Our household was a heavy one. I always felt the presence of sadness and loss; those emotions were part of everything that took place in our family, including birthdays and personal achievements. I knew where the sadness and sense of loss came from, to an extent, from stories that Aba (my father Yehoshua) told — and from his writings.
Growing up, I did not want to touch those places where the sadness and loss came from. Ouri, my oldest brother, calls these hard to touch places hamekomot harotetim, “the trembling places” inside of us.
As I matured, I came to believe that, if I got courageous and got close to these trembling places, I might be able to help myself and those I love to heal from that sadness and sense of loss. And maybe eventually this package of sadness and loss would not be so overwhelming and heavily present in my life.
A Murdered Family Made More Real
A wall at the entry to the Belzec extermination camp in Poland reads: “This is the site of the murder of about 500,000 victims of the Belzec death camp established for the purpose of killing the Jews of Europe, whose live where brutally taken between February and December 1942 by Nazi Germany. ‘Earth do not cover my blood; / let there be no resting / place for my outcry!’ Job 16:18’.” (photo: Iris Tzafrir)
Last year, my siblings and I traveled for the first time with Aba to Poland and Germany to visit places of significance in Aba’s life before and during the Shoah. Belzec is an extermination camp located in Lublin county in eastern Poland, where we believe Aba’s parents and four younger siblings were murdered during the spring of 1941.
We prepared to conduct a memorial ceremony with kipot (head coverings), memory candles, and poetry written by Aba. My brother Assaf opened the ceremony, saying that we were gathered there in memory of our grandfather Tuvia, our grandmother Miriam, and our uncles and aunts Schiendel, Israel, Tzvi, Sara-Eitah, Roza, and Yehudit.
We then read Aba’s poem, “In the Illumination of Lightning”:
In the illumination of lightning
I saw a frightened boy in an open field
Distancing himself from a well-branched aspen that is being severed at once.
Gashes of a downpour are beating on his back
And the tears of his face mix with the water columns.
As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.
It was hard reading Aba’s poems to completion without choking and spilling into tears. Working our way through the ceremony was about courage. I felt courageous standing and reading Aba’s poems in Belzec, memorializing with purpose our murdered family members whom we had never met.
The ceremony made our murdered family more real than before because I now had a place to associate with the sense of sadness and loss absorbed from Aba over the years. I knew that it made Aba feel good to see us being courageous. It was an attribute that was held in high esteem in our family: you don’t run away when a situation is hard; you stay and grind through it, if necessary, because something beneficial, albeit hidden, might come out of such situation.
A Journey to Renewal and Healing
Iris Tzafrir, her father Yehoshua (seated in wheelchair), and her siblings Ouri, Ora, and Assaf stand at the entrance to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. (photo: Iris Tzafrir)
We concluded our 10-day trip on the grounds of Block 66 in Buchenwald, Germany, where Aba arrived after a death march that started in Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). Aba described his liberation moments on April 11th, 1945: an American tank went through the main gate of Buchenwald, and from the top of the tank a black soldier came out and said: “You are free.”
Standing on the grounds of Block 66, Ouri pushed Aba for details, reaching to touch a trembling place, trying to frame the enormity of the moment.
“How did you see the black soldier? How did you hear him say ‘You are free?’”
Aba answered crying, “You hear these words everywhere; after all the atrocities we went through, these words come from the heavens.”
Between Tishah Be’aav, the day memorializing the destruction of the Temple, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Jewish people read from the book of Isaiah. In chapter 54, verses 7-9, God promises:
“For a brief moment I forsake you, but I will gather you with great compassion; in an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says God, your Redeemer; this is like the waters of Noah to me; I swore that the waters of Noah would never again submerge the earth; similarly, I swore that I would not be angry with you and would not rebuke you.”
—from The Living Torah, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
When I listen to Aba recalling himself as a small boy holding on to his mother’s hand when they walked together to the Thursday market in Dombrova, near Krakow, I ask, “How could You leave us, even for a moment? In the one brief moment that the prophet Isaiah talks about, I feel that You have forsaken the boy in the ‘Illumination of Lightning’”:
“As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.”
We read from Isaiah during the transition period from destruction to renewal. The trip we took is part of our family’s attempt to get closer to our trembling places where we feel anger, sadness, and loss of trust. Now that we have visited the trembling places as the real places that they are, we are able to continually use them as sources for reflection in our journey to renewal and healing. We find such renewal and healing by creating anew:
What is good in life is to create.
To create, from what is and from what is not.
To breath life into a clean fresh page,
Line to line, crossing and toasting each other.
Forms coalesce in the real and in the abstract
Leading you in awe among mazes.
Do not fear, Ariadne in a thread of grace
Will bring you into light.
Mix the colors, knead the material,
Slightly swing with your hammer and determinedly remove
Oddments that seize beauty.
Creation is born in pain,
Because you have to start anew.
What is good in creating, is that you never conclude.
—“What is Good in Life” by Yehoshua Tzafrir, translated from Hebrew by Iris Tzafrir