- The Unimaginable
Fifteen years ago this month I went to the International Museum of Photography to see an exhibit by Sebastiao Salgado, the Brazilian photographer. Entitled “Migrations”, they are beautifully rendered and captivating portrayals of diverse groups of people forced from their homes as the result of war, civil unrest and other disturbances beyond their control: boat people, internees, exiles, and orphans from Rwanda, Afghanistan, the Balkans and other locations throughout the world.
Although widely renowned, he also has been criticized for creating images too beautiful given his focus on the struggles of the world’s most destitute people. (Salgado shrugs off these comments, saying people are welcome to their opinions; he only cares about presenting people who don’t live in the Northern hemisphere with the dignity they deserve.) Staring at his work I think, what’s a little seductive beauty if it gets us to stop and look and think about the suffering of others, an ever more challenging objective given the surfeit of images vying for our attention. And in my eyes, his subjects aren’t patronized, they are humanized to help us see a truth we would otherwise avert our eyes from, something the best artists and writers, even the rare visionary political leader or community activist can do. It is what I came to New York to do, in my own far humbler way, New York, where anything is possible, or so we are told.
I was with my friend S, also a photographer and artist, and like me, a bit of a policy wonk. We were long-time traveling companions as well, curious like most travelers are about other cultures, landscapes and food, but also keen on understanding socioeconomic and environmental issues. When we traveled, S wanted to view every environmental disaster – she had a particularly interested in sewage treatment plants – and we both loved exploring cemeteries, public transit and housing projects. We had traveled together to Eastern Europe and South America and Mexico, and twice been to Brazil, staying in hostels and budget hotels and a homeless shelter in Rio, where the transient men who made up most of its residents were provided small clean rooms with a sink (men can pee into sinks far easier than women, so we learned) with toilets and showers with hot water down the hall. I had also stayed on my own in a homeless shelter for women in Bologna, Italy funded by that city’s communist government and supervised by that country’s surfeit of strict but kindly nuns. (The fact that Popes have Socialist leanings always made sense to me.)
How do people live and how are those in need provided help? We asked these questions everywhere we went and so Salgado, with his much wider range and sharper lens, was an inspiration, not exploiting but exploring the challenges people face around the globe
I remember that afternoon well – a hot humid August day like today, and how good it felt to enter the pristine and peaceful air-conditioned gallery. How privileged we are, I remember thinking, to be in this exquisite cultural space in the city; and in a more general sense, to be in a country removed from the strife of the rest of the world, where guns and bombs and soldiers ravaged homes and lives.
That was August 2001 and one month later, on a sunny Tuesday morning on September 11th we joined that world in the worst way.
I watched from a doctor’s waiting room overlooking the East River, with a front row seat as the 2nd bomb struck. “This is life, you have to look,” I remember a nurse telling me as I tried to turn away. We stood transfixed, not quite sure what was happening, who was responsible, why buildings were crumbling before our eyes and the sky was so thick when just an hour before it had been so bright.
The receptionist came out and told us that the doctors couldn’t see us because they had to wait in case helicopters landed on the roof with survivors from the towers. And as we tried to call our loved ones on cells and public phones with no service, walking down the stairs in a state of confusion and fear, the doctors and nurses waited for survivors who never arrived because they didn’t exist.
We left the building, joining thousands of people pouring over the bridge, covered in thick white soot. I tried to pull my shirt over my mouth and nose because the air was so dense it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t yet absorb what had happened even as reality literally was crammed down my throat.
As if in a dream, I did what I always did after I went to doctors in that neighborhood: I walked down Atlantic Avenue – although now in the street rather than the sidewalk, as the entire avenue was filled with thousands of ashen pedestrians – and went to Sahadi’s, the Middle Eastern food emporium. Since moving to Brooklyn, I planned my appointments around that trip. M the babysitter would come at 9, I’d take the subway to the doctor, and after my appointment I’d walk to Sahadi. If I was lucky and didn’t have a long wait, I could shop just as the prepared food was put out at around 11 am, before the lunchtime crowd. A vegetarian’s paradise, I’d get olives and feta and almonds and Israeli couscous, and then head to the back for the baba ganoush, the stuffed grape leaves, the fried cauliflower and the first scoops out of a pan of mujadera (rice and lentils), covered in a thick layer of carmelized onions.
I’d grab some pita and jam, maybe chocolate or licorice while waiting in one of the long lines and then go get the bus If it was an especially efficient morning I’d board under the 2 hour time limit that gave me a free bus transfer from my subway ride. and I’d get home and eat a few bites before paying M for her time with the boys, then wait until their naptime before having a full feast.
