Through My Eyes

‘But if you could see her through my eyeeees…’ the master of ceremony’s voice carries over the hall-turned-cabaret of the Imperial Theater in New York as he cradles a gorilla in his lap. The theatre is dark, dim lights on the stage; the orchestra is arranged as a café, the audience is seated at coffee tables, ‘…she wouldn’t look Jewish at all’. I bite my lips, my older daughter’s left hand tightens around my knee; the younger one leans her head on my shoulder. The theater is silent; only one man laughs. Drowned by silence his orphaned laughter stops abruptly; skipping over the die-down giggling that would normally follow such a cheerful out pour. The man is seated at one of the tables in the right corner of the orchestra. ‘If only he knew,’ I hiss, breaking the theater’s civil code of conduct, there are certain things which civilization cannot tolerate.

Dear insensitive, the humor in this musical is ironic and morbid, intended to shock rather than amuse. The plot is about the crumbling of civilized society setting the stage for an ideology of a master race, ruled by a tyrant seething with hatred, that orchestrated a genocide callled the holocaust. You can find a brief summary of the plot in program which was handed to you at the entrance. Watch the gorilla as it walks off the stage, climbing hunched down a stairwell into an alley of no return. Don’t you wish you could disappear as well? Do you feel eyes boring down on your table, staring into the back of your neck? These are my eyes, I am looking for you; I want to see who you are. I want to see your face. I want you to see the faces of my daughters. I want you to see what Jewish women really look like. Did you know that Jewish women and Christian women are not different species? Having descended from identical apes they are biologically identical; you cannot distinguish among them. I hav e no i ssue wi th that, do you? I guess you have never taken the time to study the holocaust, nor have you been touched by the pain it inflicted on so many.  I am quite certain that this is our first and last meeting. I will never again hear you laugh at our holocaust; this is my only chance to deal with your ignorance, so please pay attention.

I am here because I am obliged not to forget how it started. Remebering and educating is an aquired survival skill which I am obliged to pass on.  I was fifteen when I first watched the master call the gorilla Jewish; it was on a movie screen. How dare he? I thought to myself, forgetting that you cannot argue with a movie. This was how it started: German society crumbled, seeking refuge in drink an d sex an d cabarets, signaled out the Jews as the cause of their maladies, nurturing hatred. ‘Dehumanizing’ is the term research papers that would follow y ears later would coin as humanity searched for explanations. At the age of fifteen I didn’t care for an explanation; I was angry, frustrated, wanting to fight back, wishing that the screen would come to life; wishing that we could rise from our seats and attack the stage with a vengeance; that we could strike back at the evil that threatened our existence.

We grew up among people who lived through those times in Europe. Sonia Rakover from the third-floor apartment was old enough to be on that stage back in 1931 being mocked as the gorilla.

‘She lost all her family at Auschwitz’ my mother would say each time we asked why she never smiled at us when we met on the stairs. Everyone else did.

‘But she has two daughters,’ we chanted in harmony typical of twins.

‘Nehama and Gallia are her new family.’

‘Why didn’t she look for the old one?’ We were eight years old; too young to understand what it meant to lose a family.

They killed her family; she is a survivor but she doesn’t talk about it’, my mother used to say, stopping the stream of questions. Perhaps she didn’t want us to hear what they did to twins.

Only as adults would we begin to piece together what happened there. It was three years after my second daughter was born, standing by my father at my grandmother’s grave, as he was singing Kadish, that he mentioned her parents who died in Auschwitz. My grandmother never said a word just li ke Shy ke’s father never spoke of the labor camp; and Boaz’s father did not speak of the ghetto. Ronny’s father broke the code of silence from ti me to time with stories of the partisans. To this day many remain silent, refusing to speak about the ghettoes, the camps, the gas chambers. Some are here with us today, even in this theater. This is why the audience was so silent, when you laughed.

Dear Ignorant, the girl to my right is called Yeela. You pronounce it Ye-e-la. It means doe, a female deer as you might recall from the Sound of Music, seeing how fond you are of the arts. A year from now she will graduate from high school in California and go back to Israel by herself to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. No, she doesn’t have to go; she will go because she feels obligated to do so. Less than a year into her service she will be called upon to speak before an international convention of Jewish organiz ations in Jer usalem. She will stand alone on a stage in front of four thousand people, that’s three times the number of people in this theater. She will tell them her st or y. She will tell them that in Israel, when two stranger s chat on the street, they will always try to find how they are connected. If they are civilians, the first question following the introduction is likely to be: ‘Where did you serve in the army?’ If they’re soldiers they will recognize their unit insignias or the colors of their berets and the conversation will begin with: ‘what part of the country are you from?’ She will tell the audience that this is the question she has trouble with. She will continue by switching to dialog between herself and an imaginary person in the street:

‘I was born in Jerusalem, but I’m not from there. When I leave the base I’m mostly in Tel Aviv, but no, I didn’t go to school there.’

