Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust
Chapter 1: Touched
The train from Munster to Brussels gathered speed until its whisper grew silent, slicing the air like a bullet leaving no mark. There were hardly any passengers, exactly how I liked it. I inhaled down to my belly, surrendering my limbs to the train’s smooth vibration as the empty space invited me to drop down and let everything go. Outside, winter’s deathly disguise was convincing. The sky was pasty grey, the earth stone-cold and featureless.
It was January, 2005, my third time in Germany. I felt mostly at ease as I did elsewhere in Europe where land and cultures had melded for centuries—except for one or two moments when the language would provoke an auditory double-take, and send it back out as German. It was the understandable hangover that anyone with a connection to the Holocaust would experience setting foot on German soil—anyone being me in this case, though I’d always resisted defining myself by my family’s past, or labels in general.
My entire adult life had been devoted to learning to live in the present moment, not to being the child of Holocaust survivors. Could those words ever be said in a matter-of-fact way? The phrase itself sucked the oxygen out of a room, demanding attention, and the attention became something else to deal with. It was all too complicated and a bit embarrassing. Everyone had a difficult childhood of one sort or another. Was it so different growing up with a mother who had survived Auschwitz?
Still, a subliminal conversation found its way into my awareness, like fish eggs washing ashore. How it all seemed so normal now. Friendly people, the Germans; intelligent and congenial, with gracious smiles . . . so very normal . . . well-groomed and polite . . . the shops thriving and colorful . . . everything so clean and respectable . . . so goddamn normal. People were shopping, having a good time . . . young people laughing. Had everyone forgotten so soon? Was this how life continued on, everything simply normal again?
On my last afternoon in Munster, a sudden rain had propelled me toward a rack of cheap umbrellas outside a shop. I picked one out and went inside. A blond woman in a vintage-style dress raised her eyes from behind the counter, and then forced a smile that obliged me to smile back. That’s how it began. I didn’t want to smile back. It would have made me complicit in the seeming amnesia. We didn’t need to smile—we could have just been two people, not pretending anything. As I fumbled for change in my red coin purse, a flicker of impatience crossed her face. With that grain of irritation, suddenly we became artifacts not people.
Any moment she would yell “Schnell!” (Hurry Up!) Though the Yiddish word was identical, when my mother said it there was no resemblance to the Nazi command. The flicker had no more substance than a strand of hair brushing against a cheek. Yet I felt its invisible weight, the fleeting imprint of an ancient tattoo laced with fear of secret ammunition close at hand. Be careful, she might find out I’m a Jew and then . . . Ammunition? My murmuring half-thoughts sounded absurdly paranoid.
The truth was I needed something from her, that woman behind the counter who could have had any number of reasons for an insincere smile—a bad lunch, a sick child at home—I needed her to see me for one moment.
I left the shop with my new umbrella, and as I walked though Munster’s wet streets an invisible membrane surrounded me, a time capsule of memories, though the memories weren’t mine. As if I knew the flip side of these civilized, respectable appearances. How could they act so normal? Was the sickness really gone, or hiding underneath?
I knew I’d over-reacted of course. A burp from my unconscious. It was typical for me to want something from someone who couldn’t give it to me. I might have wanted the same thing anywhere else. But because she was German, I wanted it more.
Beyond the gaping windows of the train, dismal surroundings stretched on monotonously, the flat horizon and grey skies only punctuated by isolated sheds and wire fences as if even the trees had died. I couldn’t help thinking about a different kind of train, a destination less pleasant. My head registered a kind of atmospheric pressure in the background, like a cloud bearing down from above in the space around me. Space, especially the space of my mind and body, had always been my territory of choice, something at least partially in my control.
My visits to Germany were due to my practice of Kyudo (the Way of the Bow), sometimes called Zen Archery. It was introduced to me in 1980 when my Buddhist teacher had invited Shibata Kanjuro, Sensei, twentieth in a family lineage of Bowmakers to the Emperor of Japan, to Boulder. We shot at bales of hay or compressed cardboard, first from a distance of only six feet, and eventually at long distance targets. But as Sensei reminded us, the target was not a target but a mirror of our mind and heart. Kyudo’s elaborate form required singular focus of body and mind. I had taken to it immediately and then become an instructor. The precision appealed to me, but it was Shibata Sensei’s piercing melancholy that stole people’s hearts. He connected with people wherever he went, and Germany was no exception.
