One of the things I dearly love about the European Jews that I have met is their zest for life. They have lived through one of the most horrible eras of world history and somehow manage to continually bounce back.
In Poland, when we were given our room assignment at the retreat center, my digs were on the third floor. My suitcase was the size of a young manatee, barely squeaking in under TSA’s 50-pound limit. Yikes! Fortunately, there were a couple gentlemen around who helped this damsel in distress, and I was more than happy to let them do so. As the Holocaust Survivors arrived with more reasonably-sized bags in hand, they didn’t hesitate but headed straight up the stairs. Some had to pause momentarily, but most did not.
In this retreat center, the dining room was at ground level, on the second floor, and the showers were on the first floor. If, during the day, you needed to “go”, you would be hitting the stairs, heading either a flight up or a flight down, as there were no rest rooms on the main floor. There were also no elevators or wheelchair ramps. We all just hoofed it.
Never once did I hear the Holocaust Survivors complain about all the walking we did while on excursions. Certainly, as these folks are anywhere from 75-95 in age, some would tire quicker than others and therefore find a bench in the shade for a few minutes. While resting, they were quite likely to burst into song. They sang folk songs from their youth, and when I say they sang, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they belted them out. I could tell if the song was happy or wistful or a vigorous call to action by observing the cadence of their voices and the expressions on their faces. Then, just as swiftly as a butterfly flits away to another flower, the verse or chorus would end, and a new conversation would begin, or perhaps they would stand to walk further on. The moment was over as quickly as it had begun. More than once I was moved to tears by these impromptu concerts. Their tunes drew me in, and for that instant, I felt their pain, their joy, their determination. It was real and raw, and I felt honored to be given a brief glimpse into their hearts.
One of the most fun things we did during our time together was a Camp Olympics. The Holocaust Survivors were divided into two teams to compete in a variety of athletic events, like kicking soccer goals, shooting basketballs, and the all-time favorite, using a giant slingshot to hurl water balloons at their trip leader. These people are some kind of competitive! They cheered their team on with enthusiasm, as former athletes and former spectators gave it their all. You didn’t have to speak the language to tell that there was a constant flow of good-natured trash talk with the other team. Just like with 12-year-olds from around the globe, there were heated discussions about whether or not the kick was “in-bounds” or if someone participated out of turn. Not one person entered the contest with the slightest intention of losing. At the end of the activity, however, the staunchest of rivals walked away arm-in-arm, laughing and recounting moments of failure and glory. Perhaps with an elbow to the ribs and a semi-jesting, “Just wait till next time!”
Without question, my favorite trait of the Holocaust Survivors I have met can best be visualized by the HaagenDazs Gelato commercial, entitled ‘Arguments’. You know, the one where the Italian couple bickers, then reconciles over a tasty dessert. In much the same way, my European-Israeli friends will give each other what-for, holding nothing back. They conclude with an emphatic hand gesture that seems to signify, “And THAT’s the way it is!”, then they walk away. When next they meet, they are fast friends again, as if the previous conversation never took place. In a similar situation, most Americans I know would hold a grudge for years. Decades-long family feuds have developed over far less. For them, however, when it’s over, it’s over.
My personal introduction to this behavior was about fifteen minutes after meeting the Holocaust Survivors for the very first time. There was an incident with towels, to which I responded quickly but ineffectively. One lady, who I called Sassy Pants until I learned her name, was completely unimpressed with my inability to resolve this issue. I was severely reprimanded in Russian. The words were unintelligible to me, but her message was crystal clear. I was crushed. I walked away stunned. Here I was, minutes into living out a lifelong dream, and I had already alienated the very people I had come so far to meet. I honestly wanted to cry. The next morning at breakfast, however, she met me with hugs and kisses and a silver bracelet, which she insisted I put on immediately. The bracelet was too large, so she said (via translator), “You eat more. It will fit.” And just like that, we were friends.
I have come to love these Holocaust Survivors so much. They captured my heart right away and have refused to let go. While I am still reluctant to name them by one event in their history, they are indeed Survivors in every sense of the word. Their passion is contagious. They are affectionate and brutally honest. They are loud and loving. They are strong-willed and optimistic. They are considerate and tenacious and inspiring. They welcomed this awkard country girl with open arms, and gave me the best gift of all – their friendship.
Lemon zest photo from http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/45079/best-lemon-zest