By Carson Bennett
“Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” Isaiah 56:5 (Authorized (King James) Version).
Bear in mind, God doesn’t regularly ask me to strip naked. It happened on a Sunday as I waited outside the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The majority of the group I was traveling with gathered under the sparse shade and chatted about the late bus or contributed to communal gripes about our latest Old Testament exam. I decided to leave the group and stroll over to a lone bench, wanting to take a moment and collect myself before we entered the museum. I bowed my head and began to pray. I didn’t know exactly what I was praying for at first, but I found myself asking God to arm me mentally and emotionally against what I was about to experience. I could sense that I was on the verge of something, but what exactly I did not know.
As I closed my eyes and prayed, my surroundings faded into the backdrop, the bright, sun-reflecting limestone beneath my feet fell away until I was alone in the dark; the bustle of the crowd went from a brassy buzz to a gentle hum. It wasn’t long before I found myself all alone and, in my mind’s eye, donning armor as if I were a medieval knight preparing for battle. First the leather hide, then the heavy metal plating, then gloves, bucklers, and a visor that would limit my vision to a horizontal sliver but protect my precious eyes. Yes, anything and everything to ready myself for a battle with a hidden foe. If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.
But something changed. As I prayed, my breathing pattern slowed, my shoulders relaxed, and things seemed to go quiet—signs that I needed to pause and listen. In my mind’s eye, the image I had of myself preparing for battle paused too. Slowly, I began to unbuckle the breastplate and remove the helmet, disarming myself of the protective shell I had assembled. I took off my steel gloves, shield, shirt, shoes—everything. All that was left was myself—bare as Adam in Eden—completely exposed. Goosebumps bristled on my exposed skin from the chilly attic of my mind. Completely alone, I was left to make sense of this unsettling vulnerability to whatever else was there in the darkness. Then a voice whispered the one word that would light my long walk through Yad Vashem and the rest of my journey in the Holy Land; it was spoken gently, but in the form of a command that seemed heavier than all of the previous armor: “Feel.”
The building felt like an underground railway station, but instead of a single thoroughfare track running straight down the long corridor, the museum was designed in switchbacks that zigzagged back and forth like stiches over a one hundred yard gash in the earth. The walls were slanted, meeting in a triangle overhead, where a small slit of glass allowed the sole source of natural light to illuminate the underground exhibits. The combination of the building’s underground nature, the cold gray concrete, and the leaning walls left me uneasy as we watched the Nazis’ expansion recorded on panels, maps, suspended flags, yellow stars sown into overcoats, and black-and-white newsreels of Hitler under the Arc de Triomphe.
The first stages of the Shoah began as public humiliation then moved to forced relocation into ghettoes. I walked through the ghetto re-creations and stopped at a TV playing a survivor’s testimony. She was probably in her 80s and spoke German or Yiddish, so I read the subtitles as the scene played out in my head. She described getting off the transportation trucks with her family and then going through the selection line. My imagination recreated the winter scene, but replaced her family with my own. I could see my father in his large, black dress coat and a black, fur hat herding my three siblings and me into the line. We were all younger and frightened, and we held hands as my dad did his best to keep us calm. My dad has long been a believer that doing what you are told is the best way of avoiding trouble. He reassured us that we just needed to hold hands and stick together. But when he turned to size-up the line and saw the guards with their dogs, he looked scared, perhaps sensing that today his approach to authority would fail him.
Recalling when it came her family’s time in the line, the woman, through her tears, recounted being forcefully separated from her family. In my mind, I could see my dad, turning his back on the guards to hold us. The image froze like a still photograph: my father looking over his right shoulder expecting a blow from a guard’s raised club. My dad’s arms outstretched, and our little fingers clasped each other’s winter coats. It captured a father’s fear and the confused despair when a child realizes that everything is not all right, as they were told. It was all there—resistance, pleading, doubt, determination, fear and love—in his quick look over the shoulder at the expecting blow before it fell.
Then, our hands released.
The woman faded to black, and before I could brace myself another survivor had appeared onscreen to share his story. He told of when his mother found a hole in the fence, bribed a guard, and rushed him to the gap. As his testimony unfolded, my family returned to my mind, but this time my mother entered the story. Mother walked me away from a dark row of hunched shoulders, waiting in line for something. We were fenced in. All I remember was the urgency expressed by my mother’s face as she slipped out of the crowd and hurried me to the fence. She had bribed a guard, but that was no guarantee. She knelt down by the hole in the fence and ordered me to run.
“And don’t look back.”
“Go!” she said and pushed me through.