Perhaps my search for wholeness or meaning through practices like meditation and Kyudo was a replacement for normal connections I missed having as a child, though I was certainly no expert on ‘normal’ if such a thing existed. My childlike sense of it came from TV shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”, whose orderly and predictable realities I envied. I poured myself into those make-believe worlds, like the one with June and Ward Cleaver as parents, finding comfort in their well-structured family life which included punctual family dinners, agreements about who did what chores, and some notion that problems could be discussed with your elders and solutions found. My own life was nothing like those shows, but perhaps no one’s life ever really was.
Building a new life after the war consumed my parents’ attention. Work was their path to security for the future. Because little else mattered, we had few family rituals—religious or otherwise—no Sunday afternoon walks in the park or trips to the zoo. There weren’t even rules. Growing up in Montreal, I was very much on my own, whether playing in the neighborhood or in my room. At the age of five or six I asked my mother if I could have a specific bedtime. She humored me a little, but I knew she didn’t mean it.
Once when I had a high fever, they bundled me up and took me to the hospital. I still remember the woolen blanket covering my head and face against the cold, and their worried faces. They held me so close, as if I was something precious they could lose. I often fantasized about breaking an arm or a leg, craving more of that attention.
On rare evenings my parents went out to play cards or see a show with their friends, other Jewish immigrants like themselves. For some inexplicable reason, their leaving filled me with dread. I was certain they would be killed and never return home. I must have been about four or five, maybe even younger, when it began. I would be standing just outside the door of my parents’ bedroom, in the shadows of the hallway, watching my mom in her bra, arranging her hair and make-up in front of the mirror. Her persona would change, as a certain smile that was reserved for friends would start to bloom on her face. She was looking forward to the evening ahead, but to me she was drifting further and further away.
Something unnameable would cause my limbs to stiffen as if to stave off the feeling. But then it would begin to crash in and around me anyway. At some point the terror would jump inside the hollow feeling in my gut. Feeling more and more like a ghost, my body strangely dissolving and yet frozen, I continued to watch as she slipped on her dress and then put on her lipstick, while I remained suspended in a place between the living and the dead. When she stood up and reached for her coat, the coffin shut. It was final. I was in the darkness now. There was only me and this old, familiar nausea. My parents were never coming back.
After they left I would throw up, possessed with the ineffable certainty that they would die and never return. It was like a terrible recurring dream I couldn’t shake. Its predictability only amplified my helplessness as I tried to resist the tendrils spreading through my body like poison. There was no apparent reason, no logic. It simply was. The babysitter watched TV or studied and probably never noticed. In the morning, life somehow returned to normal, but the nightmare kept repeating.
No one ever said “Don’t worry, you’re safe, everything is okay.” My fits of terror were never talked about. My parents loved me, of course, but that was never spoken either.
Through the train’s spotless windows, I noticed an abundance of chain link fences topped with double or triple rows of barbed wire. Here and there, a chimney churned out smoke, darker grey than the sky. My attention was drawn to a vague heaviness above me, like a dense cloud or an amorphous swarm of insects. As I paid attention it became more real, almost palpable to some part of me, and made me curious.
Then something clicked. It was only natural that residues from that terrible era would still be hovering over Germany. Of course! How could they not be here? The quiet space of the fast-moving train had simply allowed me to notice what was here to be noticed—a conglomeration of unresolved pain and sorrow in the atmosphere over Germany on this late January day, a leftover package of energy. It all made sense.
The heaviness became steadier, solid and unmoving, like a soup that had cooled and begun to coagulate, allowing itself to be touched or examined from all sides; yet it still seemed ordinary. I told myself anyone would notice it if they were quiet enough to pay attention. Something there in the background, as real as everything else, only not visible.
I changed seats and moved from one side of the train to the other. I’m not sure why. Perhaps to be able to face into the direction the train was moving, rather than what was behind, or to see if something would change. Nothing was different, at first. Soon we would arrive in Brussels, and soon after, I’d be in Paris. My mind wandered for a moment, and then something tickled the inside of my sternum like a feather penetrating my chest. A revolting sensation imploded inside before I could turn away—an oily putrid blackness too repulsive to inhale, like the smell of rotting meat. My muscles tightened and my head began to throb. The next moment my throat felt thick and raw.
Was it my imagination? Or was there a connection between this sudden flu and the oppressive cloud—as if an invisible tentacle had reached down to infect me with poison? I snuggled inside my jacket, shivering, and tried nesting into my seat, but the fabric was hard and tight.