My grandmother scowled at me as we boarded the airplane. Much to my vexation, my subtle acting had not payed off; she had seen right through my futile smiles and unavailing grins. “Family fun,” “eight-hour air-conditionless bus tour,” and “an authentic Jewish experience” were not akin to enjoyment. After several fruitless attempts at teleportation to frankly, anywhere else, I opened my eyes. I was still sitting firmly in seat 27B, sandwiched between two elderly Herscowitz’s, and Israel still remained a mere 15 hours away.
After German troops invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939 only months after my grandmother’s first birthday, her father was captured by Soviet forces and subsequently transported to a Polish war camp. Her maternal grandmother was transported to Be??ec Extermination Camp. Aware of the danger, her mother purchased “Aryan” papers and escaped to Milanowek, a town near Warsaw. There they lived with a Polish family. My four-year-old grandmother was given the name Barbara and raised as a Catholic. In May 1945, her mother bribed a Russian soldier to smuggle them in shipping crates across the border to Czechoslovakia, and in 1951, my grandmother and her family came to the United States. Israel was the last vacation that my grandmother and her mother took together. I was vaguely aware of the connection my grandmother had with Israel when we exited the plane, yet not aware enough to look excited.
Our first three hours in the Holy Land were hot, sweaty, and in the back of a bus. It was midday when we arrived at the Dead Sea, and a grueling 20 minutes before I finally relented.
“Okay, fine,” I conceded, obscuring my ecstatic expression with a look of dispassion, “I guess this is alright.”
But it was much more than alright. It was an ethereal landscape grounded in a skeleton of tiny salt islands. It was a fleshy, muddy muscle of a numinous country. It was the delicate physique of an unbreakable region, a home of those who have surmounted oppression and hate, and a body that lies somewhere between mankind and landscape. And as I leapt into the milky water and the body of Israel caught me, I never wanted to let go.
As we treked from the Dead Sea to the Rosh HaNikra grottoes to the dynamic Tel Aviv to the Wailing Wall, each location was its own part of the body of Israel– a fragmented anatomy that converged to form an immortal body. Yet this body was short of one vital organ. On our last day in Israel we traveled to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The ten exhibits, or chapters, dedicated to the personal stories of the men, women, and children killed in the Holocaust cascaded into the grand “Hall of Names,” a 10-meter high cone displaying the names of over 600 Jews, a mere fraction of those 6 million, murdered in the Holocaust. As I glanced at my grandmother, the reflections of the photographs illuminating her gray eyes, her scowl had transformed into an expression of solemnity– and I understood. Our trip to Israel was not just about fascinating landmarks and beautiful scenery, but a source of healing and closure for my grandmother, who so narrowly escaped her own place in the “Hall of Names” and finally found her way home.
And so have I.
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