I ran in stunned obedience, my heart and head pounding. Then I cried.
“I never looked back,” the man said of his actual experience, but in my imagined version I believe I did.
It took more than a moment to recover. I felt stripped of something. I was vulnerable, devoid of any armor-plated apathy or the comfortable distance of a critical eye to soften the blow. After seeing those images in my head and feeling the pain in my heart, I was really experiencing something heavy. Since when did my imagination throw me into unwanted arenas? I had read Elie Wiesel’s Night, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, but in all those works the people involved always had their own identity—their own unique voices and faces. This experience was different. It was no longer sympathy, but substitution. Instead of sympathizing with the protagonist, I was the protagonist. I was reenacting their stories, and retracing their emotional heartache—something I didn’t ask for but shouldered uneasily.
For whatever reason, that day I carried my family with me into those testimonies, and it had a sublime effect on me. The kind of sublime that Edmund Burke described as astonishment rooted in terror. After listening and participating in those stories I caught a glimpse of that terror the Jews of that era must have gone through. I saw and felt what it must have been like to see one’s father beaten to shield the blows from his children, or the confusion to leave one’s family to sprint for safety, and the ever-present fear of separation dangling over me like a guillotine.
My racing thoughts seemed to slow my feet as I walked the remaining exhibits. I was heavy with feelings—catching glimpses of the horrific situation from the perspective of the victims. It also dawned on me, slowly, and not through a substitution into someone’s story, that I was totally capable of inflicting that type of pain on others. The same pain I was experiencing vicariously through these stories I had the power to inflict on others. It was a chilling thought, one I initially balked at, but—as uncomfortable as it is to say—it very well could have been me in the helmet, pointing the gun, and dividing lines between left and right. I didn’t identify myself with the harsh guards, but, then again, what if the guard told his version of the story? And what if I were the guard who took the bribe to look the other way? Would I feel any empathy, any compassion, or perhaps a strange sense of triumph in the escape of a young boy? Would my imagination take me into the boots of the victimizer as easily as the victim, or is empathy only one-sided?
The old man wouldn’t stop dancing. It was the third or fourth record we had danced together, and even as college kids in our twenties we were getting tired. The music came from an old vinyl record player with an octagon amplifier. Elias hobbled around in his suspendered pants, shifting his weight from one leg to another while moving his arms like train pistons. The way he moved to that flamenco music you would swear they had samba schools in Poland.
I first met Elias Feinzeilberg when he visited the BYU Jerusalem Center to recount his life story. He was twenty-two years old when World War II broke out. His hometown Lodz, Poland, became a ghetto, and soon after it became a ghetto he volunteered to work on the Nazi roads. Building roads promised money, a way to get out of the ghetto, and maybe the means to save his family from starvation. The money was a hoax. Instead of supporting his family, Elias—through his absence as the eldest son—dealt them a devastating blow. The one promise the Nazis honored was leaving the ghetto. The road out of the ghetto was a long one, one that Elias was building every day in the snow, the summer sun, or the autumn rain. A road that acted as his death sentence, like an asphalt plank which was incessantly stretching longer but always left Elias on the fatal edge.
One road led to another, and then another. Clearing, shoveling, leveling, pouring, two long years building such long roads. Roads that stretched further into the fatherland and farther from his homeland. Where would it end? After spending so much time on road, the thought of a destination might have been relieving, had the destination not been Bilkeno-Auschwitz. When Elias arrived at that hellish factory he thought, “This is the end,” but it wasn’t. The SS guards kept him building and then branded “B-1259” on his left forearm before sending him inland to Stuttgart, then to Dachau. After spending months in both Auschwitz and Dachau (possibly the two most infamous camps of the Shoah) Elias was finally sent to Triol in the Austrian Alps. A place where, purportedly, prisoners would walk up a steep ravine with an empty potato sack. At the top, SS guards would tie the prisoners in the very sacks they carried and throw them into the river below. Elias could very well have met a similar end when the SS guards received word that the Americans had already liberated the camp. The train halted on the tracks and prepared to turn around to Dachau, only to discover that it too was taken by the Allied Army. Stopped on the road, the train full of skeleton prisoners and the fearful SS guards waited on the tracks. No going forward; no going back.They were all stranded, it would seem, on an iron island of their own making before the American troops took control.
In the end Elias lost his father, mother, two younger brothers, and five sisters. His father died of starvation in the ghetto that was once his hometown. The rest were sent to the concentration camp Chelmno and were exterminated.
