“Je suis enchante de faire votre connaissance.”
His head popped up, his body jerked to face me across the aisle. His beady black eyes bored into mine. He nudged his sleeping wife, “She speaks French.” He turned back to me and let loose more rapide French than I’d ever heard.
“Oh, Monsieur, lentement, sil vous plait. Slowly, please. I speak French only a little. Un peu.”
He stared, then turned back, grimacing, sinking into his seat, “Oh,” then mumbled something not very nice in French.
I was sad. I had wanted to make this strange French couple a part of our group—she was so blowzy—lots of makeup, low-cut dresses; theatrical with wide gestures, garrulous.
“An electrical storm,” she said to me the night it thundered and lightning cut through the sky.
“Lightning,” I said. “It’s called lightning.”
My older sister Mary had said, “Be quiet. She can’t understand you.”
Now Mary jabbed my arm and said, “Why’d you do that? You can’t speak French. I can speak it better than you. Look, now you’ve made him mad.”
I didn’t think he was mad. He was sad, like me. There was no one but his wife he could talk to on this whole bus. He was lonely. An outsider.
The trip was a round-trip Greyhound charter to Los Angeles in the summer of 1961. Many of the people on the bus had boarded on the East Coast. Mary and I got on in St. Paul. Mary had just graduated from Central Catholic in Marshall, our small hometown in southwestern Minnesota. She intended to enter the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul in September. This trip was my parents’ graduation gift and send-off for her. My parents had also announced our family’s move the coming summer to St. Paul; my father wanted to be closer to his business partner in the Cities. Because Mary didn’t want to go alone, and I was going to have to say goodbye to my school and friends, I got to accompany her. Mom and Dad signed us up with a Greyhound agent who offered an itinerary and a promise to be responsible for us.
I was happy to go. Sophomore year had finished with a number of firsts: the first time I got a C in any class and was assigned detention; the first time I was recognized as an actress (I had played the mother in “Don’t Take My Penny,” the ingénue in “The Mystery of the Masked Girl,” and a young girl in the operetta, “The Mikado”); the first time I had to admit I might need to change—become more flirty, possibly with kids from Marshall High, in order to get a boyfriend. I didn’t know anybody but Central Catholic kids. When my parents announced the move to St. Paul, I remember thinking maybe it was time since I didn’t know anyone from the public school.
On our trip, we stayed in some quaint, quiet towns in Iowa and Nebraska. We found the Colorado and Utah mountains and swimming in the you can’t sink! Salt Lake astonishing. We started a snowball fight on top of Flagstaff and rode the first mules down into the Grand Canyon. In California, we bought souvenirs in San Francisco’s Chinatown and at Fisherman’s Wharf, at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. We loved it all: hilly climbs, ocean breezes, desert sands.
Mary and I mostly got along okay, but at every new hotel, she’d immediately go to the check-in counter and inspect the cardboard box of free pamphlets. She’d then embarrass me by asking the person behind the desk if the time for the Catholic service the next morning was the same as she had found in the material. Mary was very tall and usually towered over the clerks. Bending down, she’d touch her glasses, then point to the pamphlet. “It’s still 8:00? Good. We can go before the bus leaves at 9:00. Could you give us directions to the church please?”
We fought over attending. “Mary,” I’d say, “I’m not going. I’m not entering the convent.”
She’d beg, “Please come with me.”
“No. This is daily Mass, not even Sunday. No. I’m not going.”
“You have to.”
“I do not.”
Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t.
During the trip—with a whole lot of time on the bus—I read. Constantly. It was the summer of Leon Uris’s book, Exodus. Everyone was reading it. Well, everybody under 40. Those of us with the blue book nodded at each other. A wonderful, dreadful book, I could not put it down.
