Monday, August 22, 2016

A Hero’s Journey Through Croatia

When I was a child, my teacher pulled my mother aside and had a conversation about my reading skills or, rather, lack thereof. Concerned at my non-existent progress and my petrifying silence, my teacher suggested that I may be mentally handicapped in some way. Now, there is nothing shameful in having a reading disability or a mental handicap but there is something amiss in the diagnosis when the child in question (me) just doesn’t. My mother knew that. But she was worried. Language and reading comprehension are integral in a child’s development and the truth was I was having a much harder time than my peers---so what to do? So she and my father worked out an agreement between the two of them: if they couldn’t get me to read, they would read to me. Most parents read to their children. But my parents picked up that torch with the veracity of Philippides running from the battle of Marathon to proclaim the defeat of the Persian army to the Athenian assembly. In other words, they read to me A LOT. 

Every night without fail, no matter which parent’s house, no matter how long their day had been, my parents read to me. We started with the basics: If Your Give A Mouse A Cookie, Mr. Putter and Tabby, The Bernstein Bears, Babar the Elephant, etc. But the rate at which I devoured these age appropriate books could not keep up with the short storytelling nature of these texts. So we moved from the finite to the infinite, we moved into myths. 

There is no end to mythology, it is a constantly replenishing well in which there is always another thread, another variation, another recomposition to be experienced. Sitting in a drawer in my mother’s house is the book that started it all, the compass rose, that not only still serves as my guide through the tangled, circular web of Greek mythology but was the enigma machine that decoded that impenetrable world of words for me: The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki. 

If you have children, or even if you don’t, buy this book. If you love Greek mythology, or even if you don’t, buy this book. It remains to this day one of the most beautiful books I own. And, let me assure you, I own a tremendous amount of books. It’s a simple paperback that you can pick up on Amazon for under fifteen dollars and for that bargain price you will possess some of the most stunning artistic renderings of Greek mythology I have ever seen. 

These images possessed me as a child. I made my parents pick this book up over and over again because I was entranced. Even when they weren’t home, I would take up the book and turn the pages over and over, trying to reconstruct the stories from the pictures and from memory. But it wasn’t enough. The images weren’t enough. They were an important part of the ritual but the spell was incomplete without my ability to decipher the incantation. So, in between bed time storytellings, I would sit by myself, and try to work backwards from the residue of my parents’ readings the night before, the pictures as a guide, and, rather inexplicably, one day my mother came home to find me reading contentedly on the couch. By myself. 

Very quickly the bookshelf, bedside table, and floor of my childhood bedrooms filled to the brim with every edition of any and every Greek mythology book I could get my hands on. I have two versions of the Encyclopedia of Mythology, which I had to be talked down from lugging to England. But there was one story I became transfixed by and that, to this day, occupies whole shelves of my house with its different variants, translations, and iterations: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. These epic poems are among the first known works of Western literature. The two poems cover a twenty year epoch of Greek history: The Iliad takes place during the final year of the ten year Greek campaign against Troy---a conflict ignited when the Queen of Sparta elopes with Prince Paris to become Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships. I love The Iliad. It is a tale of Gods, battles, forbidden love, tragic death, ingenious plots, and heroic glory. But my heart has always lain with the second text: The Odyssey. The Odyssey relates the ten-year saga that is Odysseus’s journey from Troy to return home to his kingdom of Ithaca, a small rocky island off the coast of Greece. But hey, home’s home.  

Odysseus always spoke to me---even before I became the transient traveler I am now, it was wandering Odysseus, not the beautiful and abused Helen, not the clever and steadfast Penelope, not the glory hungry Achilles, not the powerful Agamemnon, not even the gods themselves, nor any other character held the same sway over my young, little heart. None of them were Odysseus.

I did not travel to Greece. I did not travel to Turkey (where many scholars believe ancient Troy once stood.) I traveled to three different cities in Croatia, a place that has nothing to with Greek mythology, The Odyssey, or Odysseus himself. Yet. 

Yet all the while, as I moved through Croatia, I found myself thinking of his long, long journey home. A different country, a different sea, and yet I felt myself reliving the voyage of my first hero, my Odysseus, transposing his wandering encounters across the Aegean onto these three cities along the Adriatic, each evoking a different ports and persons of Odysseus’s odyssey. 


I first find myself visiting Circe’s Island, or Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city.

Circe was a goddess of magic and she is best remembered from The Odyssey as the enchantress with a penchant for potions and for turning her enemies (also known as the men who came to her island and invaded her home) into wolves, lions, swine, and other beasts. So basically, she’s my kind of feminist. Much like Odysseus’s sojourn on Circe’s island, I didn’t intend to stay in Zagreb for long. Coming from Budapest, and desiring to get down to Dubrovnik, stopping in Zagreb was both a logical and necessary port of call. And, much like Odysseus, I found myself bewitched. 

Zagreb is a city of bells and nuns, of steampunk and summer. Zagreb is Fugazi and bad beer that makes you crazy; it's museums as dedicated to the wonder of love as to its failings. There is a play on darkness and light here that would be worthy of a Vermeer painting. There is an ease, a comfortability with one's self and the ambiguities of life that instantly has me longing for a return. Zagreb is a place you unintentionally stumble upon and willingly never come back from. Particles of magic swirl through the air, dusting the tulips that carpet the city. 

(Magic in the air over Zagreb) 

In Zagreb you sit and you smoke and you drink coffee. You soak in the world. But there's a flip side to it, some granules at the bottom of your coffee cup from which you don't predict the future but shape it. Everyone in Zagreb knows about everything. As a generation, I have never met so many young people who knew so much about the arts, culture, politics, music, etc. across such an international scale. 

There are some cities where life bubbles beneath the surface, others where it bellows forth from every nook and cranny; Zagreb is a city where life floods through you, where you are buoyed up by it. There is desire and dreams and drive but there is a confidence in the pursuit and knowledge that their hunger will be satiated.

I spend most of time in Zagreb with people. From the moment I arrive I am enfolded into a group of friends. We go to impromptu summer concerts, dance amongst abandoned buildings. We talk about music and life and art. We laugh so much. It feels like going home to the friends that have known you your whole life. That’s how it easy it is. 

Circe and Odysseus have one of my favorite relationships of The Odyssey because they exist on an equal playing field with each other. They’re a match. After he’s escaped her bewitchments, Odysseus’s stays for another year. Unlike later on in story, he doesn’t stay because he is trapped, but because he chooses to. Circe doesn’t imprison him, doesn’t feel the need to curse him, instead they become friends, and it is her good advice that saves Odysseus time and time again over the rest of his journey. Penelope may be the love of his life, but Circe is Odysseus’s soulmate. 

I am only in Zagreb for an all too brief three days. Yet it is the only place the made me consider changing course, changing plans, and staying longer than I had intended. And there are not many people or places in the world that have ever managed to almost convince me of that. Perhaps one day I will go and stay and stay. But that’s an adventure for another time. 

Despite the mutual respect and friendship between them, Circe’s home is not Odyssey’s final resting place. And, for now, Zagreb is not mine. So with her wisdom and the encouragement of the gods, he bids his dear friend goodbye, and continues on his voyage. So I, with a bus ticket and warm memories, bid my dear new/old friends goodbye, and continue on my voyage. 
(Off to other oceans) 


In The Odyssey, after Odysseus loses the remainder of his crew in a shipwreck (brought upon them by the sun god Helios for eating his sacred cattle) he finds himself stranded on the island of the nymph Calypso. He remains there, as her captive and sometimes lover, for the next seven years. Keep in mind, it took the man ten years to return home to Ithaca—so 70% of that journey time was spent on this island. It is said that Calypso fell in love with Odysseus the minute she set eyes on him and decided in that instant that he would be the mortal husband to her immortal self. She manages to enrapture him with her singing and before he’s realized it, seven years pass.  

As I leave Zagreb, and before I get to Split, I stop to visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park, a forest reserve in central Croatia renowned for it’s complex system of terraced lakes and waterfalls. I spend less than seven hours there, the shortest respite of all my visitations in Croatia. Yet when I emerge I feel as if a lifetime has passed. 