So why—years after having been deprived of his family and moments after having once again recounted his horrific tale—was he dancing? Song and dance are not the first things that come to mind after revisiting one’s years of deprivation and death of every immediate family member. How could he ever smile again I wondered. I’ve skimmed enough pop-psychology to toss around terms like “PTSD” or “survivor’s guilt.” Wouldn’t those apply to him? Wouldn’t that weigh him down with sorrow, understandable self-pity, bitterness, a mistrust of foreigners, or a well-deserved contempt for those that made him suffer? If ever I met someone with the right to be a misanthrope it was Elias. And yet, even after my brief experience with him, I knew that wasn’t Elias’s nature, or what he chose to be his approach to life. When he said that he harbored no resentment for the German people, I was skeptical. But after watching the way he carried himself, I began to believe him. When he smiled and danced, I smiled too, but my smile was born out of a type of bewilderment while his shone from a deeper place—an inner grace.
Elias invited me to his small apartment in downtown Jerusalem. While I was there, he fed me and five other guests cheese and crackers, fruit, and then ice cream rolled into balls coated in chocolate shells. And then, when we thought we could eat no more, he brought out cake. This added a sense of injustice to my torn feelings. Why were we being treated like royalty after he told us stories of living off potatoes skins and snow water during a death march? It didn’t seem right. We should be serving him, I thought, not the other way around. I was going to refuse this special treatment when I had that feeling that I needed to pause, listen, and feel. In a weird way I perceived that the best way for me to love and serve Elias was to just sit still and let him serve me. He was so happy to welcome us to his home, tell his story, and learn our stories, and by doing so, he transformed himself from victim to host. Someone with power to welcome, serve, and provide for a guest’s needs in one’s own home; in other words, the complete opposite of what he suffered on the road with the Nazis.
When we finally left his apartment, this kind, ninety-seven-year-old man opened his apartment window and waved us farewell all the way down the street. The lasting feeling I had in Elias’s home was not sorrow, but rather joy blended with amazement. The facts of the story were among the harshest and cruelest I had yet heard from any Holocaust survivor, but it was the man himself, Elias, that brought out that warmth. He presented his life in a way that transformed the story and redeemed mankind with it. I felt grateful that such a man, who suffered and lost so much, still had room enough in his heart to sing and dance and treat strangers like family.
In Hebrew, the name of the museum, Yad Vashem, means “a place and a name”; it is taken from a verse in Isaiah when the God of Israel promises a reward to those who died without children. In the celestial scales—always promising an even balance—the Lord recompenses the sorrow of not having a son to carry on the family name with “a place and a name” of one’s own. If the entire museum of Yad Vashem is meant to be a symbolic place for the departed, then the Old Testament promise is completed with the Hall of Names.
The Hall of Names is the final room before you reemerge outside and into the light. It’s a place dedicated to the memories of the Shoah victims, captured in the words of the survivors. Catalogued in black binders that line the circular walls of the small room, photographs intermingle with “Pages of Testimony” in a cone above the center of the room. As I paced the circular room, my mind wandered in circular motions too. Is that their “everlasting name, that shall not be cut off”? What is their name now? Victim? Witness? The faithful?
When I met Elias I had met someone who did not need to write down his witness—he was living it. Elias was his own “page of testimony” (though I’m sure he submitted his own for the national record). He experienced deep darkness and yet, though he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, he did not buy a shaded acre and build the rest of his life there. Through his acceptance and forgiveness he was able to be free himself from an underground prison of despair. Elias was proof that a story of lasting despair was not the only story to tell. Elias still wears his kippa and still prays and believes in God. He found and married his wife two months after being liberated and began a happy life in Guatemala with his last surviving kin, an uncle who migrated to South America before the war. He raised a family, two sons and a daughter, and now has seven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. He was free. He was so free he could dance to Latino music and to God.
When someone mentions Yad Vahsem I think back to the museum, the zigzagging exhibits and the black binders in the Hall of Names, but my mind does not linger there. I learned a lot about human suffering as I strolled through the exhibits—emotionally stripped from my apathetic armor and the padding that comes from seeing things happen to other people’s families and not your own. But I learned more about the aftermath of loss and the resilience of the human spirit while dancing in a simple apartment with a record spinning in the corner, and a new friend asking to play one more song. In order to accept his unearned generosity and appreciate his bitter-free joy, I still had to make myself vulnerable—strip myself naked—with the same glee as a child running out into the sunlit yard after escaping a bath, bubbles still clinging to his unrestrained body. This moment, this feeling, this human being, deserved to be remembered—in a place that felt like home and by his right name—Elias.