Remembering the Past & Living in The Present

I am honored to have guest poster Gavi Kutliroff today.

Tonight begins the commemoration of Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day full of heightened emotion, as we commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust and show both honor & gratitude for the stories shared by  those Survivors who are still with us today.  This post is a reflection on time spent in Summer 2013 with NCSY’s JOLT program, where Gavi visited the death camps in Poland and bore witness to the horrors of our history and the unbreakable resilience of our Jewish nation. 

Instinctively, I reach into my pocket, groping in absentminded desperation for a pebble. It is almost perfectly rectangular, milky white (aside from some smudges of seventy-year-old dirt), and gone.

I am stingingly reminded that I lost it on the Israel leg of my summer program, three weeks after I picked it up off the earthen ground of the death camp Majdanek in Poland. For a moment I slip from reality. I am once again in a bubble of silence, impenetrable and supremely unnerving; filled with sites not inherently wicked themselves, but whose floors are wet with innocent blood and haunted by purposeless souls; caught between decades and cultures and wars.

I conjure images of “Schindler’s List,” guilty of my association of Hollywood with a remnant of the Holocaust but unable to banish sights of barefoot, skeletal figures trekking across the same stones from which I drew my pebble.

I am not superstitious—on the contrary, I am an intellectual skeptic—but something about the rock attracted me in a way I cannot confine to words. For the remainder of Poland, and in the following weeks in Denmark and Israel, I would fidget around in my pocket for it during prayer, or periods of religious and philosophical doubt, or simply out of habit. It became not only a reminder of the reality of the trip, but a memento of an experience I do not hope to ever repeat; a transformative and evolutionary experience, yes, but one far too emotionally overwhelming to undergo twice.

In my fingers, the pebble is purpose. It is my self-imposed duty to ancestors whose destinies were ripped from them—to allow them to achieve that purpose vicariously through me; it is God and nature and love and hate and good and evil and the lack of all of those things. It is my awe-inspired respect of my tour guide for walking through this hell annually and voluntarily. And among a month’s worth of supplies in a crowded hotel room three weeks later, it is lost.

Suddenly, the unconscious search in my pocket transforms absentminded habit into panicked desperation. The trip never happened. The Holocaust never happened. I cease to exist as a Jew and as a philosophically thinking person, as a member of a nation and the human race. My purpose and reality is lost, and I with them. I force my breathing into the slower, paced manner meditation taught me, dissipating my panic, I and incur what I have always believed to be the benefit of anxiety—the ability to step outside myself and psychoanalyze.

Emotion surrenders to intellect. In some perverse fashion, I realize, the pebble is comfort. It creates an encompassing atmosphere that actually feels like home—not because of where it is from, but because of what it represents. The world slows down as I realize that a memory is enough. The pebble is not my home, not my place of true comfort, although I once naively believed it to be; my nation is my place of true comfort.

My purpose is my home, and that is forever portable and will never be lost.

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