|From the ceiling of The Prayer Room in the Terezin Ghetto|
"Just try to lead with love."
This is my final post. Tuesday, I return to the States after five months in Europe, thereby closing the book on my Hungarian Fulbright experience. I am sorry to see it end. I am thankful to have had it.
Five months is a long time, to be away from home, but also to live as a guest in someone else's home. To my mind, Europe has been my guest home for this period, and the Hungarian town of Eger my room within that home. Always returning to my place here in Eger, I have traveled to Copenhagen, Berlin, Krakow, Venice, Oradea (Romania), Prague, Antwerp, not to mention the Hungarian towns of Pécs, Veszprém, Debrecen, Miskolc, and Budapest. Though not Europe, we can throw Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in there as well.
I use this metaphor of "home" because it is in the "home" that we come to know families, family traditions, family values -- complete with, as my Yiddish forebears would say, their mishigas. It's the traditions and such that make a stay informative; it's the mishigas that makes a stay interesting. Europe is very interesting.
As a house guest in Europe, I was a child. I had everything to learn and understand; I shied from being an American elder and teaching about American ways. If asked, I would answer, but I was more interested in observing and taking instruction. I tried to slip about the house quietly like an apprentice, not noisily like an apostle or apologist. I'm not sure how well I did, though I did my best.
To this end I have been thinking, What can I say that I learned while here -- in Hungary, Europe, Israel --, and say in a cogent, focused way? It is this: our species, homo sapiens, is immense. We are immense in number, and immense in imagination. This three-pound notebook on which I have been keeping this blog can store thousands of pages just like this one; complete in fractions of a second calculations that took the brightest mathematicians thousands of years to unlock; stream video of John Stewart sparring with Chris Wallace over political bias in the media. And it can do all this for nearly half a day with not an electrical outlet in sight. Tuesday I will board a jet that will cross the Atlantic in a handful of hours, at an altitude of three or four miles, at a speed of 500 or 600 miles per hour, delivering me and hundreds of other passengers and thousands of other pounds with pinpoint accuracy and infinitesimal risk. Notebook and jet, both of these machines are the culmination of millions of hours of research, design, mining, shaping, manufacturing, and so forth. This little laptop and that jumbojet are both products of and testimonials to our species' immense imagination.
So too was the Holocaust. It is only when one gets beneath the ghastly but incomprehensible abstraction, six million, that one learns, as I have begun to, the vast, complex interweave of imagination and invention that went into the round-up, transport, and industrial murder of countless human beings by a relative handful of other human beings. The detail, the precision, the constant innovation with which The Final Solution evolved from clumsy, labor intensive ditch-side executions to its Zyklon-B apogee at Auschwitz was, to be sure, a genius of imagination.
Unfortunately, for the exterminated Jews and overwhelming majority of humans who have survived them, it was imagination gone tragically, criminally wrong. But for Topf & Sons, the company that designed for Aushcwitz II (Birkenau) the three-chamber crematoria that replaced the traditional two-chamber ovens at Auschwitz I which were unable to keep up with demand, and thereby dramatically increased corpse disposal efficiency at the new camp, there was likely much champagne clinking and back-slapping over the engineering feat. Had Hitler prevailed, and had he achieved his goal of cleansing Europe of its 11,000,000 Jews, Topf & Sons would likely have enjoyed prominent status as heroes of the Third Reich; would likely have been praised for their wartime contribution with gratitude and solemnity by the Führer.
Maybe Topf & Sons were monsters; I don't know. They were, at minimum, men whose imaginations were challenged by a vexing problem, and their imaginations rose to the challenge.
Hitler, most agree, was a monster, but he too was a man whose imagination was challenged by a vexing problem, and his imagination, too, rose to that challenge. But if we think that Hitler is an aberration, we are mistaken. He is not; he is only the most extreme exponent of the urge to solve a problem through mass murder; he simply had the will and the means, particularly the means, to carry his plan to its most logical and logistically potent conclusion. In the name of some self-proclaimed and self-justified "good", other people at other times, past and future, have been and will try to be Hitler in their own ways and to their own scale, given their imagination and conviction and resources at hand. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol-pot, Rios-Mott -- the list goes on -- and will go on.
So we, humans, are capable of not only imagining immense murder of our own species but of perpetrating mass murder through technical and technological genius: Auschwitz and Birkenau; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; drones and germs. Is there a species more murderous of its own, more preoccupied with murdering its own?
That gloomy and hackneyed "discovery" about humans is not the thing I learned best here, though. Rather, I have learned its opposite. I have learned that if we are capable of immense cruelty and murder, we are also capable, and immensely more capable, of their opposite: immense love. If murder is the act of ending someone's life, love is the act of immortalizing the loved one's life in the moment, of wishing that life to last not only forever, but to last as the best, happiest, most contented and rewarding life possible. Murder ends; lover eternalizes.
Unscripted love here contradicted the barbarity of the genocidal blueprint here. I witnessed great love between paramours, between parents and children, between best (or maybe not even best) friends. For instance: Late last Sunday afternoon, as I wandered in the very quiet Czech town of Terezin, forty miles north of Prague, after having spent the previous five hours going from building to building learning about Terezin's function as a Jewish ghetto, concentration camp, and deportation center to Auschwitz during the Holocaust, which included time poring over the artwork of all those Terezin children that has survived while the children themselves have not, I passed a spit of a park empty but for two teenage girls sitting on a bench beneath windy trees, shrieking and laughing with each other as only teenage girls will do, as only the very best of teenage friends can do. Their love for each other at that moment was immense. It consumed the world, including Terezin, and me.
Or: Traveling by train from Prague back to Budapest in the late, sunny, morning I looked out the window at one point to see a young dark-haired father on a hill holding his pink bonneted toddler in his arms as she smiled and waved at the passing train, unaware of what it was or who was on it, but gleeful nonetheless; and her father who held her up and glowed with her and whose love for her was more immense at that moment than any he has ever known, or would know, until the next time they visited a passing train and he held her up to wave hello, goodbye. Or perhaps until the next time he looked at her, really looked at her. Who could not see that man and not understand his immense joy, and feel his immense joy? The absolute love of a parent?
Or: The young, Eger woman swimming coach whose charges were three year old bulbs of buoyancy, imps who didn't dive into the pool so much as they just squatted down, leaned forward over the water, crossed their hands over their heads, and waited for the Earth's vibrations to tip them in, and then once in, submerging their faces and stroking and stroking with great determination only to go mostly nowhere. To see this coach walk alongside the pool, to hear her talk to these tiny people, support them, encourage them, celebrate them for their progress -- discrete as it may have been -- and then to catch and wrap each one in a bath towel they came out of the pool dripping and drooping in their swim caps and goggles, and hug them and kiss them, to see this coach make each child she embraced and petted feel like the most special, adored child in the world, to look down upon this wonderful person was to understand immense love, to understand it and to feel it. I mean, as I stood on the balcony overlooking Eger's municipal pool and watched these exchanges below, these gifts, I felt love. For her. For the children. For all of us.
But having been a simple human being in Europe, though perhaps owing to the immense sorrow I felt as a Jew, I have also come to know immense happiness, to see what we, people, are capable of in our best moments. In this sense, Europe, Earth, offers immense, quite fullfillable hope.
As I return to the States I know I will never lose sight of the hurt. But as I return to the States, I am committed to setting my sights on the hope.
To those of you who have read this far, I thank you, and wish you well. And I wish you love.