But on that Tuesday the store was eerily empty, the staff in a corner, glued to a small television set on the wall when I walked inside.
“Are you open?” “Yes, yes,” they looked at me in shock. A customer! What was a customer doing in the store?! The whole world was upside down and they seemed both stunned and relieved at the normalcy of waiting on someone, in a way I couldn’t quite grasp yet, appreciative of my respectful presence. The place was always packed, and I had learned that a big smile as well as a loud voice were helpful in getting one’s order filled without other customers pushing ahead. In a daze they filled my containers and smiled, polite yet impatient for me to leave, to return to watch the world falling apart up on the TV screen, listening to those first panicked attempts at explanations. Life changed that day for all of us but for them, as Middle Eastern men, in ways I couldn’t yet imagine. Although many of the businesses on Atlantic Avenue were owned by Lebanese Christians, and all of them by people with no affiliation with anything that occurred, it didn’t matter to those needing someone to blame or mistrust.
I’ve thought of that strange and extraordinary moment in Sahadi’s many times, especially this year, with Trump repeating a story about the crowd of Muslims in New Jersey who watched and cheered at a TV screen showing the bombing of the towers. (among his more heinous ‘liar liar pants on fire’ fabrications) Unlike him I witnessed the truth. There were no cheers, there were no celebrations. There was utter silence, and horror, and fear at what had happened and what was to come. What a horrible day to be an American. What an even worse day to be an American Muslim, or perceived as one.
Salgado’s beautiful images had been packed off and sent to their next stop, somewhere else where people thought they were safe and removed from the world’s problems. We stayed in New York, where “anything was possible” took on a new meaning. And in a moment we went from “I never could imagine” to facing the unimaginable.
- A Brief Lesson in Yiddish and the World Getting Small
Some less globally significant things I never could imagine coming to an end when I was in my 20’s and 30’s:
-Being a fast walker
-No-maintenance lifestyle: no daily sunscreen, no moisturizers, no medications or supplements, no foods to be avoided, no caution.
– Free time for writing and other creative pursuits.
– Frequent visits to fabulous cultural events/exhibits/performances (that still didn’t stop my FOMO [fear of missing out] before there was a name for it.)
– Regular travel on a shoestring budget to countries around the world.
When I was pregnant with B, a friend with a 2 year and an Egyptian husband advised me to travel before my then unborn child could crawl. Trust me, she said, it’s much easier. I took her advice and when he was 6 months old we found a really cheap fare to Paris (babies on laps were still free back then) and a cheap pension and spent a lovely week abroad. It was good advice, as we easily explored the city with B in a stroller, contentedly smiling at strangers. I remember him spending hours at the Musee d’Orsay (a spectacular museum in a former Beaux-Arts railway station) entranced by a new pair of red booties on his little feet.
I learned the flip side of her advice the following year when we went to Rome, my friend E who lived there generously giving up her beautiful loft in Trastevere for us. By then B was on the move, and we had to block the staircase so that he did not fall on his way up or down the loft’s steep steps. He also was old enough to get bored and frustrated from his backpack perch, although he could not yet voice that age-old question, “How much longer?” while we looked at Caravaggio’s in churches, although he loved drinking steamed milk at little coffee bars after each culture fix.
By the next year he was a big brother and it seemed too costly and hard to schlep both of them, but the soon when we would once again explore the world never happened when that younger brother regressed and his autism made traveling more of a challenge than I could have imagined. Actually, V is a good explorer once he gets somewhere – he lacks the neurotypical child’s propensity for boredom as well as the resistance to unfamiliar routines many kids on the spectrum possess. But getting from point A to B with many hours of constrained movement and sensory overload and ignorant travel staff left me literally pummeled…
like the time he climbed on the overhead luggage rack of a train and the conductor and horrified passengers insisted I climb up after him, a feat resulting in a slipped disc, or the time he fell apart while waiting for a delayed plane in the Seattle airport, surrounded by hundreds of complaining customers and bright lights and loud announcements. When I politely asked to board early because I had a son with a disability, the airline staff stared at V flailing on the ground and said, “He doesn’t look disabled to me,” as other passengers glared at my apparent attempt to get over on them.
I share these examples not to kvetch (complain) but because they show how ignorance creates struggles that could be avoided, and how a little empathy could have easily smoothed the way. But I can’t change human nature, nor the other factors that made travel more and more out reach: increased post-9/11 security, increased fares or unaffordable alternative arrangements for V. B has been to Vancouver with his dad, but has yet to see another country he can remember (and doesn’t want to hear about the trips he can’t recall.) V may never cross an ocean.