‘Why?’ The imaginary listener will ask.

‘I moved to California when I was six.’ She wi l l answer.

‘Why?’ The listener will ask again.

‘My father was offered a job in the Silicon Valley.’

‘So when did you come back?’

‘I came back in August 2002, to serve in the IDF.’

‘Where does your family live now?’

‘They are still in the states.’

Mimicking growing disbelief she will mimic the listener: ‘So you are here by yourself?’

‘Yes.’ Sh e will say, taun ting the l istener, she will imitate a puzzled, skeptical, cynical look, one eyebrow raised; eyelids slightly lowered and crack the final question: ‘You left Amer i ca for thiiissss?’

The audience will burst out laughing, four thousand mouths will laugh. Don’t you wish you had at least one more mouth laughing with you here tonight?

She will wait with a smile on her face, not wanting to cut the laughter short, knowing what she is about to say, and then she will answer the question:

‘I love watching the sunset as evening falls on the base; this is the sunset in my sky over my desert, my mountains and bone dry stream beds. Every patch of land is linked to lives dedicated to this country. Lives of generations of my people who fought to gain, and to preserve, to shape and develop a Je wish homeland. The feeling th at I am a part of something so immense, part of the ongoing legacy of the Jewish people, is my source of strength. My home is here. I belong only in Israel.&# 39;

By the time she will be done speaking eight thousand eyes will be moist. She will scan the m one more time from orchestra to mezzanine, Prime Minister, Chief of Staff, ministers, mayors, heads of congregations, rabbis, citizens, soldiers people from all walks of life. She will nod as a sign of appreciation and will go back stage, not waiting for the thunder of applause to subside. With tears in her eyes she will call Imma on her cell phone and cry because it’s painful to be fulfilling one’s obligations at the price of being away from her family.

Her sister will hear the conversation, and many more like them. She will listen quietly as she makes her own decisions. Right now she is the one sitting to my left. She is two years yo unger tha n Yeela. Her name is Tal which means dew. I am telling you their names because I want you to remember that Jewish women have names, many of which have litera l meanings. May I call you Clod?

Clod, you should make a mental not to remember Tal; she will be back in New York three years from now after she graduates from Homestead High School in Sunnyvale. She will be a freshman at NYU, its down by Washington Square. She will choose to study the holocaust.  Let me share a snippet from one of her papers with you right now, I hope you don’t mind:

At the end of the day’s killing and torture, after clubbing children to death for hiding a piece of bread and shooting a man as a form of target practice,  they went home to their families, where they were compassionate fathers and loving hu sban ds; they too where hum an.

This is how she will start an es say about the Buchenwald concentration camp, telling the story of h er uncle Gideon Hadda. ‘One of them saved me,’ Gideon will tell her. ‘He recognized me from our home town. You see, the people doing the slaughter where people from the same walks-of-life as their victims, they were their neighbors and co-workers. He saw to it that I received extra rations of food enabling me to survive while thousands died of hunger. The rations were just enough for me to carry the loads of dead bodies as I heaved them on to the carts that we pushed to mass graves. An extra dry piece of bread would give me just enough strength to maintain pace during the marches in the snow as others legs gave way under them. Those who could not keep up were shot on the spot.’

‘Gideon, why don’t you write your story?’ Tal asks.

I am a graduate of ‘Buchenwald High’ he answers, his eyes smiling his fingers tapping ever so lightly on the table, the only vis ib le evidence of his pain.

She will add another line: Gideon writes fluently, but the Buchenwald high-school-of-death system saw to it that its surviving graduate would find it too painful to put a scalpel-pen to his scar tissues and dig up his curriculum – one story of survival thanks to a murderer’s compassion.

While stale life preserving tidbits where being doled out to Gideon at Buchenwald, Sarah Suliman, was picking oranges in her family’s citrus orchard in the coastal Town of Rishon Le-Zion, south of Tel Aviv. Back then the cities where much smaller and the citrus plantations much larger. Sarah, and her five brothers and sisters laughed when they heard the about death camps; waiving them aside as Mid-East ern yarns. You s ee, they did no t know. But you, Clod, cannot claim such ignorance in your defense. Now, fifty five years later the truth is known. By now Sarah and Gideon have been ma rri ed for fifty years.

If you ever visit him, Gideon he will welcome you like you were his family, his compassion for people knows no bounds. Gideon offers hospitality with food; he knows how far another pastry will go. Sarah will bring in cakes and soft drinks lay them on the table in front of you. If you know Mid-Eastern dishes you know the dry, hardened slightly salted pastries which you have to soak in your tea in order to soften them, unless you have canine jaws. ‘Sarah, why don’t you bring your Buchenwald cookies?’ Gideon asks with a broad smile. Gideon has earned the right to crack jokes about food, his finger tapping ever so lightly on the table.

