“She was in that cattle car back in 1940,” I thought. “Maybe no one could feel her presence, but she was in that car.”
I touched the edge of the doorway by my right shoulder and prayed again. I prayed to acknowledge our Blessed Mother’s presence.
When I was fifteen I read “Night,” in a crowded public high school English classroom with purple nubbed carpet and bad florescent lighting. My high school was designed in the 1970s when my rural county was flush with coal money. The innovative design called for “open classrooms” which simply meant “no doors.” The resulting din of voices from four English classes all having ‘discussion’ on great works of Literature usually meant that you missed half of what your teacher or fellow classmate said.
All that background noise didn’t dim the horror of our six week Holocaust unit. It didn’t diminish the horror of reading a Eli Weisel’s Nobel Prize Winning Autobiography.
I read this work in a secular classroom and it terrified me. Weisel writes about the loss of faith of seeing “God hanging dead on the gallows in front of him.” That statement didn’t fit well into my heart, but I couldn’t pour my thoughts into any concrete words. How do you argue God exists against the Holocaust?
I remember the feel of my elbows against the metal desk, and the paperback pages with the grimy cheap newsprint. I remember someone being called on to read out loud the details of life in the cattle car. I’d skipped that gruesome part in my reading at home, so this passage in the text was new to me.
“We were packed against each other in the cattle cars for three days. Mothers cried out for water. We drank our own piss to survive.”
We drank piss.
I remember how those words sealed up my throat. I felt closed in, trapped. Even in a crowded classroom, with the door less room and the din of other students, I felt trapped and alone.
“There is no way I could drink my urine,” I thought. “There is no way I would survive.” And I sat through the long remaining weeks of the Holocaust unit certain that I would never have lived through the horrors of World War II, and there were probably many similar things that I couldn’t survive.
When I’ve gone through the Holocaust Museum before, I’ve looked at things that I didn’t really want to see. I felt hatred and helplessness. I felt an unimaginable distance from those criminals who did unspeakable crimes against humanity.
Always, always there was this chasm between the Nazi SS officers and me
This time, I entered the museum with my Women of Prayer Group and a beloved parish priest and my whole visit was different.
During the bus trip downtown, we prayed the rosary together. At each joyful mystery we read a passage about charity towards our neighbor. “How I treat my neighbor is a direct link to how much I love God,” is one phrase that stays in my memory.
Our priest, who studied under Rabbis in Israel, gave a stirring lecture on the intellectual currents (Darwin, Eugenics, and Zionism) which led to the Holocaust. “This was not a simply a bunch of thugs in police uniforms. The highest levels of the intelligencia supported anti-Semitic views.)
I started praying in the middle of my priest’s introductionary lecture. I was worried he might accidentally offend our museum guide. Who was elderly, seemed agitated about seeing a priest collar and just wanted a giant group of 30 women to stop blocking the entrance to the elevators.
And while I prayed for our guide to not be offended, Our Blessed Mother sort of nudged me to also pray for his heart to be opened. So I started praying. Then something happened. Our guide’s whole body language changed. He started nodding his head, “that’s exactly right.” When my parish priest mentioned that he’s been to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, our guide broke in “Me too! I am a Holocaust survivor. What you’ve said is exactly right, priest.” Our parish priest finished up and motioned us to the elevator. The elderly guide came over and started talking excitedly to our priest in private. Just as the elevator doors were about to close, my priest slipped inside.
“Our guide is an extraordinary man. He survived one of the worse Death Marches in history at age 14.”
A Holocaust Survivor trading healing words with our parish priest. I started tearing up. I got out my Marian handkerchief out of my pocketbook and started wiping my eyes. One of my prayer friends looked at me with concern. I shrugged my shoulders, “We’re only in the elevator and already I needed to use this!” I held up my Marian handkerchief and then returned it to my coat pocket
The museum is self-paced and quiet and still. I unintentionally walked alone for most of it.
I prayed at the bunkers from Auschwitz. At the recreation of the gas chambers, I forced my eyes to stay open and prayed to Edith Stein. I prayed by the racist German school books and by the free radios distributed by the Nazi propaganda machine. I prayed by lost village names, and shoes and photos of medical torture of young children.
My scheduled lunch break came, but I kept praying. I went into the Hall of Remembrance and said a rosary for the victims and the sinners.
Then I went to lunch and ate a turkey sandwich. Some of the ladies couldn’t eat, but my stomach needed nourishment. I ate my entire lunch and then ate the part of an extra tuna sandwich.
Our parish priest wanted to go back, so a few of us went back with him. There was some confusion about whether we had permission to renter at the point where our group stopped. “You’ll need a special guide,” the women in a dark museum staff coat said.
“Okay, lets get a special guide.” I turned and walked to the volunteer table. Of course, we got our same guide. The walk back led to more friendly exchanges between this elderly survivor and my parish priest.
This time, I hung around the back of the exhibit, the part where there is a constantly moving tape of Survivor stories. A woman, Gledda, I think told about when she first knew she was liberated. Here is her story as close as I can remember it:
“I came out of the abandoned factory in Poland, where I was left with all of those dying girls. They were too weak to reach the door, so I was alone. I saw a jeep come down the hill and it had a giant star on it, instead of a swastika, so that is how I first knew that I was freed.
The jeep stopped in front of me and a man came out.
“I am Jewish,” I said. Those were my first words.
There was a long silence. At least it seemed to me, there was a terribly long silence. And then he spoke, his words betrayed his emotion. He was wearing glasses, so I couldn’t see his tears.
He said in a trembling voice “I know. I am Jewish too.”
Then he said “Lady, will you go inside with me?”
Lady? I couldn’t understand who he was talking to, so I looked behind me. It took me along time to understand he was talking to me. He called me a lady. It was the first time in six years that I was addressed that way.
Then he held open the door for me. Again, no one had done that before for us.
I followed him inside. He gave me back my dignity. This hero who fought to our ideals, he handed me back my dignity. He gave me back everything that had been lost.
And I married him! I married my hero, the first solider I saw, the first one who called me lady and held the door open for me."
What a story of love and hope. What an endnote to my trip.
We were late for our bus, so we hurried out of the exhibit. Our next stop was St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the marvelous stone building outside of the Senate Offices. We walked into this formal white marble church and celebrated Mass. We waited in the pews while Father changed into his robes for the Mass. It was a beautiful place to pray.
I thought about that last story, of how an American solider handed a woman back her dignity. A formal address and a kind gesture. That’s how a victim knew the war was over.
“That’s me, also” I thought and started crying again. (I cry a lot when I pray.) Six years in that destructive lie of premarital sex had left me in bad shape. Then along came a Catholic boy who changed the rules. He married me with honor and turned our love into a sacrament.
“He takes away the sin of the world.”
There is a new beginning for all of us.
Prayer: Blessed Mother, give us your peace. Help us lay down all our sins. Protect the innocent and crush evil with the heel of your bare foot.