(Waterfalls of Plitvice)

To walk through Plitvice is to walk through wonder. Here, here is a place that seems to belong to another world; submerged bridges, billowing waterfalls, gazing out from the jutting cliff face to behold the strength of nature’s gushing, wet, veins—would it be so bad, so foolish to remain here? To give up life and become nymph to this place? Traveling across the lakes, walking up against those thundering waterfalls, the mist kissing my lips flirtatiously, I feel mythic. Blessed by the gods of water I feel primal and empowered. But besides the beauty, the hues of cerulean and turquoise, the foam made of a thousand different mermaids broken hearts, besides the smell of water and wet sopping into every pour, there is one element that stands out most clearly in my mind. Walking out of this ancient valley of lakes and canyons, the sound of galloping waterfalls, the sound of my own human heartbeat magnified outside of my chest, gradually ebbs, until the beat hushes, returning to the protection of my own rib cage and sacred Iambic pentameter. Yet the quiet itself is a gift; the silence after a waterfall is the richest I’ve ever heard. 

Eventually, the Gods intervene and command Calypso to release Odysseus. Gifting Odysseus with supplies of bread and wine and a raft, she bids him a final farewell. But if the goddess Athena hadn’t intervened on Odysseus’s behalf would Odysseus have ever chosen to return? Or would the comfort and beauty of his present life with Calypso have been enough? The name Calypso is related to the Greek word meaning “to conceal.”——an embodiment of those things that divert people from their goals. This is a world in which fate is the arbitrator of all things and Odysseus has a different fate he is destined to fulfill. The waters of Plitvice are the closest to enchantment I have ever come; if there is magic in this world it is in each and every particle of mist in that place. But all spells are temporary and the delight of a seven years or seven hour rest, must eventually give way to a wanderers true voyage. 

One final look over my shoulder and I wave goodbye to Calypso. The bus door shuts, and we exit the harbor.  Odysseus and me, wandering together once more. 

(Plitvice National Park) 


All through out The Iliad and The Odyssey, Odysseus is referred to as ‘Clever Odysseus.’ He is resourceful, wise, master mariner, enduring, and cunning Odysseus. He is a superb tactician and a brilliant mind; he uncovers Achilles’s disguise and convinces the fabled warrior to join the Greek camp; he conceives of the infamous Trojan Horse and hands the Greeks the method through which they will finally raze Ilium to the ground; he evades his own murder by tricking the Cyclops; he is reunited with his beloved wife after defeating her suitors in a game of strength and cleverness. Yet for the incredible maneuverings of his mind, he is not in fallible. His brilliance helps him but, more often than not, what truly saves Odysseus is the kindness of strangers. 

I arrive to Spilt as the first flickerings of twilight appear, sparking across the water’s surface like little flares of bioluminescent star dust. Perhaps I am simply tired from a long day’s bus ride, perhaps I’m to preoccupied by the intoxicating proximity of the sea, or perhaps it’s simply because Athena or Artemis has decreed it be so, but I fairly immediately get lost and cannot find my way to my host. After wandering around the same block in circles, a woman I’ve passed half a dozen times approaches me and asks if she can help. Together we puzzle out the unmarked side road I have to go down. She walks me to the door and waits across the street until she sees my successfully shepherded in side. 

Then I meet Tonka. Tonka sits in the ambiguous generation gap between my mother and my nona. She has electric red hair, glasses thick enough to serve as goggles, and a cigarette permanently in one hand. Her English is broken, my Croatian is non-existent, and somehow we stay up late in to the night discussing the development of Split, Croatia’s place in Europe, and global politics at large. In the early morning we get up together and wander the winding streets, second nature to Tonka, and go to the fish market. As we pass through the clothing, vegetable, and fish stalls, every other step we stop as Tonka sees another friend she must say good morning to. We wander around the market, the air thick with the smell of the sea and salt and blood. It’s elemental, it’s divine. After carefully instructing me on which fish to purchase we head home to have a late morning brunch with Tonka’s husband, Darko. 

Looking across the table, at Tonka and Darko, for a moment, I see my grandparents before my grandfather’s passing, sitting across the dinning room table, laughing and talking about their travels together, smiling at one another that way only two people who have seen the world together can. My heart hurts but in the best way. 

We spend the morning eating Croatian olives and drinking Croatian beer (noticing the trend yet?), as Darko basks in having a new audience to tell his tales to. A waiter on the cruise ships for fifty years, a legacy now carried on by his son, he’s talks about sailing around all the waters of the world; from the sea of Japan, navigating the fickle waves of Cape Horn, and traversing the draconic Southern Ocean, all the way down to Antarctica. Twice. When I ask him which, of all the cities in all the world, which one is his favorite, his reply is simple. He takes a sip of beer, pats the table lovingly, and says “Spilt.” It’s easy to understand his answer. 

After story time, Tonka and Darko walk me into town before going off to visit their family and leaving me to explore the city. The heart of Split is tiny and centers around the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace. The ‘Palace’ (it’s technically one part fortress, one part palace) was built by the Romance Emperor Diocletian during the 4th century and was meant to be his future retirement home. Wouldn’t we all love to retire to a palace on the coast of the Adriatic? Though, most of what remains of the palace is full of gifts shops and restaurants, there is a special preserved piece of its heart that remains protected. To see the ruins you have to go down, descending into the bones of the earth. All the walls are wet and dampness fills the air. In the first few rooms, there is no light, only the sensation of water being all around you, as if this is Poseidon’s kingdom, not Diocletian’s. Then you emerge from the labyrinth into a courtyard filled with the kind of grey sunshine that is only born from the premonitions of ocean storms. In the courtyard I find two cats, a pair of real life sphinxes, little ghosts of emperors past, the last of their kind left behind to guard the place. We sit together in the courtyard. I can’t see the sea but I can hear it, smell it, I feel it. Here amongst the ruins of this ancient palace, with my small Roman guard, I feel at ease, at home. 

(The bowels of Diocletian's Palace)

The grey blur of the clouds intensifies to sharp iron. I bid the emperors farewell and wander my way back into the living part of the city. But Zeus is already there and lightening is flashing across the sky and I run into the doorway of a shop as the heavens open up. The storm is intense; the rain is thick and dense, creating small explosions of water each time it lands. 

After Odysseus parts from Calypso, it doesn’t take long for him to find himself in trouble once more. A tempest is sent by the God of the Sea, Poseidon, as retribution for Odysseus blinding his son, the great Cyclops. Odysseus’s food and vessel are destroyed. He is alone in open water. Well, not quite alone. The goddess Ino sees him and takes pity on him. Ino was a mortal queen of Thebes who was later transformed into a minor goddess of the sea. She rescues Odysseus from the sea by giving him a veil that will protect him from drowning and carries him to a nearby island where she knows he will find safety and assistance. 

I cannot even begin to recall the number of times I’ve been utterly lost while traveling, from wandering around Beijing two blocks from house to unintentionally getting a rickshaw tour of Dhaka to almost being stranded in rural Poland, getting lost is simply a part of the nomad experience. Getting lost can be terrifying and stressful, I’ve definitely cried more than once because of it. But it is also a humbling experience. Not because it is a reminder of my own infallibility (I am already very aware of that) but because it reminds you that people are kind. It’s easy to forget. We are constantly inundated with all the terrible things people do. And there are many, many bad people in this world. But there are also some Goddamn good ones. Odysseus doesn’t make it back home because of his cunning and resources, he makes it back because of the goodness of strangers, mortal and immortal alike. The best part of Croatia, of this journey, have been the people, the strangers I have met. The people that guide you, rescue you, share with you, they’re what makes us want to stay and they’re also why we have to go on. 

The rain bursts down the ancient streets of Split, slipping along its angled walkways, making its way once more back to the sea. Finding its way back home. 

(The city of Split) 


After being saved by Ino, Odysseus finds himself once more a stranger in a strange land. Emerging from the woods naked (because, for some reason, this is highly emphasized in the text) he happens upon the princess of the island, Nausicca. She clothes him, feeds him, and advises him. She takes him before her mother the Queen. Odysseus recounts to her and her family the saga of his travels since the fall of Troy. Moved by the trials of his journey, the Queen grants him the ships that will finally land him on Ithacan soil. 

What must have it been like, to hear the man himself spin the tale of his own adventure? Traveling from Split to Dubrovnik, I feel as if I have entered some ancient story, some long lost portion of some hero’s odyssey. Or perhaps, for a few brief snatches here and there, I step into my own picture book of myth and legend, seeping into the artistic and ethereal renderings that dance along the Dalmatia coast: the blue blaze of the Adriatic emerging in the morning sunlight, the way the sea seems to bleed into the battle worn mountains, a sapphire assertion of whose land this really is. The air smells of warmth and wood, the kind of fire that only burns on boats. 