After a year at NYU Tal will ship two cartons of books back to California a nd take a back pack to Israel where she will join the IDF.

‘Why are you doing this?’ Andy, her classmate, wil l ask.

‘The dorms are too big for me.’ Tal will answer trying to joke her way from the subject; the decision will be hard for her.

Lauren, one of her roommates, will fire back: ‘How can five hundred square feet be too big to share among four people?’

Both Tal and Lauren know it’s not the reason, but they never leave the challenge of a debate lying on the table.

‘I’m going to have to do with fifty,’ Tal answers.

‘That’s like two phone booths and a manhole,’ Lauren will say, hoping to keep the debate alive, needing m ore time to com e to grips wi th the idea of having to say goodbye.

Andy is the first to recover and redirects the c onver sa tion: ‘What will you do there?’

‘I’m going to train the trainers in the armored cavalry.’

Her friends would not completely understand, but they will respect her courage. After a few weeks she will send them with a letter with instructions as though they were in her shoes: Don’t feel bad about the futility spending hours cleaning a war machine that is forever destined to be filthy and noisy and hot. The truth is that the cannon will continue to operate until you have five feet of sand in the turret, and the engine will start as long as the batteries are not clogged with dust. There are five gallon water containers tied to the back of the turret; use them to take showers. Learn to enjoy getting by with th e basics. A fe w weeks from now you will learn how to drive this oversized play station over any terrain; you will learn to operate its firing systems, communications and op tics.& amp;nbs p;Learn how to use your monster toy well, humor yourself that it’s just a big toy, but do not ever cease to respect the complexity of the machine and the dangers of letting your guard down. Use your teaching skills to share your knowledge with others. Teach them to laugh at hardship and support each other in the fifty square feet which they will have to call home. Let’s hope that it does not ever become more than a toy; that none of you ever has to use it for what it was built to be. Watch your fingers when you close the hatches. Never ever forget your ear plugs. She will conclude by promising to return two years later after her tour of duty is done.

Are you asking yourself why teen age girls voluntarily veer from the safe path to financial success to the road of personal sacrifice? Hav e you stopp ed to wonder what gives them the strength to march all night long in full battle gear? Do you wonder why they struggle, in spite of ind ividual twe nty poun d loads, to replace the stretcher bearers at the front of the marching column? Why don’t those who can, fade into the darkness at the rear of the column, just like you are trying to do at your table? Could it be that they are determined no to become Anne Franks? Let me tell you, with sixty pound loads tearing into their shoulders they do not think of the survival of their people. Each girl pushes beyond thresholds of pain she never imagined she could endure, to ease the pain of the girl next to her. The bigger picture comes in bits and pieces when they have time to rest, or during the ride home, when they look out of the window of the bus at the sky and the mountains and the bone dry stream beds. What’s at stake emerges during memorial services, or when a bomb goes off, or in the theatre when a Jewish woman is likened to a gorilla and someone la ughs.

Dear Clod, do you see the cast standing on the stage in pajamas? Look at th e fabric the pajama i s made of you wouldn’t wax your car with such cloth lest the rough fibers scratch the metallic paint. Think what such fabric does to skin, not having been washed in years, passed on from a body that died in it to a body that will soon die in it. Do you see the yellow stars of David over their hearts? These are the stars of the night that has fallen over humanity; stars mark Jews for death. Have you noticed that the stage is no longer a cabaret? Do you see that it’s a train station? Soon the trains will leave for Buchenwald and Auschwitz and Treblinka and Sobibor and Birkenau and Mauthausen and Bergen-Belzen and Dachau and… Where did you say you were going?

Clod, could you d o me a favor? When you walk out of the theatre please don’t take a taxi, walk down to the subway. You don’t like the s ubway at nig ht, please do it anyway, what’s the worst that can happen? Pick a subway car. Imagine that it’s a boxcar, no seats, nothing to hang on to. Imagine how more and more people come into the boxcar, pushing you closer and closer. You’ll need air, but there are no windows in the boxcar save for a small hatch in the far front corner. There are a hundred people between you and the hatch, and a hundred more between you and the doors behind you. You would like to think that it’s not so bad, that you get off in thirty minutes, but the train ride will last three days, that’s as long as it takes to kill the weaker people. It’s more efficient that way, less people in the gas chambers. Six million of our people rode those trains. Do you understand what that number means? It means that every subway leaving Manhattan takes the people to a death camp. After Manhattan is cleared the trains start clearing Queens, and then Brooklyn and then the Bronx. For two years trains loaded w ith people he ad out of the city, and come back empty. An entire population disappears, hardly a laughing matter wouldn’t you say?

Perhaps I have been harsh. Perhaps people like me are products of defense mechanisms which need fine tuning. I don’t expect you to understand what happened here tonight; all I am asking is that you do not forget. As you walk out, turn your head I want you to see my daughters – the duo of the doe and the dew. I hope you can see them through my eyes, proud and Jewish and all…