And all I have are photos, great stories, and dreams that someday in our dotage S and I will take off again, bound for some gorgeous exotic locale. “Let’s go check out the new sewage treatment plant!” she’ll exclaim before we’ve even unpacked. “Okay, but then we have to see the free health clinic and the graffiti on those abandoned buildings down the street!” I’ll have a cane and a hearing aid, we’ll both have vials full of supplements, but slower and with more bathroom stops, we’ll again explore the world.
But an opportunity for travel arrives unexpectedly with kale salad and avocado toast at an outdoor café where I meet my cousin M ( really cousin-in-law, married to my cousin S, but after so many years, we’re all just mishpachah, family) to discuss the book she has decided to write about a fascinating true story of her cousin who was a cabaret performer in the vibrant cultural life of Vilna before the war, and the equally captivating account of how M came to possess an extraordinary collection of photos of her since perished ancestor.
Travel for her is second nature, a fairly continual part of life for years, even when her four kids were young, and especially since her time as an ambassador, regularly taking off for trips throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. We have much in common in terms of intellect, interests, curiosity, but in terms of our life circumstances, the disparity is wide.
Which brings me to a less known Yidddish word, Farginen, [Firgun in Hebrew, a popular word in modern Israel] meaning “to share in someone else’s happiness”, or “not to begrudge”, similar to the Pali and Sanskrit word mudita, the Buddhist concept of delighting in others’ well-being. While rachmones or empathy comes naturally to me, farginen requires constant cultivation, like a plant surrounded by weeds. It’s not that I don’t wish others well, it’s the yearning for what I lack or miss that so often accompanies it, the aching underbelly of surface envy.
Envy gets a bad rap, and with reason. Of the seven so-called sins, it’s the only one without reward. Sloth brings sleep; gluttony fills your stomach and greed your home and driveway with all sorts of excesses. But Envy? bupkis [nothing] No whipped cream, no comfy bed, no jewelry, just coveting what you don’t have.
According to the Talmud, all people feel envy for others, except their children and students, and even they are not always off the hook. And yet it is an emotion most of us feel ashamed of. So unseemly, so lacking in grace or generosity of spirit.
Unlike English, most languages have two words for envy: one for the more malicious kind, the other based more in admiration. I’d say there is a 3rd kind, rooted in longing. When treated with rachmones, it tends to dissipate and you can celebrate for others while accepting that you still might want what they have. Maybe someday you will get it, you never know…
So when M suggests that I could go with her to Vilna and it turns out she is leaving on the very day V goes to Elks Camp, the one week I have free all summer, its bashert (fate). I’m in.
3. A Broad Abroad, Finally
The upside of doing without something you desire is that when you finally get that opportunity you appreciate it on a whole other level. I’m happy for every minute of it. The long security lines, the hours in airports, the jet lag, the constipation I always get when traveling, the aching feet every night from days of walking. It’s all a gift.
Our first day arriving I know M and I are good as travel companions when we go to a supermarket to pick up a few things and end up spending nearly an hour: looking at jams and chocolate to bring back, examining the various kinds of yogurt and cheese, observing our fellow shoppers in regular daily life, buying berries from the old women set up outside the supermarket with items lugged in from nearby small farms.
Welcome to Vilna, one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe, where many of Europe’s great architectural styles stand side by side.
Welcome to Vilna, with mild pleasant days perfect for sightseeing historic churches, museums and courtyards.
Welcome to Vilna, with lovely street cafes and delicious food, especially if you like beets.
Welcome to Vilna, where history comes alive. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the 94% of Lithuanian Jews massacred over the three year German occupation during the Holocaust.
It’s a perfect welcome back to the world location, modern, old world, struggling, affluent, renovated, run- down, it changes with each face and building and block. Women with babushkas shuffling in their socks and cheap sandals, schlepping their shopping carts down the cobblestone streets, the Aryan tourists and hippie backpackers and residents not on holiday who fill the restaurants and shops that M says are new since her last visit 7 or 8 years ago. After decades of shifting Polish and Russian rule, now part of the EU, with only Euros used for purchases. Everyone over the age of 12 with the slightest musical talent seems to be out on the street playing instruments or singing for change. The streets so narrow and the buildings so stunning, especially at dusk. It’s easy to imagine being back in another time.
