Travels with Aunt Sheila
Would a visit to Europe be possible for me without mixed feelings and conflicted responses to being a tourist?
To celebrate a significant birthday and to visit my daughter Sarah, Aunt Sheila and I traveled this past week to Budapest and Munich. I stayed in touch with the family on What’s App, sending descriptions of the sights and the people (and the food!) and pictures of the Opera House, the Chain Bridge lions and Sarah and her boyfriend Sagi.
After Budapest, when Aunt Sheila and I arrived in Munich, I sent pictures of our adventure at the Hofbräuhaus and a description of drinking a beer and eating pretzels with young Australian backpackers, Meghan and Stephen. My son Josh responded to that day’s post, “How do you feel about enjoying yourself in Germany?”
Josh’s question resonated because it had been sitting in me, just under the surface since the trip began. It did indeed feel strange to me, very strange. Since the upsurge in threatening and deadly anti-Semitic events in many European capitals, it is clear to me that too many are ready to forget and even negate the lessons of the Holocaust. But even without these foreboding times in Europe, walking the streets of cities culpable during the Shoah has always seemed fraught with anxiety to me.
“Your brother’s blood cries out from the ground to Me!” How could I eat a rugelach and drink a latte in the very spot where Nazis tormented and desecrated the lives of my people? But should I not allow new generations to be absolved of the guilt of their parents? Do I desire all of Europe to be a silent, sacred burial ground? Where in this whole world could I possibly go where the ground below my feet would not have a bloody story of suffering to tell?
And so I accepted the fact of dissonance.
In Budapest, we enjoyed the view from St. Stephen’s Basilica and the thermal baths at Gellert. But we also read every plaque on every wall, judging its historical honesty. We toured the Great Synagogue and the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial, asking pointedly Jewish questions. We walked to the sculpture of shoes along the Danube where 8000 Jews were shot dead into the river by the Hungarian BRIGADE just before liberation. We stood in silence.
In Munich, we were charmed by the chimes of the Glockenspiel in Marienplatz and enjoyed the Museum of Modern Art. But we also traveled for the day to Dachau. Listening intently to the descriptions and voices of survivors on the audio tour, we walked every path, counting the empty outlines of barracks intended to hold 6,000 Jews and some political opponents and resisters. When the American Army liberated Dachau, 41,500 had been murdered and 32,000 living dead were housed there. Aunt Sheila wept during the documentary and I chanted El Maleh inside the Jewish Memorial.
German student groups were with teachers and guides in great numbers. And inside the Maintenance Building that houses the museum, we turned a corner and suddenly met up with our “dear chums” Meghan and Stephen, the travelers from Australia. Aunt Sheila and I had to go to Dachau, we understood it as our obligation. But Meghan and Stephen chose to go to Dachau. When Aunt Sheila embraced them as long lost friends, I saw the way that their visit to Dachau redeemed the day.
People are capable of evil. Places like Dachau preserve the reality of that evil. And those who choose to understand the history of Jewish suffering in the Shoah will be our partners in fighting for the good.
When we got in the taxi to return to our hotel, the affable driver asked, “Did you enjoy your day?” Aunt Sheila answered, “It was not an enjoyable day, but it was an important day. It was a necessary day.”
Life is filled with conflicting ideas and emotions. To live a complete life, perhaps our job is not to avoid conflict but to learn how to live with it.
Thank you, Aunt Sheila, for a trip that taught me this lesson and so much more.