It was two AM on a Sunday evening, and I found myself with a German woman and a male former U.S. soldier on a Tel Aviv beach. My life has a way of scooping me up and placing me in places, beautiful places, with beautiful but complex people. It was no simple après-midnight gathering. It was a post-bar, post-language-class indulgence in English.
We were in Israeli Ulpan and we were to speak Hebrew, rak iyvrit. But there were not enough Hebrew words to navigate sensitively the space holding three worlds: one German, one Jewish, one American military all in the state of Israel. We wanted, I wanted, not they to talk about the Holocaust.
I don’t know exactly how or why it happened but we had been honest all night and it was just the three of us and they, the German and the solider, were falling in love, and so by osmosis I was falling in love and I needed, desperately, to unveil my little heart.
That unveiling involved shedding a layer and revealing a giant hole left by a trip to Poland. Beneath a blanket of stars on three folding beach chairs I used their ears and my mouth and I poured a tall glass of Holocaust memory. I told them about my father. I told them about the Siberian labor camps and the displaced person’s camp and I told them about Poland, post-war. I told them about my Jewish family having no place in this world until they arrived illegally in America in 1950 with false names. I told them about my father’s favorite party-wear, his DP camp rations card, and I told them about the graves in Poland, about Belzec and the incomprehensibility of everything I was saying. I told them how I was only beginning to understand, only beginning to let the pain in, just in time to let it out.
The soldier was silent for a very long time, and then the German girl spoke and she cried a little and said she knows, she knows it is unknowable. I realized listening to her that she understood what I understood which was that it was all too much to digest with this mind, this heart, this English language. We needed Hebrew and German, military speech, civilian speech and the words of politics, of religion, and beyond to even start to piece things together. We were learning Hebrew to decode the matrix of horror and its delicate entrance into what had become our supremely non-horrific lives.