Dubrovnik is often referred to as ‘the pearl of the Adriatic.’ It’s not hard to understand why. This whole place is built of underground caves and grottos, it's full of spiraling rock-hewn staircases, backyards that lead into the edge of forever, secret steps and passageways that stumble out onto the sea. Here is another whose heart lies in it’s history; Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town is the stuff of centuries past (and the filming local of future Game of Thrones episodes and Star Wars scenes.)  Wandering around the old city, I am astounded that people live here, that ‘home’---a concept that seems so normal and present---can be represented by stones and steps that have stood for over fourteen centuries. I’m not sure my house back home is even fifty years old let alone almost fifteen hundred.

(A view from the walls) 

I am spellbound by this place, obsessed with seeing it from every possible angle, in every possible way, desperate not to miss one crumb of its beauty. I wander the streets of the city, traipsing up and down the Stradum (the high street) more times than I can count. I pass little cats with their heads pressed to the tiles, as if in the middle of their daily worship. I spend the evening sitting in the central square, beer in hand, reclining on the steps of a church, while a jazz singer’s voice washes over me. I fall in love listening to the city’s heartbeat. I kayak around the bay, exploring every rock and island along her coast, soaking the sun and sea into my skin. I fall in love with the city as the salty taste of her lifeblood coats my lips. In the early morning I hike to the top of Mount Srđ, the great mountain that serves as the natural wall to Dubrovnik. I fall in love with the city as my feet and fingers tenderly trace a path up her spine, feeling every rock and curve. But under the touch of my hand, for the first time I feel her scars, and I am reminded that even places made for myths have had to face the realities of war. There are crosses at the crossroads. 

A mere twenty five years ago, just slightly longer than I’ve been alive, the Croatian War for Independence, and the other conflicts in neighboring countries, including the immensely violent and devastating Bosnian War, emerged from the destruction of the single country once known as Yugoslavia. I can’t imagine these people, this land, embroiled in war. Yet the scar tissue is there. There are different stones in the walls of the city where bullets and bombs destroyed the ancient supports. It seems impossible, a citadel designed to keep out arrows and spears trying to survive missile attacks. But at least Dubrovnik’s walls stood to protect her; outside the walls there was no safety, no escape, no hope. That sentiment, that image belongs to another age, and yet it is a piece of history that parallels the heralding of my own life. Dubrovnik is my last city, she is the most beautiful and the most recently returned home from battle. I am reminded that we are never so far away from our past as we might think. 

My final evening here, I walk the walls at sunset, circling the city as the burning embers of the sun melt like wax over her roofs and ramparts. Time is different here, like the undulations of the sea, it seems to both be moving forward and back, reaching for the past while caressing the face of the future. I feel memories old and unknown, and memories new and unformed, lying side by, side dormant in my cells. I feel ancient. 

As a blue darkness settles over the city, I climb through a hole in the fortifications, scrambling down to a secret set of rocks I have discovered. I sit and stare at the water. The black of the Adriatic is different than the black of the sky. Perhaps this is where Odysseus was caught between Scylla and Charybdis; maybe here is where he heard the sirens song. Who knows what secrets, what adventures this water holds? Its possibilities are oceanic in their mystery and magnitude. There is always more to be to discovered, to mystify, to enthrall. Dubrovnik is a kind of simultaneous paradise, a place that could easily lull you into staying forever yet has such a vision of the great world beyond as its gates that I can't imagine sitting here not wanting to lap up the world. Looking at this water, the way the different layers of color and current move against each other, you feel what could draw a man back out on to its waters after twenty years away from home. That’s what happens to Odysseus. 

(A view from the mountain top) 

Eventually, after all his long years in distant lands and distant seas, Odysseus comes home to reclaim his former life. He spent ten years at Troy and another ten years trying to return home from it. When he finally does return to his beloved Ithaca, the baby he left behind is a young man, and the wife who remained so devoted to him is no longer his young bride. But he has endured so much to get home to them, surely he spends the remainder of his days in peace and contentment? And, for a time, he does. But he doesn’t stay. He leaves and fills the remainder of his life with adventures both tragic and epic. 

Why does he do it? Why does he fight so hard to get home, only to leave again? 

I am writing about my trip to Croatia three months after I have left her beautiful shores. In the interim, I have traveled home to London and I have left again, on another epic journey of my own, this time through Scandinavia. And in a few weeks, I will be going home to my family for the first time in just under a year. Perhaps, Odysseus had to leave in order to come back. Perhaps, we can only truly comprehend one journey when we have finished another---only after traveling in a different part of the world could I begin to articulate, to tell my Croatian story. Or, perhaps, he left, I left, because we must. The traveler’s life is an endless Mobius strip of purpose: we are always leaving home, only to come back to it, only to leave again. 

The last night of my trip is the first night of Passover. Passover is a Jewish holiday commemorating God’s liberation of the Jewish people from four hundred years of Pharaoh’s enslavement and their exodus out of Egypt. If Odysseus’s twenty-year journey dwarfs my seven-day expedition, then the Jews have outdone us both with forty years of wandering the desert. At least Odysseus and I got to be by the water. Despite my lack of Judaic ancestry, I have celebrated Passover almost every year of my adult life. I have eaten Seder dinners amongst the company of friends, neighbors, and strangers. The meals always stand out in my mind; a mixture of formal ritual performed with a sense of easy improvisation, food filled with stories, and the known and the unknown of the tribe sitting side-by-side clinking their glasses. This is one of my favorite moments of the year. I have always felt a kinship with the essence of this holiday; not simply because it is a homage to the endurance of the Jewish spirit but because it is also a testament to adventure, a commemoration to the hero’s journey. 

Joseph Campbell, one of the forest most modern day scholars of myth, coined the idea of ‘the hero’s journey.’ Essentially, it is template that can be used to describe any story of folklore or mythology where a hero undertakes an adventure, has a moment of clear crisis, overcomes it, and then returns home a transformed person. All the great myths, the great stories of our times, follow this pattern: from the great Hebrew migration out of Egypt, across the desert, and into the land of milk and honey; from the twenty year saga of a clever man from Greece; even the adventures of a few rebels trying to fight the Empire with the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy; or the wondrous wonderings of one woman across Croatia, they are all shaped from the same primordial clay. 

How is this possible? How can one model work across all these variations in person and time and space? Because it is not simply a guide for the tales and legends of our world, by the compass by which we navigate our lives. 

(The Adriatic Sea) 


I arrive home, to the city where they are always saying my name, smiling as the train pulls into Victoria Station. This is the first port through which I ever entered London, on impromptu day trip down from Scotland several years ago. Being at this station always makes me happy, not only for the childish thrill of seeing my name everywhere, not simply because it reminds of the day I knew I would make a home here, but because it reminds me of another home a few thousand miles away. 

My mother loves Christmas. If she had her way we would keep the tree up all year (believe me, we’ve tried.) There is a running joke in the family that my inheritance will come in ornaments. Of the many, many, many aspects of my mother’s Christmas extravaganza, the heart of it to me has always been the Christmas village. Spread across any spare counter space available, the Christmas village is a hodgepodge of small figurines depicting different scenes from an English Christmas. There’s the lady pushing the baby carriage tinted with snow, the ice skating rink with children and lovers that will perform figure eights ad infinitum, and there is, at the heart of it all, Victoria Station with her windows all aglow. 

Sometimes when we leave home, when we kiss our parents or our wife or our best friend goodbye, we don’t know when we’ll come back. We linger, trying to hold onto the edges of the moment, imprinting this last sight of them deep into our memories. What if we never come home again? But if I have learned nothing of my travels, I have learned this: you may never know when you’ll find your way home again but, no matter where you are in the world, home will always find you. 

We must all in life make our own hero’s journey. But do not be afraid to set sail from Ithaca, to cross the desert, to venture into that great unknown, to boldly go where you have never gone before. You’ll come home again, the hero always does. But to be the hero you must start with the simplest, most impossible of all things: you have to go. 

The Hero Path

"We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known ...
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell


Friday, July 15, 2016

Death Comes to Budapest

(Welcome to Budapest)

At 4AM, I quickly fall asleep as the bus pulls away in the early morning darkness of Krakow. I’m not awake when I say goodbye to Poland but her scent will linger with me for the rest of my journey. My eyes lazily open to gleaming sunlight. Without needing to consult a map or the bus driver I know where I am; I’m in Hungary, and the place is instantly familiar despite my never having been there before. For the first time I see words I recognize. I don’t know their meaning or even how to pronounce them but I recognize them, the shapes, the style, the sound pairings coaxed out by certain letters. These are the words of my grandparents, of my childhood.

I wake up to hills and mountains, to a kind of green that I’ve only ever seen one other place: in my grandfather’s garden. Moments later, in a village just over the Hungarian border, my breath catches in my throat and, for just a minute, I swear that I see him standing by the side of the road. The man has his square cut jaw, his rounded nose, hair that was perfectly kempt until the very tip top where it was driven wild by constant thoughtful head scratchings. This sighting is not the last of my trip but one of many. From the moment I arrive in Hungary, I find myself accompanied by the many ghosts of my grandfather.

