Feeling Jewish in a world that doesn’t want you to

BY HANNAH ROACH '17

I hadn’t yet written about my experience visiting Auschwitz. It’s been five years since I travelled to the Auschwitz work camp and Birkenau death camps in Poland with a group of other Jewish teenagers. At the time, I was 15 years old and couldn’t quite find the words to talk about the experience. 

I went to Sachsenhausen outside Berlin last year, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. This time I had a more extensive vocabulary and a wider view of the world. It still wasn’t until this week that I wanted to write about it. This week, I felt more Jewish than I ever have in this country. I am more aware of the Star of David around my neck and of my facial features.

When I was walking through the camps, I felt Jewish. There are several parts of my experience that have stayed with me throughout these past five years. One was the feeling of walking through as a young Jewish woman, the same age as Anne Frank. She died in Auschwitz at 15; I felt very old at that age, but felt very young in that space.

Another moment I carry centers around the four-leaf clover I found before entering the camp. Our group was waiting outside the gates, the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” in the distance. I picked a four-leaf clover and didn’t quite know how to feel. I put it in my pocket and carried it with me for a while. As I’m looking back now, I can make a connection I hadn’t before. The B in Arbeit stands out; it’s rumored to be subversive, upside down and imperfect. The story, as I understood it, was that the person hired to create the sign wanted to leave a flaw in the camp. I see the four-leaf clover in the same way; a small little signal peaking through the grass. 

The last image that stayed with me is what I want to focus on for the rest of this piece: I saw many people taking selfies and documenting their presence at the camp. I think documentation is very important; I want to know where I’ve been and I want to bring what I’ve experienced with me. But, I can’t forget the people that chose to document their experience through a selfie. I can’t quite shake the smiles that I saw — one group took a photo on a cattle car that had carried members of my community to the camp.  

I don’t think it’s vain to document yourself in this space, I don’t think it’s unique to my generation. I think that people try to place themselves in contexts all the time; sometimes the best way to understand something so mind numbingly huge and tragic is to try to find your relationship to it. How do you connect point A to point B? Can you ever connect yourself to something like this?

My rabbi once asked me, “if you could go to any time of Jewish history, where would you go?” I didn’t know—would I go to see the first temple? Would I stay in today, the supposed Golden Era of Judaism? Would I go to the beginning of the Reform movement or would I attend the first Bat Mitzvah? Before I could find my answer, my rabbi finished his question. He told us that when those who convert to Judaism are asked the same question, the majority will answer with the Holocaust. Their reasoning, he continued, was that something about being Jewish involves suffering, and you cannot understand Judaism without understanding the epitome of Jewish suffering. 

Part of me respected this answer — my instinct was to view it as a sign of sacrifice. But, as I thought about it more, it made me realize that part of understanding tragedy is how it relates to you. As empathetic as we try to be, the most comfortable we are in understanding pain is our own.  I keep returning to this in the wake of the election; I am feeling more Jewish because of the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric throughout the nation, and I am feeling stronger in my identity. But, it is not enough for me to feel just Jewish right now. I can place myself within this group and within a world of violence, but I must also recognize that I do not have a place to fit into the hardships of POC, the disabled or the LGBTQ community. I do not need to document my alliance with them, try to find a place in this space as an ally. Allies do not need this space at all, they don’t need to carve room for themselves in the narrative. Support, questions and actions are the steps forward.

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