The Walking Corpses of Madjanek

15 11 2004

Jewish Magazine
15 November 2004

I waited for my eyes to adjust in the darkness.  I walked slowly down the freezing hall, toward the cages, toward It.  A distinct part of me wanted to savor this moment.  Shoes with no feet, locked in chicken-wire prisons.  Some were made of wood, like the shoes of large puppets.  I looked for cloth shoes.  I found them.  They were green.  I touched them.  But my gloves,  I shed them as quickly as I could—I had to feel their textures, their stories — I had to know them — so I I waited for my eyes to adjust in the darkness.  I walked slowly down the freezing hall, toward the cages, toward It.  A distinct part of me wanted to savor this moment.  Shoes with no feet, locked in chicken-wire prisons.  Some were made of wood, like the shoes of large puppets.  I looked for cloth shoes.  I found them.  They were green.  I touched them.  But my gloves,  I shed them as quickly as I could—I had to feel their textures, their stories — I had to know them — so I jammed my fingers through the cage wiring, drooling for a taste—then my fingertips grazed them.  And suddenly, there was nothing, only silence.

I wasn’t breathing.  The barracks were filled with hundreds of thousands of shoes belonging to dead Jews, and when I touched them I felt nothing.  No flashbacks, no collective unconscious, no swollen throat, not even a tear.  All I really wanted was a tear—maybe some indication that I was alive.  But there was only my breath warming the icy shoes in front of me.  It wasn’t enough.  It would never be enough.  Then I was abruptly enveloped in a cloud of fury, and I had no idea why.

On a Birthright Israel trip this past December I visited a number of concentration camps in Poland, the first of which was Madjanek.  When we returned to the hotel after visiting the freezing camp, the whole group was exhausted but still fuming with rage.  After carefully pulling aside a close friend, Svetlana, I told her that my anger felt somehow contrived, that I was not as depressed as I thought I should be and definitely not as angry as everyone else seemed.

I confided that I felt furious but honestly couldn’t say why, so I was worried that it meant I was a bad Jew if I didn’t feel personally invested in the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Upon hearing my confession, Svetlana remained silent as her eyes swelled with tears and her lips began to tremble.  She felt the same way I did, she soon told me, and she was equally terrified of what it might mean. Read the rest of this entry »








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