I suspected I would see him here. But I thought perhaps it would be one solitary sighting, one burst of love and sorrow as I mistook a man across the street for him. Instead, I saw him every hour of every day. I saw him more than I have in years. It has, after all, been years since I saw him, years since I heard his voice, his laugh, his whistle, years since I heard his stories. I think of my grandfather most in sounds. I wish I’d captured them, caught them like fireflies and kept them in mason jars to light my way in the dark. But I was too young to understand the need we have for such preservations of memory. I never considered that there would come a day that he would become silent. I thought I had more time, more sound. Don’t we always?

I’m on my own in Budapest, more alone than I will be during any other portion of my trip. My host, while polite, barely makes an appearance. And a series of miscommunications result in cancelled plans with a friend of a friend. There are moments of connection, more sweet, more savored for my solitude. But I don’t mind being on my own here. But, then again, I’m not really alone, am I?

I am awed by Budapest’s beauty; it’s as if Rome and Paris had a love child that went through a rebellious phase and ran off to the East to have an adventure all their own. It’s one of the only cities I’ve ever been in where the eastern and western parts of the city are equal—there is no neighborhood, no south, west, north, east Buda or Pest that earns a knowing look—each side is magnificent and fully formed in its own right. Buda is the older side of the city, sitting high up on the riverbank of the Danube. Buda is built on hills, it’s the Roman side of the city, and as you stand at the top of Gellert Hill you feel as if you’re surveying the whole of your empire. Pest takes after Paris; it’s full of alleys and nooks and crannies of color and fashion and food. I eat my way through the city, luxuriating in the commonality of dishes that were a rare and special treat of my youth: lángos, paprikás csirke, palacsinta, goulash, ice cream shaped like a rose (that wasn’t a part of my childhood but I wish it had been), marzipan, even a shot of unicum—my tastebuds take me back home to my grandparents kitchen.

(All the Hungarian food)

I’ve always had a close relationship to my grandparents; my mom and I lived with them for two years. They are striking strands of thread in the tapestry of my selfhood. It’s funny though, something about being in Hungary, I feel as if I understand them more than I ever have before. What were quirks and idiosyncrasies belonging uniquely to my family, now appear as commonplace sightings: I pass by a Herendi store, full of the funny looking multi colored porcelain figurines that still fill my grandmother’s china cabinets; the pattern of flowers from the corners of my grandmother’s special occasion table cloth are in blooming amidst the embroidery on every shawl, t-shirt, or a pair of jeans that come down the street; even the little bowl shaped hats my grandmother is so fond of wearing, they’re a staple here. I am so happy to wander in Budapest. To gaze and to sit and to bask. Despite this being an unfamiliar city, I’m never unsure of where I am going, all my steps seem to take me where I need to be.

On my last day in the city, I spend too much time soaking in St. Stephen’s Basilica. The ceiling of gold and granite and malachite reminds me of the veined underbelly of a sleeping dragon.  I was going to take a tour of the opera house but miss my last chance for it. I go anyway, hoping I might be able to give myself a sneaky tour by wandering around pretending to look lost. When I get there everyone is heading in to the auditorium for a concert. I don’t pay it much attention until I see that it’s Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is the reason I started listening to classical music. His pieces are soft and abrasive, joyful and disparaging, rife with synchronized contradictions. He sounds like life. Basically, he’s my guy. And there I was, standing inside the world renowned Budapest Opera House fifteen minutes before one of his operas was about to go on. I went over to the box office, figuring I would ask for the cheapest ticket they had available but a woman stopped me before I could make my purchase. She said she had very good seats that she had to give up and all she was asking in return for them was whatever I was about to pay for my cheap seat tickets. I took a ticket and went inside. I kept checking the seats and as I walked further and further down the aisle I realized where I was about to sit: front row, right against the pit. For the price of a cheap meal in London, I found myself sitting front row at the Budapest Opera House. Everyone around me was dressed to the nines, and it does mark the only occasion of my life where I have ever been underdressed for the theatre, but once those first few notes bellowed forth from the orchestra, nothing else mattered. It’s hard to distill into words what those first few musical bars sounded like. The red velvet curtain was still down, the action of the opera had yet to start, yet I could have happily dwelled in the dim lights and intoxicating waters of that opening for the duration of the evening.

When I was little, I went to the Rose Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York and there I watched a film where Carl Sagen by way of Tom Hanks (and in subsequent years, Whoopi Goldberg) told me that were are all made of star stuff----that the atomical elements that compose our bodies were created by collapsing stars billions of years ago. To hear Tchaikovsky live, it’s to be in the path of a dying supernova, it’s to feel the reverberations of it’s life and death, and it is to be re-formed with parts of it as a part of you. We are particles of matter and music; we are made of Tchaikovsky and star stuff.

(The Budapest Opera House)

I leave the opera and am searing with music and memory. I look up and catch my breath. Another ghost.

Sometimes it hurts to be in Budapest. I want to talk to my grandfather. For once in my life, I want to make a phone call. Sometimes we acclimate so well to hurt, you forget the magnitude of its weight. Standing in the beautiful spring air of Budapest I feel it, more acutely than I have since the night he died.

In Budapest I come face to face with the worst thing I have ever done: I didn’t call. After coming out of a routine surgery I procrastinated in calling my grandfather. I had no good reason for it, I was petulant, I was a teenager, and I found talking on the phone to be a nuisance. In the middle of taking me to task for my laziness, my mother got a phone call from my uncle telling her that my grandfather unexpectedly died---an unforeseen, sudden post surgery effect. I knew before she said the words; she just kept repeating ‘no’ over and over again. I remember getting up and standing at the front door and I remember running. I ran until I couldn’t breathe. I thought I could outrun what was happening, that if I tried hard enough, I could turn the world back, turn time back. I collapsed on a park bench and wept until I was sick. I don’t know how long I was out there; it could have been twenty minutes or twenty years. At some point I wandered back into the house, back into a world where the final echoes of my grandfather’s voice were disappearing. The first question my grandmother asked me at the funeral was why I hadn’t called? I had no answer to give her, only more empty, useless silence.

Some pains pass, some heal, and some, some stay with us for the rest of our lives, tender to the touch. There are pains that fade and there are pains you just get used to. Not making that phone call is an action I will unequivocally regret for the rest of my life. I know my grandfather knows I loved him but we’d be fools to think our last interactions with a person didn’t bear weight on our memories of them. I have wonderful memories of my grandfather; sitting in the car with him while we both waited for my grandmother to buy those scratch off lottery tickets, they way he whistled when he woke me up for a breakfast of the best scrambled eggs of my life. I have totems of his life; little bits and pieces of trinkets left over from his jeweler days, a mold of his bronze medal from the Helsinki Olympics. But I can never think of him, his smile, I can never hold his medal, look at his picture and not feel a sharp pressure in my heart where that lost phone call sits.

There are the hurts we make peace with, wounds we allow to heal. And there are hurts that never stop hurting, we just make peace with their place in our lives, we learn how to coexist with them. Someone once told me they hoped to live a life with no regrets. Aside from being unsure of how that’s possible, I don’t think it’s particularly human. Regrets remind us of our humanity. They teach us that we are even more infallible than we thought. Though regret is a burden, and one that often comes at great personal cost, buried inside it is a tiny fragment of light, a spark of hope that we will never again repeat that act for which we feel such remorse. I’ll never get that phone call back. All I can do is hope I never so willfully lose that chance again.

My last night in Budapest I take one last evening stroll along the Danube, trying to firmly imprint into the mold of my memory this shimmering golden riverbank. I walk along the river, staring across at the National Art Museum and an illuminated Fisherman’s Bastion. I pass parliament and the chain bridge. And I stop at ‘Shoes along the Danube’—-a sculpture of iron shoes by the riverbank, a memorial to those Hungarians Jews who were shot along the very same edge. These shoes wrought in metal remind me of the great masses of leather I have just left behind in a village outside of Krakow. I’ve done the journey in reverse, traveling from Auschwitz to Budapest; I make the trip home so many never could. In Auschwitz they called a certain part of the camp Mexico, because it was so noisy. It was noisy because that was the overflow area where they kept all the Hungarian Jewesses. They kept them in an open bunker with no roof and no beds and often “forgot” to feed them. It was noisy because the sounds of women screaming and crying and dying in that bunker never stopped. Hungary experienced the War in reverse. While other camps were being liberated, Hungary was just beginning the mass deportation of its Jews. Of the seven hundred thousand Jews in Hungary, five hundred thousand were sent to the camps within four months, from May-August of 1944. Every third victim at Auschwitz was a Hungarian Jew. Every tenth victim of the War was a Hungarian Jew. While there is still a large Jewish community in Budapest, it’s nothing compared to the size it once was. But there are totems left behind, markers of what and who once made up this city.

