Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Personal Reflections

The Baltic States in which we traveled can be experienced on many levels. There is purely the tourist level on which one finds quaint streets within well-preserved Old Towns, inexpensive high quality meals, a vibrant café life, open air concerts and many English speakers. There is yet another level that may be experienced by a traveler who has some interest in Jewish cultural sites and seeks them out. Then there is the level on which we traveled which expands on the experience of a traveler with an interest in Jewish culture by bringing them into contact with survivors of the ghetto and the Holocaust who tell their story. It amplifies their experience by linking it with the Yiddish language which embodies much of the Eastern European Jewish culture and heritage. Once you experience the latter, it is very difficult to travel in these regions purely as a tourist. There are too many reminders.

This has been an extraordinary trip. It has forced a personal reflection on the values that I hold and how I act on them. I was raised as a Reform Jew. I learned about the Holocaust in the course of my Jewish education, but in hindsight it felt somewhat remote to me from the safety of American soil. My family history search began to bring me back to my Jewish roots and with that the disturbing history of the Holocaust. I learned of the many people in my family who perished. I got to know them through documents; identity papers, birth and marriage records and Books of Residents. It was not until this trip; however, that their death in the Holocaust became truly real in all its excruciating detail. When I heard from survivors about their experiences in the ghetto, when I learned the language that they spoke, when I visited the sites where family perished, I could no longer hold it at a safe distance. And yet I often reminded myself that the constant barrage of horrors experienced in the retelling was nothing compared to the actual experience.

Most disturbing today is the silence about what had occurred, the attempts to equate it with the Soviet occupation, the lack of knowledge about it and the current rise of neo-Nazis. This coupled with fewer survivors to bear witness to these events means it becomes easier to rewrite history into a palatable version, lifting responsibility from the shoulders of those who most need to confront their role. Is this too much focus on an event which is now almost 70 years old? After my travels, I am more aware than ever of the validity of the quote “He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

I came away from my travels realizing how much history matters, how much we need to heed our past to shape our future. I realized that many of the values in my personal belief system derive from the experience of the Holocaust. I was taught that one speaks up when something is wrong, that we have a responsibility for other people, that human rights must be preserved and that the diminishing of the rights of any group must be actively protested. I saw very clearly in the course of this trip how those actions are necessary to prevent future genocide.

We live in a far more global world and that increases our personal responsibility to speak up even when such actions don’t occur on American soil. Genocide did not stop with the Holocaust. I struggle with finding the best way to do that.

This trip also underscored for me the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Even prior to the Nazis, in city after city, Jews were evicted and restrictions place on how they lived. Time after time we heard their nationality described as Jewish, not Lithuanian, Latvia, Estonian or Belarusian. This despite the fact that they and their families often had lived there for hundreds of years. This separatism seemed strange to us as Americans who are accustom to diversity. It would never occur to us to respond “Jewish” when asked our nationality and yet that distinction is still made in the regions in which we traveled. When a group is isolated in that fashion it makes them ripe for exclusion and bigotry. They become the “other”, held responsible for a multiple of sins even when they represent an insubstantial portion of the population. The existence of Jews in these societies was always fraught with danger. Danger that culminated in the Holocaust, but which continues to be felt in a different way today. As I traveled in the Baltic regions I was struck with the fact that Hitler largely succeeded in making that part of the world “Judenfrei” (free of a Jewish presence). When Jewish existence is threatened and in fact largely annihilated, Israel assumes a role of great importance.

In the course of our travels we spoke with many who told us of growing anti-Semitism and who expressed concerns about the reluctance of many Lithuanians to acknowledge the high level of local complicity with the Nazis. It was with an abundance of caution that I wrote about such issues, not attributing them to specific speakers for fear that it would cause them difficulties in the country in which they live. That too felt foreign to me as an American. I am not used to looking over my shoulder.

And so I’m left with many issues upon which to reflect. It has been a very satisfying trip which fed a number of my passions; family history, artwork, language and travel all have been and will be significant threads in this journey. I’ve also enjoyed writing about this trip and my responses to it. I don’t think I began this blog with the expectation that I would be writing about such weighty topics, but I sought to write about what I learned and experienced and that took me down some unexpected roads. As a private person it has been interesting to write for a broader audience than myself. I thank you for being my audience.