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Parashat Noach

By Elaine Rosenberg Miller

It was no coincidence that over seven thousand survivors and their families arrived in Washington, DC on the evening of Shabbat Parashat Noach or on the secular calendar, Friday, October 31, 2003.

Noah, who survived a watery holocaust to find that every living thing, with the exception of his immediate family and selected animals, had been destroyed, had also been compelled to rebuild his life.

We were there to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They called it "Tribute to Holocaust Survivors. Reunion of a Special Family." Millions of Americans and foreign visitors have crossed the Museum's threshold to view the exhibits, listen to lectures and research the libraries. Many more have logged on to its website at www.ushmm.org. The Museum has succeeded in remembering and universalizing the slaughter of a race, genocide, yet, has not failed to teach that the Shoah was a unique Jewish experience.

They came, mostly walking unaided, some leaning on canes, a few in wheelchairs. Most were accompanied by their own graying offspring and vibrant grandchildren.

"Watch out!"

"Mom, is it too hot?"

"Would you like to sit down?"

"Grandpa, what was it like?"

A full weekend of activities, yet never hurried, no "Universal Studios" of the Holocaust.

Tasteful. Calming. Sensitive.

Friday, I visited the Museum.

Alone.

Afraid to share the experience with my Auschwitz alumna mother.

An exhibit titled "Anne Frank. The Writer. An Unfinished Story."

Barely a teenager, she created one of the most powerful works of literature of the twentieth century.

An other worldly spirit, wise, forgiving.

At age nineteen, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Magazine photos of the British royal family, collected by Anne in her adolescent daydreams of a world outside their hiding place, still hung on the walls.

In another hall, an exquisite child's dress, pink with a white collar. Embroidered. Had it once graced a chubby baby, her hair rolled in a topknot?

I visited the archives, found a picture of my Aunt Regina, post-war, posing with her fiancee. She resembled Ava Gardner. Her sister, Esther, had been a recent Ms. March, as I liked to tease her, in the Museum calendar. There she sat in her wedding finery. Four years earlier, she had been running across the Siberian permafrost.

Shabbat morning.

Lower level of the Renaissance Washington Hotel.

Left side, women; middle, mixed seating; right, men.

"Milihech, pareve and fleishich" I whispered to my companion, a bubbly blonde from Missouri.

"How did you wind up in Missouri?" I asked.

"The plane landed in New York City for refueling and just kept on going!"

She had sat down beside me, although there was a row of empty seats between us.

"I didn't know there were so many Jews still alive, Thank G-d!" she declared.

After she told me that the immigration officials had changed her name from "Mala" to "Maria" ("I didn't know that was the name of the Holy Mother!" she laughed) and her last name to that of an Italian painter, we were friends.

Instant intimacy.

I smiled at strangers in the elevators and asked "Where are you from?" something I would never ordinarily do.

Even the Roman Catholic priests, seeing our name tags, hanging around our necks on lanyards, smiled at us and asked "How was it? I was at Yad Vashem. Shalom!"

Sunday.

Beautiful summer-like day.

Tables set up in huge tents. Signs. Majdaneck. Auschwitz. Dachau. Sixty other towns. I glanced at the Majdaneck table. It was empty.

When my 6' - 5 1/2" teenage son visited Majdaneck as part of the "March of the Living" mission to the Eastern Europe death and work camps, he had stood before a hill of ash containing the remains of over eighty of his relatives.

He returned to our hometown and spoke to the congregants of our synagogue.

A witness.

I sat at the Second Generation table. I met Seconders from Seattle, New York, New Zealand. We remained with each other long after we should have stood up and wandered around.

A Klezmer band played in the tents. Projectors illuminated photographs of survivors on suspended screens.

Speeches in the sunlight.

Elie Wiesel.

Good speech.

But images prevail.

A woman in a wheelchair sat beside me at the outdoor ceremony. Big tatoo. The largest I had ever seen. A number with a triangle under it. The numbers faced the viewer, as if she were exhibiting a pear shaped diamond.

I had forgotten about the tatoos.

My parents didn't have them.

My Aunts Frida and Dora and their spouses had tatoos. When they had been younger, they had been pitch black. Then, they faded.

Marked, like horse or a cow. A girl, being disfigured thinking "Who would want me now?"

My ears were attuned. I could spot a Polish or Hungarian accent, several feet distant.

I longed for that familiar mangling of "ay" and "ehs" plus a sprinkling of Yiddish resounding a poignant, hyperbolic linguistic twist that sent me reeling.

What was it about these people that so attracted me?

Why did I feel so comfortable upon meeting them, as if I were their own daughter and they were my own parents and grandparents?

I knew.

It was their moxie.

Their determination to live, to enjoy life.

It reminded me of the light in my mother's home when we were young. The relatives, survivors all, loved to gather there. Eating, of course. Laughing. Just being together.

Then I recalled the Shabbat of the day before.

There had been no rabbi. Readers chanted the service.

A prayer shawl respectfully covered the torah, resting on a long table.

Parashas Noach.

I listened to their voices, raised in familiar tunes.

Honoring the memories of their murdered, teachers, melamads, rabbis and parents.

This was the real victory, not the bricks and mortar of the Museum, though important in their own way.

It was the survival of the religion and Jewish culture that defined the triumph.

Immemorially.

~~~~~~~

from the June 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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