(Weeping Willow Memorial)

Earlier in my trip, I visited the Dohány Street Synagogue, or ‘The Great Synagogue.’ The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world (New York City’s Temple Emanu-El.) The synagogue is striking because it looks like no other synagogue I’ve seen before (and I’ve seen my fair share on this trip alone.) But that’s not to say it doesn’t remind me of some other structure in some other place, rather it is the striking similarity of it and a certain building in my past that takes me by such surprise: it looks like the Alhambra. The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, aside form being a former palace and fortress, is a building that has resonated with me since I was ten years old. I’ve only seen it once and yet it has stained my memory with a brightness only rivaled by the mosaic tiles that line its curved roofs. I’ve never seen another building quite like it. Yet here, almost 1800 miles away, I see yet one more ghost from my childhood.

(Dohány Street Synagogue)

The synagogue is definitely in tact, a strange twist of mercy: during the War the Gestapo set up their offices in the synagogue because they knew no one could bear to bomb it. The synagogue, much like the Alhambra, is a curious intersection of cultures and history, composted together to a stunning result.  The synagogue itself was built by a non-Jews and, because they’d never seen or been to a synagogue themselves---their only experiences of aesthetics in terms of houses of worship being the opulence and grandeur of their native Catholic Churches (hence why a Jewish house of worship has an organ built into it.) They figured their best bet was to try and model their building after the descriptions of the Great Synagogue in the Old Testament. It is distinctly Moorish in its design, Catholic in its construction, and Jewish in its usage. It is a colorful microcosm of the beauty the three major religions of our age have to offer. But, as I have seen often on this trip, where is immense beauty there is often intense sorrow: only three synagogues in the world have cemeteries in them, and after my visits to Krakow and Budapest, I've been to two.

Our tour guide is in and of himself a colorful character as well---a blind man from Yonkers who has traveled the world working in the heart of Jewish communities. He has us all go around and say where we’re from. He pauses when I tell him I’m from Brooklyn. “Not with that accent,” he says. He has one of those great, cinematic New York accents, the kind my dad still has and that I get when I’m tired. He’s a great tour guide, charismatic, and talkative but in a way that gets people to open up and volunteer information about themselves. He listens. And, because of his listening, he picks up on the subtle vocal hints of one of the older gentleman in our group. He asks him how he knows so much about the war and about the Jewish ghettos. The man replies, “I lived in one.” He spent his early years in the Vilna Ghetto. When the Nazis decided that any child under the ager of fourteen was to be killed, the family that took care of him hid him in the walls, where he lived for the majority of the war. But as he was being liberated, Hungary was just beginning the mass deportation of her Jews. Their footprints are everywhere, little gold plaques, ‘stumbling stones’ that trace a path through the city. They mark the last known freely chosen place of work or residency for the victim of the holocaust they represent. They are not a marker of death but of life. Each stone starts with the inscription “Here lived…”

Leaving Budapest is slow. I take a long time, unpacking and repacking, I almost miss my train. But I don’t. As the train begins to pulls out of the station taking me from Budapest,
aplace that sits so deeply in my heart, to Zagreb, Croatia, a place I essentially know nothing about, I feel so very sad. I find myself once more saying goodbye to my grandfather before I am ready.

My grandfather was the best man I have ever known. He was an Olympian. He was an immigrant. He was so impatient when playing cards. He ate tomatoes like they were apples. He woke me up every morning with breakfast and whistling. He loved me. I was the Homer to his Odysseus. I was the collector and keeper of all his stories, all his journeys. There are some places we go and we are haunted by them. But not all ghosts are bad. For a very long time, I lost my grandfather. I found him in Budapest.

Standing on the riverbank of the Danube, gazing out at the brightness of Budapest, the city shimmers with the lights of lives living and lost. Budapest is a crossroads, a place where the familiar and the unfamiliar merge into one, where one easily glides between their past and present selves and, in this grey borderland of remembering and memory, I steal a few more minutes of time with my grandpa. Here he lived. And so did I.

Friday, June 3, 2016

An Honorary Jew Goes to Auschwitz

I can only begin the telling of my journey to Krakow by starting at the end.

I spent my last day in Krakow at Auschwitz.

This pilgrimage takes its first step at a crossroads, at the intersection between two parts of myself, one known and one unknown.

I have, my whole adult life, been called and decreed an honorary Jew. I exclusively lived in pre-dominantly Jewish communities. I’ve been to more Seder dinners than I have baptisms. I’ve never thought twice about words like kvetch, bubala, shvitzing, etc. Over and over again, I have found myself embraced and enfolded into one Jewish family or another. However, my honorary title is secular--- I am at best an honorary cultural Jew.

Religiously, I do not consider myself to be Jewish. In fact, in terms of religious identification, I am simply a freshman undergraduate in the school of life trying to choose a major: thoroughly undecided. I don’t know who I am religiously because I find so much of it compelling and so much of it abhorrent. I identify with atheism as much as identify with Catholicism, with Judaism as much as Hellenism, with witchcraft and Unitarianism. I think concepts of belief and faith are endlessly intriguing. But none of them have ever felt exclusively mine or, rather, that I belonged exclusively to them. I’m a polyamorous philosopher of religiosity but not an actual practitioner.

Despite being baptized (call it a last minute act of hedging their bets on the part of my parents) my family is devoutly un Catholic; both of my parents have their own separate reasons for falling out of faith with the Church. My relationship to the Catholic Church is not so strained but I’ve never chosen to rebuild the bridges my parents incinerated. My father firmly left organized religion behind in the dust. But, ever since the day she was a young kid kicked out of a church for being just a young kid, my mother’s been on a quest to find a place that won’t shove her away just for being herself. The greatest will they or won’t they of my life isn’t Ross and Rachel on Friends, or Carrie and Big from Sex and the City, it’s my mother’s relationship with Judaism.

For as long as I can remember my mother has been ‘seeing’ Judaism. Our house is filled with books about Jewish philosophy, she’s taken me to synagogue more times then I can count. And she never forgets to wish me a happy Passover, no matter where I am in the world. For God sake’s, the woman is a substitute teacher at a Hebrew school. Part of this stems from my mother’s insatiable curiosity and it is in Judaism and the Jewish community that she has felt that her questioning mind has always been welcomed and encouraged. But there’s another reason my mother has so long been entwined with Judaism but never taken the plunge: she might already be Jewish. One of the great Sayko family debates has been the question of whether or not we are. There is a history before the War that, for all intensive purposes, has been lost, purposefully or otherwise. For so long, it was a question that simply wasn’t asked, and those who might have answered have passed away with their secrets. We just don’t know.

So it seems I am an honorary member of a culture I may be innate member of. It’d be like growing up knowing you’re adopted and the one day your realize you weren’t. Nothing and everything is different. During my visit to Auschwitz I found myself in a strange suspension---caught between experiencing it as a person who loves and respects Jewish culture but is not intrinsically a part of it and as a person who might be connected to this in a far more personal way than she knows. It felt both like my history and as if I had no right to it. I can only say that I cannot imagine what it is like for someone who, secular or not, who has been raised in the faith, in the culture, to go to that place. The immensity and burden of that connection is something I can make no claim to. But nor can I categorize my experience at the camp as something devoid of a deep, personal relationship to Jewish life. So suffice it to say that the following is not the viewpoint of a Jew or a non Jew or even an honorary one but of a person who honors the role of Judaism and Jewish culture in her own life and the lives of the many, many wonderful Jewish peoples she loves and without whom the world would be a lesser place. 

It is a strange thing to go to Auschwitz. The idea of being a tourist in a former death camp—those two concepts definitively feel as if they should be mutually exclusive. I arrive at Auschwitz early in the morning, a grey fog creeping from the forest. I cannot imagine this place in the sunshine. Nor can I fathom what it’s like to live here, in the neighboring village, to have the main reason people visit your hometown be to witness and pay their respects to the largest Nazi extermination camp of the War.

Everything I do at Auschwitz makes me feel an unending sense of guilt. Waiting for the tour to begin, eating an over priced muffin and coffee, I feel as if I am committing an act of desecration, indulging in a materialism and consumption in a place where people withered from starvation. I should be fasting. I should be performing some kind of ceremony to mark this place. If we can fast for our own sins, surely we can do it for the masses of humans that suffered here?