I was Kitty Fremont, madly in love with Ari Ben Canaan from Palestine. I was Dov Landau, 17, angry and bitter, able to remember only barbed wire, guns, soldiers. I was Karen Hansen Clement, 16, who fell in love with Dov on the Star of David boat. I was Jordana Ben Canaan, Ari’s fiery younger sister, a “sabra” and David Ben Ami, her lover, a young, passionate soldier of the Army. Involved with Operation Gideon against the British, I sailed on the Exodus ship. I was helping to build Israel, the bridge between darkness and light.
I had discovered the Holocaust. After Exodus, I read Anne Frank’s diary. I became Anne, too: kind, generous, funny, jealous, petty, a young teenager like myself. I couldn’t believe she could love and hope and believe in a better world. And then Eli Wiesel’s Night struck me as powerfully as Exodus and The Diary of a Young Girl. I will always remember learning from these three seminal Holocaust books of horrendous evil operating in our world. I will always remember my sister and my western trip with that knowledge darkening my spirit.
Because I was living these heavy books, in real life I wanted goodness and kindness around me. I took care of the French couple. I smiled at Camille and Pierre, spoke poor French, gestured, spoke baby English, smiled. Pierre eventually came around. Whenever we got off the bus, he’d follow me, pointing, clapping, his short, round body bobbing, his heavy black moustache pulled into a grin.
When Mary and I returned home, our family moved. Mary entered the convent, and I spent two years at a large Catholic all-girls’ school and then after graduation joined Mary—feeling called by God—to live a communal life with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. After five years, answering other calls, I left to marry and have children, to teach and write.
Over time I fled religion. As a young woman, one of my first major disappointments with the Church was realizing the extent of the disregard of Pope Pius XII to the pleas of European Jews. My country had turned a deaf ear as well. I blamed my parents, too, demanding to know why they hadn’t voiced their objections.
“To refuse Jews into our country: horrific. To have remained silent: outrageous,” I said.
“You’re right, but at the time we just didn’t know much,” my dad said.
“Well, that’s a fault, too,” I shot back.
I was shocked by institutions I had believed in. I brooded over the lack of action of the Catholic Church. How could a spiritual, moral entity choose not to help millions of innocent, suffering people? How could it not witness their deaths?
In subsequent years, I would take opportunities to visit museums and concentration camps. I felt the need to witness. In the summer months after my first year of teaching in 1968-1969, I traveled with my friend Marsha, another teacher, in Europe. We lived on $5 a day and rode our Eurail Pass through 14 different countries. We traveled from Munich to the concentration camp at Dachau on a raucous commuter train, flirting with a New York Jew and a handsome Israeli. We made plans to go “hofbrahausing” with them when we came back that night, but after witnessing Dachau, we all returned to Munich on an absolutely silent train. Debarking, our new friends told us they were immediately leaving Germany.
Much later in life, studying in Prague on a writing fellowship, I signed up for a Jewish Museum tour of Terezin, the show internment camp the Nazis designed. They used it as an example for the Red Cross of the humane treatment the Jews were receiving in the care of Hitler. The Museum of Terezin showed photographs and artifacts of the children of Terezin: eating healthy foods, putting on shows, playing instruments in an orchestra, painting, and writing poetry. That all happened for visiting officials. After they departed, the children once again starved, suffered, stopped living. A horrific Potemkin village.
When my husband and I traveled to Poland, we visited the Warsaw Jewish Museum of the Ghetto Uprising. I took a bus out of the city by myself to see Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi’s death camps. My husband refused to go. “I just can’t,” he said. Huge gas chambers. Efficient killing machines, each gas chamber murdering over 6,000 people a day. In a visceral way, I lived Wiesel’s Night all over again.
For years my husband and I have been traveling with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The aim of the Library is the photographic preservation of ancient manuscripts. In recent years, HMML has focused on countries with a danger of unrest and instability, hoping to complete work before access to the manuscripts is denied or before they are destroyed by upheaval. In that capacity, we have gone to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Romania, and Ukraine.
