holding onto “VILNA” and I cried.
Jared and Menachem lead us in a wonderful conversation about the xyz. I was inspired by many of the interpretations from our group, and how moved much of the group was by what they were witnessing. Before we left, I reached up to the ledge just above the the words Vilna, and I placed two rocks, one for Grandpa, the other for Grandma. I was here, I had witnessed, and I had cried.
We walked slowly from the Valley of the Communities to the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. We talked and shared more . . . and April and I searched for the list of Danish individuals who had saved Jews during the Shoah. The list was small, not because Denmark abandoned their Jewish brothers and sisters, rather the opposite. The entire country, from doctors to fisherman to priests, banned together to save their neighbors. A tree has been planted in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations that represents the work of the entire country of Denmark.
From the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations we walked beneath a rail car used to transport Jews to the various death camps . . . the rail car sat perched on a steel bridge among us, piercing the beautiful garden with the bridges’ cold steel. We sat below the train car, able to look, but not feel its chipped paint. It seemed to demonstrate that no matter how much we learn and remember, we can never know what it must have been like . . . We can never truly understand. How can we?
At last we reached the final stop . . . my stop . . . I began to tremble and sob as the Partisan Panorama came into view. It is an iron tree, with bodies for leaves, erected overlooking the valley below. I had come to bear witness to my Grandfather’s courage and determination as a partisan fighter and a member of the United Partisan Organization. He fought in the forests and alleys of Vilna, and participated in the liberation of Vilna. I had come to testify . . . to tell the world that my Grandfather did not, would not, go silently into night. Menachem opened this moment as only he can, with tenderness and warmth . . . and then I stood there. In front of our small group, all eyes on me. As I unfolded the piece of paper with my few scribbled notes I began to shake uncontrollably. Tears streaming down my face, my knees buckled, and I didn’t think I could do it. I had never spoken to anyone publicly about my grandfather’s story. But this just wasn’t his story, it was my story . . . He fought in the forests outside of Vilna not just for himself, but for me. He was my hero . . . He was a hero to us all. I cried and spoke about who he was, and what he did for us. We all cried. But I don’t think we cried out of sadness, rather because my Grandfather’s story is a story of hope. Finding hope in seemingly hopeless situations. In Israel, where we are faced with so many challenges, it can feel so overwhelming and hopeless. In spite of everything, there is so much hope and potential. You can see it and feel it . . . we can make Israel the home we want and need it to be. Like the Partisan song Zog Nit Keyn Mol . . . This is not the final road for us, nor for my grandfather’s story . . . We have so much beauty to create here in Israel . . . We have so much work to do, to built the world we yearn for . . . We are here! And this is only the beginning.