As the tour begins, I pass under gates and the wrought iron inscription: “Work Sets You Free.” It feels strange to willingly pass through gates so many people would have done anything to exit from. Many entered Auschwitz thinking it would only be a temporary circumstance, that they were simply being relocated. Taking the train into Birkenau (also referred to as Auschwitz II) they came loaded with their whole lives: suitcases, money, jewelry, family mementos, kitchen supplies.

The men were separated from the women and children. Those deemed unfit to work were directed towards the gas chambers. They were told they were being sent to the showers. What that second must have been, to smell and taste gas coming into a room as you waited patiently for the cleansing effect of water, to feel that sudden shift in your mind, to suddenly become aware of what is happening to you---it is apocalyptic.

I was so angry at that thought—how dare you not tell these people what you’re going to do them. That kind of false hope, that kind of cowardice—if possible it makes the crimes all the worse, worse because deception like that is born of people who know, somewhere buried in the last chamber of their humanity, they know that they are doing a grand and terrible thing. Later on in the day, I will find myself inside the old guard tower staring across the wide, elephantine skeleton of Birkenau. Groups of tourists walk along the old platform; they look eerily like marching prisoners. Birkenau is huge. It stretches on for an age until it disappears into the mists of the surrounding pines. I wondered what atrocities had been witnessed by those trees and if this fog wasn’t somehow their offering, a blanket of solemnity put forth by nature, wishing it could have done more to stop the unnatural events that took place at their roots.  The camps are disturbing, abnormal down to their very bricks and mortar. They are made all the more haunting and disturbing for the innocuous look of the buildings.

Ahead of me on the tour was a group of young Israeli girls; I know they were Israeli because they looked like a troupe of superheroes with the Israeli flag tied around their necks, flapping behind them like Superman’s cape. For a while, I held my composure: the facts and figures were terrible but they were just numbers and these were just empty buildings; decaying ash after the hellfire. I felt at a safe distance from it all until suddenly I drowning in the tangible nearness of what had happened there.

Emerging from a room I was about to enter, I saw my herd of superheroes, tears streaming down, friends clutching each other, wiping salt and snot off of one another’s faces. And I knew that I was about to bear witness to horror. What I saw when I walked in I will never forget: hair, a massive pile of human hair. Two tons of human hair. I thought I was going to vomit. I felt as if I were staring at a pile of bodies, a mass grave behind a wall of glass. If I had, for one moment, forgotten what this place was, forgotten the scale of its brutality, then and there the magnitude of its evil regurgitated itself forth from the pit of my stomach. I cannot write about that image, even at this moment, some few thousand miles away, without tasting a mixture of salt and bile in my mouth.

There is room after room likes this, each one batters you in a different way, until you think you can’t move, that you cannot do anything but sit and be drowned by the despair of it all. You feel a sorrow you didn’t know you had for people you’ll never know. But that heap, that mountain of human hair, that is the one that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Because it made me remember that this was not some horror story, some legend from the past, this was a crime, this was a modern day attempt at annihilation, that this was real and not so long ago as we might like to think. That this happened to people at the hands of their fellow man. Something about it, about the fact that it was hair, it felt as if surely these people were still alive, that all that must be attached to someone. It broke me, this cruel disembodied trick to that made me believe in ghosts that were long gone.

In the next room there was a pile of spectacles, a dormant creature of wire and glass. There is something about a pair of empty glasses; you can always picture the face beneath them.  If I don’t wear my contacts or my glasses the world is just a blur to me. Even walking ten feet from my bedroom to the bathroom becomes a hazardous, treacherous journey.  This place was already so full of death, so full of fear, to walk through this valley of evil without even the ability to see is a nakedness and vulnerability of a different kind. It is it to be a child again, but instead of parents’ loving hands to guide you as you stumble, to fall here is to perish.
And then the suitcases: beautiful, sturdy, leather suitcases, the kind of suitcases passed down through a family, the kind of suitcase any traveler would want to own, the kind of suitcase George Bailey gets from Mr. Gower as a testament to their love and friendship. So many of them had family names etched on them, white lettered prints, the only monuments left to say we were here, we lived. It feels impossible. The whole Goddamn horror of it feels so impossible.

In another building, in another corridor, are the photographs of the first prisoners brought to the camp. At the start of the War, Auschwitz was a POW, not an extermination camp. Most were Polish political prisoners. When this first wave of prisoners was brought to the camps they had their ‘mug shots’ taken. This practice quickly fell out of habit as the population and daily arrivals of Auschwitz began to increase.

I stared at the photographs, row upon row, a catalogue of humanity’s last days. It’s overwhelming, all those faces that never grew older. Listed underneath their photos are their dates of incarceration and their dates of death. Almost none of them survived the camp. Then I saw a young woman, a woman like all the other women on the wall, only, for me, she punctured my bones: Wiktoria. My name. She had my name.

It’s a strange thing to encounter someone with the same name as you, there’s always something a little surreal about it. It doesn’t matter how I feel towards the person, it doesn’t matter how different we may be, there’s some small thread that will always attach us to each other simply by virtue of this one shared experience. And there in that frame, on the other end of time, was a lost member of my tribe. I know of nothing we have in common beyond a name but to see her name, my name, our name, listed there, to see those dates of death and imprisonment following such a familiar pattern of letters, I felt the tug of a thread from another version of this story, an iteration where it wasn’t this woman’s face in that photograph, that insufficient tombstone, but mine.

Wiktoria Kowalska. Prisoner number 32259. Born: May 2, 1910 Place of birth: Kraków Profession: Clerk Arrived to Camp: January 29, 1943 Fate: Murdered Date of Death: April 13, 1943

She had my name. She did not survive the camps. She had my name.

The very last part of the tour takes you to the last existing crematorium, the only one of the four to survive relatively intact. Then you go inside. You stand in the gas chamber. You go to a place you should not go, inside a thing that should not be. The walls are covered in pale grooves, scratches. You see the ovens.

In that moment, through the tears that had begun without my notice, there was only one person, one word I could whisper: “Mom.” I wanted my mom. I wanted my mom to hold and shield me from this. 

When I was very young, an innocent accident caused second and third degree burns on one of my legs. I only remember snippets from the hospital: sharing tuna salad with my roommate, my parents on either side of me, holding my hands as I hopped on my good leg, learning how to walk all over again. But my sharpest, most vivid memory is of the showers. More than the pain, I remember the fear that gripped each day as they undid my bandage and tried to coax me inside. The water was so painful on my exposed, raw skin that I would scream and claw at the walls to avoid it. I would thrash and beg and howl and weep, anything, anything not to feel that pain again. The only way I would go in is if my mother went in with me. She stood there, pressing me to her, bracing me with all her might, letting me cling and tear into her, simultaneously working to comfort and restrain me, holding back any of her own pain and fear, while working tirelessly to abate mine. I survived those showers on her borrowed bravery. But I’m lucky. My mother could protect me, she could heal me, she could save me.  

Where I stood then, was a place where no amount of mother’s love could save her child, a place where, locked in each other’s arms, countless mothers and children, sisters, friends, would find themselves the casualties of an experiment in human extermination.  I wanted to turn and see her, to feel her warmth and her strength, for her to hold my hand and take me somewhere, anywhere else. Spilling out of that room, even the dim dusky light felt harsh and blazing.  I looked down at my boots and felt ashamed: the day before I had been to the Remuh Synagogue where I had visited the Old Jewish Cemetery.  During the German occupation of Poland, the Nazis destroyed the cemetery by smashing and carting away tombstones to be used as paving stones for the camps. After the War, the tombstones that could be found were returned to the cemetery but of the small portion that were located, few were to be found in their whole parts. So the broken and disparate pieces were used to form a mosaic, a wailing wall. Shattered lives, shattered worlds, shattered graves brought together to for something stronger, more magnificent then before. If that isn’t a testament to Jewish endurance I don’t know what is. As I stared down at my shoes I realized that I had brought the mud and the dirt from that sacred place of recovery to this place of utter despair: the mud from the cemetery mixed with the mud of Auschwitz on the soles of my feet. And I was ashamed at the cruel disservice I had unwittingly performed.

Auschwitz is a burden for which humankind has no ability to comprehend. I could know all the facts and figures, know every of inch of the ruins, and yet still my mind, my heart would always fail to understand. That is because what happened here is not something that can ever be understood: it is a deep unknowable horror.

And after the horror comes salt.

