The German woman was, for a split second, a salve to my open wound.
After she cried on that beach and after I realized I was not alone in carrying this giant war between shoulder blades, the soldier felt the need to speak. He spoke in a voice unlike our voices, in a tone completely separate. He spoke in objective terminology. He spoke not of his life or his heart, but of “the Jews” and “the situation” in Europe. Everything he said was concrete, as if we had spoken without borders and he was suddenly using words to draw sharp lines, to delineate the black and to delineate the white.
His personal anecdote was not of the war he had seen, the battlefields he had waded through, nor of the people he knew who had been victims of war; he spoke of the movies. He talked about how “Schindler’s List” made him cry, and he talked about how laughter is medicine. He had told me stories one night at a bar about what he had seen in his life, he told me about this medicine, the medicine of laughing in the face of destruction, he told me about the Israeli soldiers he had met and about how they laughed at the Holocaust. He told me this once and it resonated. He said it again another night, twice. The first time it was touching, the second time reductive.
And now, sitting on the beach beneath a clear night sky, he felt the need to say it a third time. He did not say “joy” is imperative, he said, “You have to laugh at the situation.” He told me what to do. He told me how to cope. He talked at me as if I had not spoken, as if I were not Jewish, as if “the situation” were a containable something, a happenstance, a linear occurrence. He told me to laugh at the slaughter of my family, as if that could possibly help. He did not hear how fresh the wound was, how close to the arteries, how deeply embedded. He did not hear that laughing at it, not to move through it, but at it – this would be as if to laugh at the gravesite, with an open casket, as if mocking and torturing the spirit of the dead.
It was then that that openness began to close, not just close but invert, shrink, run, hide, subvert all surfaces and lay flat beneath the earth. Because he did not only speak of this foreign entity “the Jews” as if I had not just illuminated that “the Jews” were me, my family, their family, and their family’s family, but he also felt the need, over and over again, to ask how it was possible that the Jews “let this happen to them,” how some Jews “just took it.” Some Jews. My Jews. Me.
I walked away then. I had to leave. Whatever medicine was passed to me by the German girl was now obliterated. There were no words and she asked me to hand her her bag. I walked home like a zombie and lay in my bed and woke in the morning and ate breakfast and I had words in my head, on repeat: “The Jews just took it.” I crawled back into my bed. I closed the curtains and pulled the covers over me and I curled in a ball and I braced myself as my heart leaked as much as it could of the pain that soldier caused with his words. English words. Words that might have been more carefully plotted had they been in Hebrew, or German for that matter.
I knew the U.S. soldier had no intentions of hurting me or causing me pain. I later determined he was speaking at his capacity for emotional presence, that he thought he was “opening up” as he put it. I concluded that the soldier reverted to objective terminology because he had caused similar pain to the lives of others with guns and bombs in his own life. I assumed our space was a space he could not inhabit and so he drew borders, lines, walls, and those walls broke my heart.
Years later at an art history class an artist spoke of their work in Germany. One piece was a Berlin public installation, a glass hole in the sidewalk that peered down into a room. The room was empty, sparse, just lined in bookshelves without books. One girl in the audience raised her hand and asked, “What is the point of art like this? I was in Berlin and I saw the piece and I did not understand. What is the point if the audience does not understand?” And I thought to myself, that is the point of the piece, to force you into a blank room with missing pieces where you understand absolutely nothing, not why you are there, not why it is there, nothing. This is the beginning, to me, of facing the Holocaust. Without structure, without clean answers, just a broken heart and an empty room.