Neshama 31 Reflections from Poland

Ilan R. wrote Neshama's update from Poland for Wednesday, Feb 22.

Elias and I had only 30 minutes to get ready for breakfast. Thirty minutes to collect the dirty clothes (mostly mine) scattered aimlessly throughout our hotel room. Thirty minutes to brush our teeth - to shave and whine about the schedule. Thirty minutes to get dressed in clean clothes. Thirty minutes to discuss the idea of showering, then resolving at “nah." And 30 minutes to wipe the crust from our eyes and prepare for whatever fabulously depressing escapade Rob was planning for us that day.
But instead, we listened to Rihanna.
Now, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not a big Rihanna fan. I mean I’ll happily listen to her whenever she comes on, but I’m not actively seeking out her music. But Elias…Elias is a Rihanna zealot. Whether it was the hook, bridge, or Eminem’s lightning-fast verses, he knew every word. Treblinka hurt us both so much, causing us to relentlessly ask ourselves deep, dark, philosophical questions. But for now, everything was just Rihanna, and maybe a bit of Eminem, so all that emptiness we felt and saw at Treblinka melted away.
I think Rob got it too. We started at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, reciting together a page of Gemara in the synagogue once used to teach the students of Rabbi Meir Shapiro. “The walls can hear you,” Rob told us. We argued through the intricacies of the text, saturating the dull vacancy left there in the long-abandoned synagogue. It acted as a breath of fresh air from the inhumanity we witnessed the previous day and recharged us in advance of our next stop.
The first thing you notice at Majdanek is that it looks like a concentration camp. The barracks lay out endlessly like fallen dominos, claustrophobic even from the outside. Rocky paths surrounded by electric fencing serve as the only way of getting from one place to the other. Guard towers loom over the entire operation, silent and oppressive. In Treblinka, there was nothing; in Majdanek, everything. 
The showerheads were rusted, and the walls were stained blue. Behind glass, pellets of gas sat stacked on top of each other, and I could feel my throat clench. It smelled like camp - the old, humid wood and dusty bunk beds, but the ceiling was dark blue, the walls pastel. We walked outside, and it was cold again. Shavings of ice melted on our skin and jackets, the path extending out past my comprehension into the clouds. We passed a small group of tourists as we made our way down to the clouds and into another barrack. Daniel and Alec huddled with Rob. Strangely, they were smiling. 
“He’s here,” Daniel informed Rob.
“Wow!” Rob exclaimed.
“We just thought you should know,” Alec added proudly.

How can they be so apathetic? I thought. Did they not see the showers, the blue walls…? I approached Daniel and asked him what happened. “Jesse Eisenberg is here."
Now, I’m not a big Jesse Eisenberg fan. I mean, I’ve never seen "The Social Network," and even though I watched "Now You See Me," I wasn’t really that impressed with his quirky performance. As Alec cleverly quipped on the bus later in the day, “Jesse Eisenberg is not an A-lister - but he’s definitely on a list.”

But I think that was enough for me. Actually, I think it was enough for all of us, as we spent the next ten minutes packed together in barrack 3, giggling about the craziness of the situation. Rob asked us what our next move should be.
“Should I say anything?” he asked between chuckles.

“This is so wrong,” objected Sam and Daniel Shapiro with big fat smiles on their faces.
“Okay, how about this,” Rob said. “I’ll go over there and tell him that my kids all recognized who you were and were wondering if you could explain to them what you were doing here.”

Huddled there in barrack 3, we all agreed that this was both the most appropriate and responsible course of action for us to take. Rob left, and when he came back, Jesse Eisenberg stood before us craving fans as a God. 
You can ask your son or daughter how that interaction went. I’d love to elaborate on every minute detail of the actor’s quirky demeanor (how he awkwardly said, “see you soon” as his final words), but I still have half a day to cover, and Rob is not so happy that it’s taken me this long to finish what was supposed to be a short summary. 
Next, we listened to Sophia and Talia tell us their families’ Holocaust stories in front of thousands of lost shoes of the dead. The beds behind Talia looked cramped, and even more so when Rob explained that 9 people would have to sleep together in one bunk. Again, that nostalgic smell of camp.
I remember that I became nauseous when I saw the pile of ashes. It felt too solid when everything else was so untenable and gaseous. I put my back to it and listened as some of my friends recited honoring texts. We were all freezing, but none of us felt like complaining. 
In the town of Lejansk, we sang niguns by the grave of Rabbi Elimelech. The guys and girls stood on opposite sides of a mechitza, re-enacting the a capella battle scene from "Pitch Perfect" (It was very Jewish.)
We ended our day at a memorial commemorating the Ulma family and the other Righteous Among the Nations. Alec read us their story, and we had a long discussion about what it means to be a bystander. 
On the way back to the bus from the dome of ashes, Elias said something to me: “What gets me is that we can just walk away.”

His eyes were red and distraught, and I could feel all his pain. But it kind of stuck in my mind: “What gets me is that we can just walk away.” To be Jewish is to be eternally hurt. It means that you inherently have this dark part of yourself that’s always clinging to the left or right side of your brain, but to be Jewish is to also be a survivor. It’s that we’ve been given this chance to live, to love, and when we can, to walk away. We can go to a concentration camp and completely forget why we’re there. We can sit there in barrack 3 and lose ourselves to silliness. We can sing songs 20 feet away from a grave, and read Gemara, “The walls can hear you." The tragedy and beauty of being Jewish is that the walls are always stained blue, but Rihanna is on, so we’ll jam - even if it’s just for 30 minutes.