After Auschwitz, the tour takes you to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It seems like a strange, even inappropriate pairing. At first I regretted the decision---after the camps, I could think of nothing less I wanted to do then visit some cavernous pit in the Earth. It was, or course, anything but. The mine is a labyrinth of nine tunnels, about 300km in total, with the deepest level reaching 327 meters underground. The stonewalls are a dark, inky grey coated with varying degrees of pure, snow-white salt. What I expected to be foreboding and ominous was rich with mystery and art: all along the mine there were great, gorgeous sculptures carved and crated from salt. The further down we went, the more beautiful and intricate these statues and scenes became. For the first time in my life, I felt a certain identity with the race of dwarves in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; I understood the majesty that lured them to delve too greedily and too deep. In the very heart of the mine lies St. Kinga’s Chapel, an underground church that radiates beauty. Light pours forth from the crystal chandeliers, setting aglow all the bas-reliefs along the chamber walls. In depths of the Earth, illuminated by pure light, I am in awe that this place was built by man and not something more divine.

I saw the best and the worst of humanity in Krakow. I met some of the loveliest people of my trip: two intelligent, beautiful Norwegian transplants took me under their wing for the duration of my stay and welcomed me into their lives as if we’d been friends for years. I touched the wall of a gas chamber, I held my hand against the Hebrew letters from a broken but enduring gravestone. I saw Auschwitz, a witness to the great evil that can be wrought by men. I saw St. Kinga’s Chapel, a sanctuary to the grace that can emanate from the hearts and minds of humankind.

Over and over in the camps I thought of my best friend, an incredibly intelligent, innovative woman, to whom I owe so many of the best parts of myself, and who happens to be Jewish. I thought of a not so far off world, a world in which she would have been taken from me because of what? Because of nothing. I felt the magnitude of that devastation, the thought of losing her, of losing her family that is my own---it felt like my ribs had been cracked, my chest pulled apart and my heart ripped from me. To even imagine that loss----she is so full of light and justice and passion and power. To fathom a world that hated her so, to imagine a history, my history, the present, my present, without her? It is unbearable. I am so very grateful that she is here. It seems only fitting to me that her name is Hope. I love her so very much.

At the very end of the tour, I had a few moments before I had to get back on the bus. I lingered in the gift shop, unsure of what souvenir I could possibly want or need from this place. But then, in a corner of the shop, I saw a pile books, on top of which lay Night by Elie Wiesel. Sometimes, books, like people, appear at the exact moment you need them to. I bought the book, not because I needed a reminder of Auschwitz; it is a place that will be seared onto the walls of my memory for the rest of my life. I bought the book because books are precious to me. If you took away my books, I don’t know who I would be. On the tour, there were many stories of people smuggling things into the camps, seemingly impractical things: jewelry, family heirlooms, photographs. They risked their lives to keep possession of these objects. Why? Because these are the totems, which remind us of our humanity when the rest of the word would take it away. That is what books are to me, the guardians of my selfhood, and so long as I have one, one page, one sentence, one word on a scrap of paper, I can keep my dignity, I can keep my humanity, and I can remain myself.

When you exit Auschwitz I, there is a photo series documenting the March of the Living, an annual march of silence between the two camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, contrasting the brutal death marches at the end of the War. So, so many of the quotes on display are about love, about remembrance, about family, about not being induced to hate. I’m not sure how that’s possible---how a person can suffer the worst kind of brutality and say with all honesty that they do not hate their tormentors with the deepest parts of themselves. That people can possibly do anything but hate, that they can, in fact, love openly and fully---comforts me with the knowledge that whatever ills are committed by humankind, we must remember that, more than anything, people have an immeasurable capacity for immense and indestructible goodness.

Why do we go to places like Auschwitz? Because we must. Because we must always remember what we are capable of.

Why do we go to place likes the Salt mines? Because we must. Because we must always remember what we are capable of.

We have to cry, we have to weep, we have to hurt, we have to visit, we have to remember, we have to forgive, we have to love, we have to live.

“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.” ----Elie Wiesel, Night

(The international monument at Auschwitz in Hungarian, Hebrew, and English.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Dead Forest, or Coming to Terms with (Heart) Failure

(The Mermaid of Warsaw)

During the second half of winter term at LAMDA, we workshopped a production of Tirso de Molina’s play Don Juan or The Trickster of Seville.  This play was a struggle for me---it wasn’t the challenge of playing a character who was off center for my type, it was the fact that I found the protagonist of the play to be absolutely loathsome. I can find something redeeming in most any character but Don Juan just leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I do not find him to be particularly charming or witty or even all that clever in his trickery----he is, in the truest sense of the word, a total schmuck.

Don Juan, that seventeenth century myth, that cavalier and casual exploiter of women, is a grand contributor to the reason why I, a twenty first century woman, am routinely met with shock and surprise and concern when I inform people that I will be traveling on my own, sans the supervision or protection of any male persons.

The world will tell you that, as a solo female traveler, bad things will happen to you. Bad things happen to you on your own block in the best neighborhood in the world. Now, I say this with the privilege of a white, solo female traveler and I guarantee you the experience is different and more complex to navigate as a traveling solo woman of color. However, I think all women are taught this fundamental principal of fear----that the minute we are alone we should be afraid. Because we are not enough. Because we are not strong enough, smart enough, capable enough to take care of ourselves. We are more than enough.

In Don Juan, my character, Catalinón, proclaims “Let all the men in the world be brave.” I would beg a revision. Let all the women in the world be brave. Perhaps even more so, let all the women in world discover they are brave. You are alive and reading this, you are a woman that exists in this day and age. That is an act of bravery in and of itself.

From the window of the airplane, the landscape of Poland reminds me of a wooden floor: little strips of land in shades of bright green, mild green, grey green, and a few lines of brown as an accent molding. The lakes and rivers glisten like mud puddles full of earth and life and possibly a hippo. They’re bordered by large twisting sand banks that remind you of some lazy primordial beast that's gone down for a nap but could suddenly be provoked from it's slumber.

One of the first things I see after I get off the plane at the Warsaw Chopin airport is a sanitation advertisement: a picture of a dirty toilet and hands with screaming mouths----it’s the little things that make us feel at home. I’ve never been here and yet there is a certain familiarity to the city, the shadows of my travels in Beijing and Dhaka hang upon the buildings.  There is a resilience to this place that draws me in; I like cities that are unrepentant in their toughness---it reminds of the Brooklyn of my childhood. It appears I have resting Polish face. Walking down the main boulevard (Nowy Świat) it suddenly occurs to me how long it's been since I've walked around anywhere without my headphones in. There is music everywhere: Chopin plays from benches, and every time they stop, the trams sound like a cacophony of fireworks being set off by mischievous hobbits.

My first evening there, I wander through Warsaw in a delirium---intoxicated by the warmth of the city at night and by my own war cry for independence. Because that’s what it feels like, a grand proclamation reclaiming sole ownership over what I will and won’t do. I choose this. I choose Poland. The profundity and the satisfaction of being the sole arbitrator of my choices floods me with warmth.

Of all the countries on my journey, Poland is the one that most often raises an eyebrow. I’m not Polish, I don’t know anyone in Poland, so why I am I going there? Why Poland? Why Warsaw? Because of a zookeeper, a war, and a forest.

In the emotional fall out of ending an emotionally abusive relationship, I found myself taking refuge, as always, in the comfort of my books. I started reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by adore Diane Ackerman. I can’t explain what draws me to certain books at certain moments but in the chaos, I pulled it off the shelf and hid myself inside its pages. The novel is an unobtrusive testament to what humans can endure, and all the more searing because of its simplicity. Somehow, despite all the books or films I had collected about WWII, the story of Poland, of Warsaw had remained a hazy mention.

Poland has the very unfortunate burden of being in the very middle of Europe, making it necessary for any aspiring autocrat to conquer it. It is a nation not unused to being attacked. But WWII was something different. Hitler, in no uncertain terms, had it out for Poland. His obsession with the ‘purification of the species’ did not apply to Poland simply in terms of its people but “through eugenics the Nazis meant to erase Poland's genes from the planet, rip out its roots, crush its hips and tubers, replace its seeds with their own” (The Zookeeper’s Wife).  The annihilation of its people wasn’t enough; the whole of Poland, its roots, its soul, were to be wiped off the face of the Earth. Engulfed in this environment of total animosity, Jan Żabińsk and Antonina Żabińska (the zookeeper and his wife), become leading figures of the Polish Resistance: playing major roles in the Warsaw Uprising and personally aiding in the rescue of 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. Impossible to separate from their story is the story of Warsaw.