And then there’s the unspoken constant awareness of this [the Old City] being the former Jewish ghetto, with its crowded and vile conditions, this being the place where 94% of the Jewish population – by far the largest percentage of any country in Europe – was killed, that the memorialization of these atrocities is so minimal given its enormity. Called the Jerusalem of Lithuania, half of the city was Jewish, there were 9 synagogues and nearly 100 yeshivas and now what? A plaque on a wall, a few signs, a small Jewish museum in an out-of-the-way location. I ask at a bookstore where the books on Jewish Vilna are and the young saleswoman stares at me blankly. Jews? Here?
We spend much of the week with R, the archivist M has been working with to conduct research on her family. A Russian Jew who has traveled widely yet is so of this place, she’s a cosmopolitan speaker of many languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, Lithuanian, French, going back and forth between them without pause. She is a brilliant woman, extremely conscientious and competent and always in action, running from one stop to the next and admonishing us to do the same. Hurry! Hurry! I hear all week long. She knows the best place to get chocolate, linen, a vegetarian lunch, can convince a storekeeper to stay open just a few minutes past closing please, so we can buy something, waltzes into an exclusive hotel to direct me to the bathroom hidden behind a foyer. She has chutzpah, a stubborn streak, and a face that lights up when she smiles.
In one moment she raves about how much Vilna has improved, most notably in the lively street scene before us. “Look! We are like Paris! Children eating ice cream, couples sipping coffee, everyone so happy!”
In the next breath, “You want to go to Ponari? I can take you there, you should see it!” speaking of the forests outside the city where nearly 70,000 Jews were shot and buried in mass graves.
She did not let one reality get in the way of the other, they all co-existed, like the people who live here. We spend hours in archives and libraries as she helps M unravel the mysteries of her family. She’s a wonderful detective, diligent, focused. She sends me to take photos of everything, where I wait for others to finish at 3 designated official spots for photographing documents. The place is bustling, with people younger than I would have expected. What is everyone doing? Finding their past, uncovering secrets, learning from history.
The photos M has – the story of how she came to have them is a major part of this very fascinating story – are so beautiful and mesmerizing. R treats them, and all the other documents, and photos we discover with respect for the lives they represent: these are real people, beloved by those they left behind.
Outside of the archives, she introduces us to people who can add to the story, bringing different aspects to life. Professors and scholars, a historian and survivor, each adds a unique perspective.
Her long-time friend D, who is dark in every way: his long hair and beard, his clothes, his humor. A former professor who has lost his post due to political reasons, he tells us, we meet him in a modern coffee house which he informs us was once a place where artists and performers gathered before the war.
D: (speaking to M and me): You should meet our old friend N.
R shakes her head vigorously and in hushed tone: “No, he won’t see visitors. He is very depressed.”
D: Aren’t we all? Those of us not able to do our life’s work?
I recognize the sadness that underlies his peculiarities, the kindred spirit beneath all that hair and heavy garb. Surrounded by hipsters smoking cigarettes, and glued to their smart phones, he might as well be in another century. And yet, he’s completely in the modern world, with a well-maintained website with thousands of followers involved in lively discourse about all things Yiddish, Jewish, political.
The next day we meet F, who lives in one of the apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city. We passed similar groupings of buildings on our way in from the airport :drab, post-war Russian utilitarian. It’s a depressing façade, and a 3rd floor-walk-up, but once inside we find a well-maintained apartment surrounded by trees and open space, like Stuyvesant town where my grandparents [Hockenberg ancestors] lived, just without the elevator. M & R help with my bags (we’ve just come from a farmers market, bringing some fruit and flowers as a gift) because of my bad back, and here is this spry 94-year-old woman who goes up and down the stairs every day, leading tours and meeting with groups of young people to share her experiences, including the Vilna Ghetto, which she survived, unlike most of her family and neighbors.
She’s positively luminous, sharp-minded, and energetic. The apartment is filled with family photos of children and grandchildren and her husband, who died 30 years earlier, and items from her travels including a collection of shoes. It’s tidy and pleasant, a comfortable home, like my grandparent’s apartment. And like my grandmother she spent many years on her own, far outliving her husband. They both share a feistiness and matter of fact manner that likely contributes to their longevity.
We eat some mixture of beets, grains, and fruit that R has brought, and I think if I could live that long, could have lived through what she has, would I go up and down 3 flights of stairs most days to lead tours, would I have such an easy smile and no apparent bitterness? Could I tell those stories again and again?
We watch a rain squall from the living room balcony. Rain, she notes. Not good or bad. Just rain. It’s a good way to live, and when we leave I no longer feel sorry for the people in all these hulking old buildings. Inside are lives I could never have imagined.
