By Desiree Perez
By Desiree Perez
On my way to Israel, I thought that the horrors I had seen in Poland and at the sites of the Holocaust would be left behind me. I was wrong – at least at first.
My roommate for the first part of the mission was a girl from Pittsburgh, who happens to be a practicing Muslim of Iranian decent. Better yet, she shares a last name with a former president of Iran.
That doesn’t look good on paper in Israel – especially when the current leader of Iran is using the words “Israel” and “nuclear bomb” in the same sentence.
Of course, her parents were worried about her coming to Israel. They were afraid she would be detained and subjected to racially and religiously motivated abuses.
We stepped off the airplane and into the vault of Israeli security.
The closer we got to the passport station, the more nervous she got. She’s an American, though she has dual Iranian citizenship, so we thought if anyone in our group would be hauled off by security, it would be our Indian friend who was in America on a student visa.
Twenty minutes later, we had all been through security and regrouped at the baggage claim. Well, almost all of us.
“Hey Desiree, where’s your roommate?” someone asked.
And then it hit us – she wasn’t with us. She never made it past security. It might not seem like a big deal to some, but for the three hours I waited for her to be released from security, I had plenty of time to realize just how big of a deal it actually was.
This American citizen had been detained on the basis of her race and religion.
If she hadn’t have been with a well known pro-Israel organization like the Anti-Defamation League, who knows what could have happened to her.
Most likely, she would have just been deported, but the principle of the situation still remains.
In fact, the principle of the situation brought up the first of many “no-win” issues and catch-22s.
One of the leaders of our trip tried to rationalize my roommate’s detainment as a necessary security measure. I can see why that might be. Still, I don’t feel that’s any different that American airports “randomly” screening every person who even looks like he or she could be of Middle Eastern decent.
And maybe a government can get away with saying it’s a necessary measure, but it’s definitely not right – no matter how you try to justify it.
This frightening and all together jarring experience – at 2 a.m. no less – was my first impression of Israel.
While the editor from India and I paced the halls of the airport in Tel Aviv, the other editors were asleep in their hotel rooms. This lack of sleep didn’t end up doing me any favors.
Add the jet lag, the lack of sleep and the awkward meeting between the already close editors and a new group of student leaders, and you’re asking for a rough couple days. Throw in a trip to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, and you might as well guarantee a nervous breakdown.
That’s exactly what I had.
Not 48 hours after arriving in Israel, I was once again shipped to Poland – this time through art and historical artifacts rather than an airplane. That was the experience of visiting Yad VaShem.
The exhibit is like a museum you can walk through, with the journey of the Jews in the Holocaust on every wall, complete with an audio tour.
The walls of the exhibit are tilted in toward each other, creating a claustrophobic sensation.
The path through the exhibit is intentionally zigzagged.
You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the physical barriers in the main hallway (usually a jarring artifact from the Holocaust, like a cart with which dead bodies were wheeled away) prevent you from going straight through.
Instead, you’re forced to walk through every room that shoots off from the main hallway – each one filled with remnants of that terrible fragment of history.
At the same time, the tour guide is recounting the lives and deaths of the real people who were senselessly murdered – and worse – in the Holocaust.
As I had done at the real camps, I was keeping my cool, using my objective reporter’s attitude.
I thought I was doing fine until our group entered the room with artifacts from Auschwitz and Birkenau.
A photograph of the front gates of Birkenau death camp smiled back at me with a sickening familiarity – which called for me to make a joke, since that’s how I deal with things.
I made an off hand remark about how I had just left Birkenau, and I didn’t want to go back.
While my tone of voice was forcedly light, as soon as I said the words, I knew it was all too true. I really didn’t want to go back to Birkenau. Yet there it was, staring back at me with all its malice, even though I was thousands of miles away.
Apparently, I started to freak out, because the others in the group stopped and stared. They all seemed to ask,”What’s wrong with her?” All I can remember is that I kept saying I didn’t want to go back.
I didn’t want to go back.
One of our group leaders, Josh, took me aside and told me I could leave the room if I couldn’t handle it. I accepted his offer and felt a slight wave of relief, but the nightmare wasn’t done with me yet.
I used my hands as blinders on either side of my face and I looked downward. I wasn’t looking at the ground or at anything in particular.
I was just trying to walk the 10 feet out of the room and to safety.
After the first few hurried steps, the floor beneath my feet felt and sounded different. I looked down and saw human hair in a case. It was the hair of murdered people. I had seen a display like that at Auschwitz.
Then, to avoid the hair, I spun around only to find I was now facing a display of shoes, which had also belonged to Holocaust victims.
I spun again, and this time found myself face to face with the same plaster mold of the gas chambers that had been on display at the concentration camps. And, though I didn’t realize it, I was also getting the horror stories of the concentration camps through my headphones.
For what seemed like an eternity, but must have only been a few seconds, I was trapped in a nightmare of murder and horror.
Spinning, spinning, spinning.
Witnessing my condition, Josh rescued me again. Not only did he walk me out of the room and into the safety of the hallway, he took off my headphones.
I don’t like to cry in front of people. But on that day I didn’t have a choice. I broke down completely.
Everything I felt about the victims, the Nazis and those who did nothing pummeled me with the force of a wave and left me broken in the middle of a museum.
Josh gave me a few minutes to collect myself. Then, after a few more editors had reached their limits, we all ran – literally – to the end of the exhibit and out into the light of Israel.
Yes, it is designed to have this effect, but I really can’t think of anything more beautiful than the green valley full of life that I ran out to, after that nightmare of death at Yad VaShem.
This time, I really was leaving the Holocaust and all its horrors behind me. We had finally made it out of the darkest point in modern history, and into the light.