As Jan and Antonina were forced to dismantle their zoo, they watched as portions of it were coopted by the Nazis, set ablaze, or decimated by the torrent of bombs that would reign over Warsaw for the duration of the war. By the end of the War, eighty five percent of the city was demolished, and a city with a pre-war population of 1.3million barely had a thousand people living amongst its ruins. Jan and Antonia’s animals were shipped off to other zoos, or killed, either shot out right or perishing in the unending bombardment of the city. The fear and terror experienced by the people of Warsaw can only be made worse by the echo of the fear those animals felt: “The elephants trumpeted wildly, the hyenas sobbed in a frightened sort of giggle interrupted by hiccups, the African hunting dogs howled, and the rhesus monkeys, agitated beyond sanity, battle one another, their hysterical shrieks clawing the air.” Yet there were a handful of animals that were spared this horror, preserved by a perverse twist of fate.

During the War, Lutz Heck was the director of Germany’s largest, principal zoo. He, and his brother Heinz, used the war as a means for pillaging the zoos of Eastern Europe to add to their own collection. The brothers were no mere profiteers, not just carpetbaggers building an empire off of the destruction of nations; they were active disciples of Nazism. Hitler’s eugenicist philosophy aligned perfectly with the brothers’ passion project. The Hecks were obsessed with trying to revive extinct animals and they believed they could do so through their selective breeding program. Basically, they believed that by “breeding back,” they could recreate animals that had gone extinct. Breeding back is a type of artificial selection based upon the idea that by breeding modern day animals with similar phoneme types to their ancestral relations, the ancient animals could be bred from their present day, pure blood descendants. (Please note, this methodology is in no way successful at resurrecting dead species. All it does, at best, is create new breeds.)

Despite their occupation, the Heck brothers were prolific hunters in their own right, and as a symbol of their loyalty to the Nazi cause they wanted to create a paradise for the Nazi elite, a eugenicist’s ideal hunting ground, full of ancient animals, pure specimens of a time before the ‘degeneration of man.’ Amongst other animals, the Hecks took from the Warsaw Zoo their precious and prized herd of European bison (at the start of the war there were less than one hundred of these bison alive, and all in captivity.) But where to put their pillaged plunder? What ancient, undisturbed spot of land existed in Europe? Was there possibly a place that remained untouched by all the greats wars of Europe’s history? Funnily enough, there is. On the border of Poland and Belarus sits the Bialowieza Forest.

The forest of Bialowieza is a realm of magic, a preserved portion of a world that no longer exists. It is myth and fairytales. It is old-growth. It is the last trace of the forest that once stretched across the European plane. It is primeval. What is it to be primeval? It is to be untouched by humanity. In this small corner of the world, in a land where the scars of humanity’s batterings are etched into the dirt, there exits this forest which has defied man’s clumsy damage. It is unaffected by humankind. It is not orchestrated, nothing planted, nothing moved, it is the forest it always has been and was always meant to be. It  has  been left alone to tend itself.

And I was moved. What kind of place must this forest be to defy centuries of potential destruction? What was this wood that could bewitch royalty and mass murderers, rendering them all awestruck? And it was this. It was this forest, this kings’ forest, this primordial forest, this forest of endurance, of survival, that compelled me to come to Warsaw.

To get to the forest, from Warsaw, takes about five hours by public transport. It takes four hours and two trains to get to Hajnowka, the last small town stop on the way to the forest. Hajnowka is filed with the same wood-smoke of the Long Island Sound during the fall. Eastern autumns and Polish springs both smell of smoldering earth. From there it’s another forty five minute bus ride, through the unprotected parts of the forest, the bits that have been stripped of their primal nature, and are now just trees on the edge of town. Old ladies in all black leather outfits emerge from the dense wood like globs of salvia the spruces have hurled out to spit shine passersby. I get to the edge of the national park and my guide leads me across an open field to the secret preserve. And then there I am.
There are places we are drawn to that we cannot explain, that we cannot justify. Places we must go simply because we are called to them. And as I stood in the midst of that forest I felt a sudden satisfaction rising within me. This was mine, this memory, this moment was powerfully and profoundly mine.

(Bialowieza Forest)

There are many people who go to the forest and find it disappointing. It looks messy and wrong, a forest that appears to be distinctly un-forest like. The forest is left to its own devices and, save for a few paths to help one find the way, nothing is touched, nothing is moved, nothing is fixed or corrected. Plants are not placed, flowers are not cultivated, dead trees trunks are not removed. Everything is simply let alone. The first time you set foot in the forest, you understand that you’ve never truly seen a forest before. I’d never before realized how curated my perception of the natural world was; how so many of the forests I had considered to be sweeping territories of naturalism were, in fact, stylized, the natural as decided and arranged by the caretakers of the place. But not here. Not in this place. Here chaos and beauty and life and death coexisted.

Life is innately messy. It is incredible the amount of time we dedicate to trying to clean it up, trying to make it presentable. We’re so quick to remove our perceived imperfections. We tidy up death, we put it away somewhere polite, somewhere safe. We don’t embrace it, we don’t allow it to have a place in our lives. But death is just as natural as life. I’ve come to the age where I am suddenly confronted by the mortality of the people I love. Suddenly, my friends and I are aware that those little aches and pains our parents complain about, aren’t so little as they once were.

My father’s in heart failure. Or, rather, in heart failure recovery. He had a heart attack and he didn’t know and slowly the muscles of his heart have of been crumbling, growing weaker and weaker. His heart is breaking, failing him, which seems impossible because he has the biggest heart I know. How could his heart possibly fail him when it’s always been there for me? And while he is in recovery and working to be as healthy as he can, for the first time as an adult, I am faced with the fact that I will one day exist in a world without my father. I hope with all my heart that that world is many, many, many, many years away but, for the first, I realize that what happens to everyone else will happen to me. It doesn’t seem feasible. For the world to go on after my parents. Surely time will just cease. Though I know it won’t, it never has. What do we do? What do we do when those tall oaks that have formed the roots of our memory, of our lives, of our personhood, what do we do when they finally fall? We let them be. We let them decompose.

Things die. People, relationships, dreams, they die. We give them a life but we don't allow them a decomposition. Instead we bury them, cut them down, scorch the earth. We're not comfortable living side by side with death, we see it as an impediment not a partner. 

On my (long, long) way home from the forest, my bus passes a local cemetery. The graves themselves are gray or black, symmetrical, uniform, in and of themselves not a spectacle. There’s no green in this cemetery---not like the mossy, earthen cemeteries I am accustomed to seeing in the States.  But there are flowers, spilling, swirling, all over the graves, blanketing them in a network of gold, violet, azure, and cream. They are not flowers that naturally grow there----it's not the wild unkempt beauty of an English grave---it's a typhoon of color through diligence, from the weekly, if not daily, act of bringing more, new flowers. And this celebration, this vibrant testimonial doesn’t look garish or misplaced, they work in tandem.

Warsaw is a city that lives amongst fallen oaks. It is a place where death is not obscured, not suppressed. Tragic loss happened here. But life goes on around these sites of pain and suffering.

There’s almost nothing left of the old Warsaw ghetto, just a fragment of a wall. It’s not in a museum but in the courtyard of a present day apartment building. I found myself weaving between raindrops and concrete passageways as I moved through this residential urban garden. I finally find it, off to the side. The rain has begun to pour. There’s no fence or barrier so I go right up to the wall and place my hand on it. What a strange thing these bricks are, so full of life, so full of death. Somehow, in that moment, it makes sense, to have this momentous reminder of suffering be in this inconspicuous place. Perhaps there could be no greater testament to this monument, this reminder, than the simple knowledge: life has continued.  

(The last fragment of the Warsaw Ghetto wall)

The bison are thriving now. In their sacred sanctuary in Bialowieza, they have returned from the brink of death and extinction. Spared by a twist of fate, the protection of Bialowieza works her magic once more. Today Warsaw exists as a painstaking reconstruction of the city it once was. It’s grown from the rubbles of ruin, breathing forth another life from decomposition. I climb to the top of St. Anne’s church in the city center, and look at over the (reconstructed new) old town as the sun begins to descend. On my tour of the forest, after seeing yet another decaying trunk, I asked my guide if this was considered a dead forest? He turned and very simply said, “Does this place sound dead to you?”

The bells of St. Anne’s wrung out across the bustling square and Warsaw was aglow with heat and life and I thought “No, it sounds utterly alive.”

Warsaw will always make me think of spruce trees, benches playing Chopin, bus stops without signs, sweet pierogies, six hundred year old oaks, bison grass vodka, Elizabeth Taylor pastries, mermaids, the best graffiti, cemeteries of color, a forest fit for fairytales, resistance and hope, uprisings and preservation, wreckage and rebuilding, of life and death. 

What a city it was. What a city it is.