On the one day I leave the city it is to travel up to a tiny river town called Vilki, where my family once lived, the Hockenbergs of Lithuania (Gockenberg in Cyrillic, as both R and my father point out, no “H” in Cyrillic. We wander through the town, many houses looking no different from how they must have hundreds of years ago, while others have more recent renovations, occupied by a small group of artists who have discovered and inhabited this town. They’ve even created a sculpture garden in a park by the river, and as I sit and pose by a Jewish star, a single memorial to the many Jews who once lived here, a large bus full of German tourists pulls up and gets out to explore.
R takes me to the cemetery just outside of town, where we traipse through the forest and overrun path to discover several dozen tombstones in perfect condition. Engraved in Yiddish, they mark lives once lived, now truly resting in peace in the lush serenity of this hidden spot.
I get back in the van beside M, our lovely driver for most of the trip. I smile at him, say achiu [thank you], the word I speak over and over, showing my appreciation for his safe and careful driving, his pleasant demeanor, the way I feel comfortable sitting beside him even though we rarely talk. R tells me his wife drives a lot too, taking his son the long distance to and from school. He is 18 and has cerebral palsy. We both have teenagers with special needs. Another kindred spirit. They are everywhere.
4. On How We Remember
During our conversation D brings up a controversial convention center planned to be built in Vilna, on top of the Jewish dead. There is concern on his website, but it isn’t city-wide outrage like we had in New York with the African American burial ground, which was discovered to exist on a downtown site where development was planned. But New York is home to 2 million black people – more than 25% of the population. The protests were spearheaded by black city leadership, and their ideas for a memorial had multi-racial, city-wide support. Vilna lacks the Jewish population or leadership to take the lead on protesting the center, and to date the city’s elected officials and residents have not taken the cause to heart. There are artist collectives, good political graffiti, young people who seem engaged politically. Where are the activists or visionaries to take this on?
Recently the first Slave Museum opened in the United States. Called The Whitney, it’s just outside of New Orleans. Its founder and director, an eccentric white Southerner who earned billions as a litigator of class-action suits, forged a partnership with a Senegalese historian and Fulbright scholar who supervised the research. The South is filled with former plantations that have been turned into popular sites for weddings, family reunions, and sorority parties, but there is never mention of the slaves who built the grand buildings, maintained the grounds, beaten and raped and enslaved for generations.
The Whitney contains a number of commissioned art works, including a series of angled granite walls with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The last thing a visitor sees when leaving is a sculpture of 60 beheaded slaves. To those who protest that the images are too disturbing, the director defends their presence. This is what happened, it needs to be seen.
Perhaps one day the Jews of Vilna also will be memorialized in a manner that befits them.
5. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
– Mark Twain
Our visit takes place during the Republican National convention, a kind of hate-fest fueled by ignorance and resentment, scapegoating, and uncontained anger. We watch in snippets on youtube followed up with late night satire, humor being the only salve possible for the nomination by a major party of a man regularly called a demagogue, compared to Hitler or Mussolini. Watching it in Vilna, the horror is magnified, knowing the events that occurred right outside our window. Like his predecessors, Trump is not just inflaming hate but making a space where people feel comfortable expressing the hatred they’ve felt all along. Enough of this PC bullshit, let it rip. Those lazy Latinos, those Mexican rapists, and terrorist Muslims and Black thugs and doesn’t everyone hate Jews?
He will likely lose and go away but his followers and their hatred and ignorance will fester and grow, looking for other scapegoats. It is far more frightening to listen to hate-mongering in Vilna, where radio programs intensified Anti-Semitism to a fever pitch that created a largely complicit, hostile environment in which half a city was exterminated, and the other half still has not found a way to grieve the loss.
Coda – I stand Corrected
As I finally have time to finish this, I read a New Yorker article about Bryan Stevenson, a remarkable attorney who represents people on death row in Alabama, and is also spearheading a project to research and memorialize every person who was lynched in 12 Southern states. He speaks of executions – far more common in the South – as the legal antecessor to lynching, and mentions the old men of color who tell him how upsetting it was to hear 9/11 described as our country’s first act of domestic terrorism. Lynching was racial terrorism that occurred on American soil, they explain, and the people who endured lynching and bombing and threats had a huge impact on our lives.
Reading that, letting it sink in, I think back on my 9/11 experience through a different lens. To anyone who doesn’t think white privilege is a thing, here you have it. I stand corrected. It’s still a true story, but there’s more truth to add. There always is, if you’re open to it.