We traveled to Romania with the group seven years ago. As part of the trip, we viewed magnificent churches with external mural paintings built from the late 15th and 16th centuries. These well-preserved churches, unique in Europe, are situated among forests of exquisite beauty. As we drove our van through the Carpathians along pothole-pocked roads, we encountered an ancient civilization: shepherds, horses and carts, bicycles, folks turning hay, storks flying in fields and roosting on top of old, sagging telephone poles in picturesque villages.
At one point we traveled close to Elie Wiesel’s childhood home. I asked the group if we could visit the village where 12-year-old Elie spent time on the Talmud and Jewish mysticism. (And small world: at this time, my son was working with Eli’s son on Wall Street in New York.) Because of time limitations, we didn’t go to Wiesel’s Sighet. And we chose not to take time to see Dracula’s Castle either. (Dracula’s based on a real person, Prince Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania.)
Because of my mom’s death just months before this trip, because of vampires and Dracula, and because I couldn’t get Wiesel out of my mind, fearsome thoughts waylaid me as we traveled through the bucolic countryside, through a profusion of wild flowers. We pilgrimaged to monasteries, where the devoutness of the faithful was exemplified: kissing the cross in processions, prostrating in front of altars, covering heads in prayer. Again, I condemned: hadn’t these holy people or their parents committed terrible acts of violence, persecution, and anti-Semitism? I wanted no part of their piety and duplicity. By this time in my life, though once a nun, I was fast becoming a none—belonging to no established church. I didn’t feel the need for faith.
On that same trip we visited Ukraine. Because my son-in-law’s great-grandparents all died in Ukraine—he doesn’t know exactly where—and I knew of Babi Yar, I wished to go there to pay my respects.
The Kiev guidebook told us to get off at the last subway stop for Babi Yar. We walked out of that station into a large park. It was a gray, misty, cold day. We opened our umbrellas and walked several directions, past many babushka grandmothers pushing babies in old perambulators, but we couldn’t find the ravine that is Babi Yar. We eventually asked a man for directions. Silently, he led us there. We stared into this huge ravine, this “Valley of Death,” where in the course of two days, the Nazis murdered almost 34,000 Jewish civilians, the largest single massacre of the Holocaust. In the months that followed, thousands more were seized and taken to Babi Yar, where they were shot. It is estimated that the Nazis executed more than 100,000 there.
Its most impressive memorial, a symbolic one, is Yevgeny Yeytushenko’s poem, “Babi Yar,” published the very year of my Exodus trip. Written to expose the inhumanity of Babi Yar and the subsequent injustice of the government’s refusal to raise a monument to the thousands of Jews executed, it produced a tremendous effect in Russia. Dmitri Shostakovich used the poem in his 13th Symphony, a powerful piece of music that caused a sensation when it premiered in 1962. A year later, in 1963, I’d play Shostakovich’s “Three Fantastic Dances,” composed when he was 16, for my senior high school recital at Our Lady of Peace.
Visiting Babi Yar shocked me. I stared down into the ravine, silently mouthing words from Yeytushenko’s poem.
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
each old man
here shot dead.
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
Suddenly my hair stood on end! There was a dead man—a present-day dead man—lying at the bottom. Crumpled, head over chest, wearing something like a tattered lumberman jacket and worn boots, he looked like a large puppet. My husband ran down the side of the ravine, stared, and then ran up the other side, calling out, “We have to notify the authorities.” By this time in my life, I was fast becoming a none—belonging to no established church, but surprising myself, I blurted out, “Let’s pray.” And somehow it just happened. The Director of the Library, a monk, led us: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. Spontaneously, I sank into these old prayers—forgive us our trespasses; deliver us from evil; pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Standing on the rim, aware of the dim rain dribbling into the deep, muddy chasm, I prayed, not caring who I was praying to but knowing who I prayed for: this man who has joined thousands and thousands of others; my son-in-law’s ancestors; my dad and my mom and all those who have died, crossing over from darkness into light.