We went to Treblinka today

    February Purim 1999          
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We went to Treblinka today


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Opinion & Society

Day ONe

By G. David Schwartz

Maybe it was the time. Maybe it was the place. The scene itself is probably rather trivial. A young man, not incredible handsome but not homely, not particularly athletic but not necessarily weak, a typical young man misses dinner.

Two young women, unbeknownst to each other, each stop into the young man's room to make sure he has had something to eat. Two young women who may not have had enough to eat themselves, or may not have had a particular nourishing meal, want to make sure the young man did not go hungry.

It this was a story about impoverished people showing mutual respect for one another, the story may touch our hearts. If we were told that the two young women, one by one, went to make sure the young man was fed when they themselves went hungry, we may think that human decency yet lives. If, as is the case, there was no sexual intention or sexual innuendo whatsoever, we may think this rather trivial tale is a recommendation for the humanity of our youth.

But this story is told about typical young people. I am not going to argue, because I do not believe, that our young people are typically cruel or insensitive. Yet typically our young people have decent meals and, knowing that decent meals are readily available to them under normal circumstances, they may not think about one of their acquaintances not eating, nor certainly not eating properly. These remarks apply to the children we know, ours sons and daughters, not the children we do not know, you go to bed hungry every night.

A young man, witnessed as he leaves a restaurant or cafeteria, perhaps noted but just as easily dismissed with the remark, "He's probably not hungry," or "Perhaps he had something else to do."

The fact is, young people walk away from meals all the time. Or they have irregular eating habits. The foods suburbia children consume are odd by any nutritional standard. The times they decide to eat are, frankly, abnormal. So skipping a meal in and of itself is not usually questioned.

But this story occurs in a particular place, at a particular time. This story carried with it an intention which makes it significant. This story concerns our children, mere children, who are at an age when they can march, alive, on the March of the Living.

Six thousand Jewish youth, typically well-fed, typically unconcerned with where they will get their next slice of bread or drink of water, marched through Poland.

My daughter called home as they settled in for their first night in the strange land, far away. Six thousand youth were directed into a hotel, a nice one, according to Sara: one with bathrooms and a bed and, from what she could tell, the roof did not leak. She sounded tired.

No, she insisted, she was not tired.

So, what did you do today?

It was the kind of question we ask each of our children each day. Generally they say, "Nothing." "Nothing much."

How was your day?


Sara sounded tired but insisted she was not. She wanted to take the moment to call, just having settled into the hotel, before going to sleep. But what was the sound in her voice?

We went to Treblinka today.

How was it?

She did not say, "Fine." She said, "We walked to the camp. It is nothing but memorials and monuments."

Sara is not particularly taken by memorials and monuments. On vacations, she is fond of saying, "I don't want to look at these boring things. Where's a mall? What's there to do here?"

Yet she did not complain. She just sounded tired, weary.

There was talk about food. Yes, she ate. It was "fine."

She did not seem to want to talk, even though she called. She did not seem to have any information she wanted to convey. Yet she sounded tired. After all, it was a long flight.

Sara does not usually feel compelled to call home. Last year, when she took a school trip to England, France and Italy, we asked her to call the moment she arrived in England. Fours days later she called to say they had just arrived in France.

The conversation was short. Yet unlike other phone calls, we were the ones who suggested, more than once actually, that we get off the line. Or was this my imagination? Sara did not want to hang up, to go hang out with her friends.

A phone-chain was sent to each parent from our particular sponsoring agency, in our case the Jewish Bureau of Education. We called the family of the person below us on the chain. The phone was answered by the mother of a boy passingly acquainted with my daughter and her friend Elise. The mother told us her son had called with a humorous story of his missing a meal and two girls independently checking to make sure he had enough to eat or was otherwise doing okay.

The mother of the young man thought it was a humorous story just as her son had thought it humorous. My wife and I thought it humorous as well. Even more humor was derived from the fact that the two girls who checked on him, one being my Sara and the other her friend Elise, were typically teenagers. Eighteen is still a teenager, isn't it?

Typical young adults, as noted above, are, if not inconsiderate, at least not given to anxiety over other people. Typical young Jewish adults are as use to skipping meals as they are to having them when they wanted them. Typical children, whatever their age, need not surprise us if they occasionally do something we regard as humorous.

Later, when Sara and six thousand of her closest friends were undoubtedly asleep, again I heard the jet-lag in her voice. But what if she was speaking not out of jet-lag but out of some new, monumental understanding of events she had studied and no doubt thought about many times before? What if what was in her voice was not simply typical absence of inconsiderateness, but care?

Where better than on the outskirts of Treblinka would we expect children we know through their conversations, their artwork, their volunteer activities to be sensitive, where better might they find a concern that their fellows eat? Where better than before a visit to Auschwitz might we expect Jews to look upon fellow Jews, or fellow human beings, as ask, Do they need someone to be concerned about them? Where better than before a march of solidarity and proof that we are still here, still viable, might our young men and women to express the viability of humanity?

I have always been proud of Sara, as I am of her siblings, Michelle and Dan. I have always been pleased with the majority of their decisions. Their hopes for the future, frequently idealistic but still thought out, their projects, their self-expressions, have always shown their course as perceptive, continually maturing people I am proud not simply to have helped parent, but to know. Perhaps I will never adequately express not only my love for the three of them, but my honor and respect.

I know that the first day in Poland, before the actual March of the Living, she has not had time to feel the bitter chill of an European early spring. The wind has not had an opportunity to slap her in the face. Her stomach has not had the chance to shrivel for the lack of a nutritious meal.

When, typically, Sara has ventured out on her own, whether it be for an overnight at a friend's house or a jaunt to some part of the world without us, my wife and I have had gauged and customary responses. When she left for Poland, Gilda did not say, as she usually does, "Be careful," nor I "Have fun." She was told, "Remember," and "Have a good experience."

If, and it's still only an if unless and until she confirms or denies it, but if Sara paid a visit to that young man who missed a meal not because he was "a stud," not because he "was a hunk," but because Treblinka, monuments and memorials, glared at them and asked them to consider why they are alive, why they are viable, then she indeed had a good experience and will remember. Even if she walked to his room with fear and trembling, experience will have been good. If she returned to her room with a tear of compassion burning in her eye, she will remember.

And perhaps it is only that tear of compassion which will protect us from the bitter wind.

The author, G. David Schwartz, is active in inter-faith action commitees in the Cincinnati area. He has writen numerous articles on the topic of dialogue and related issues. He is the co-founder of Seed house an interfaith peace and justice organization.

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from theFebruary Purim 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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