Dallas

The Story of Hanna Rigler

It seems only appropriate, with Passover coming next week, to share the below.

I was in Dallas briefly at the beginning of March to celebrate some fantastic ladies who came to Paris to meet me for my birthday last year , and a friend invited me to go with her to the Holocaust Museum. I’d never been, in the whole 8 years I lived there. How could I say no?

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With Fantastic Ladies, In Paris

 

The special exhibit at the museum right now is about the flight of Margret and H.A. Rey, the creators of Curious George, from Paris to Brazil, and then the US, during WWII. The truly special exhibit, though, was this woman:

Hanna Rigler

Hanna Rigler

 

This is Hanna Rigler, also known as Sarah, a Lithuanian Jew who survived a ghetto, a camp, and a harrowing escape, which she wrote about in her book Ten British POWs Saved My Life. The following is what stuck with me after listening to her talk, and speaking with her afterwards.

 

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The men were mostly gone by the time they came and took the children, during the day while the adults were at work. The old people, and the children. Imagine: coming home to find your children and your parents gone. Your children, whom you had birthed and nurtured and then guarded when you were moved from your neighborhood, your own home, to this ghetto. Your parents, whom you had guarded, as well, as they aged, whom you fought with, disagreed with, loved, cherished, appreciated because they watched your children so you could go get what little work there was to be had, what meager money to be earned. And then to come home and find the building empty, the family gone. This, no more:

Matuson Family

The Matuson Family (Hanna’s Maiden Name)

 

But like you say over and over, you were lucky. You were lucky, and it makes all the difference. You were too young to have a family yet. You and your sister had found work, cleaning and cooking in an official’s house, so you were not at home when they came to take you. So when your mother came home, she didn’t see what others saw: the vaccuum. Instead, she saw you. The fate of everyone you knew – all your friends, their families – the elderly, the young, the men: unknown. There would be little time to adjust to this demographic shift; soon, they will be coming for you.

They will come for you and what is left of your family – the mother, the sister. They will put you in the cattle car of a train, in Lithuania, in July, where the heat makes its way through the wooden slats of the wall but the air is nowhere to be felt. The lack of air presses down on you like the bodies of too-many people shoved in next to you. The smell of the one bucket you all share in a corner will bear on you too. You will think it is too much to survive, but you will. You will travel like this for days – seven days, nine days – who knows how many? And when you arrive, you have only just begun.

You will be given a number.

There must have been number 1. By the time they get to you, the number will be greater. It will be 58386, and you will wonder where everyone has gone, because when you arrive, the camp will seem empty, except for the shoes. The shoes pile high. They will pile high long after you are gone, and bear witness to the 58,385 pair of feet who walked through the gate before you.

There is a rumor that the Red Cross is coming to visit POWs, and so you will be kept alive, for now. Soon, when the threat of freedom comes, the marching will start. You will be lucky, and get a coat. It will be a bad coat, thin, and you will have no choice but to wonder to whom it used to belong, and which pair of shoes from that pile were also hers, but you will wear it as you walk away, moving in front of the front.

You talk about the unpleasant things. You will mention, to catch the attention of errant school kids, the hunger – how the coffee you got was really water; how the soup was water too, with just a little cabbage; and how the one small bread was meant for ten people and never enough, and yet you lived for the bread. Or because of it. You will tell the children how you would swear that if you had enough bread to eat, you would never want for anything else in your life, save for maybe a piece of potato on top as a delicacy. In this gluten-free paleo generation, they will fail to understand why you could want such a thing.

You will tell the children you know it isn’t nice to talk about, but when you don’t wash, when you can’t bathe, the lice come and so you all had them, on your skin, making sores, quite ferocious. The children will be texting on their phones in the back row. You will tell them how your numbers dwindled to 500, from thousands, because anyone who couldn’t walk was shot and left to rot on the roadside, and anyone who was eating only coffee-flavored, or cabbage-flavored, water can’t walk hundreds of kilometers through Poland in the winter.

The children perk up a little when you tell them how you tried to trade a diamond watch your mother had buried for some bread, and how, having accepted the trade, someone returned with the police instead of bread. They chased you around town, a posse with pitchforks shouting, “yude! Yude! Yude!” They hear you a little better when you say you don’t mind if you are killed. Even though you are barely a teenager, you don’t mind this being the end – but you just don’t want your mother and sister to have to see it.

It sounds more like a movie they have seen, when you tell them about the chase, about hiding in the barn for three weeks, amongst the hay, in a feed trough, fed from time to time by the British POWs you credit with saving your life. When you say, pressed for time to wrap up your lifetime story in less than ten minutes, that the Russians were not a very nice liberating force, that they raped the women and that again, again you were very lucky, their disappointment is palpable.

When it is over, they ask almost no questions. They are about the age now that you were then, a continent and a half away, a lifetime removed. They hear you say it again, “you had to be very, very lucky to survive,” and they don’t see their luck is in geography. They don’t hear you, afterward, when you share, “these children, they know nothing. In New York they know everything. Here, nothing.” And is there nothing left for us to do but thank you, hold your hand and thank you, and walk way. Another group is coming in, and you have your story to tell.

Hanna and her sister Sarah, before the war

Hanna and her sister Sarah, before the war

Europe, Life Skills, Tourist

El Viento

I had been saving a visit to the Alhambra, my only tourism goal of this return to Spain, for the week my Myanmar Travel Companion (MTC) came down from Germany for a visit. Like me, he traveled for an extended time, but he stayed in Southeast Asia, diving and staring at the ocean from Southern Thailand and Malaysia, or partying in Bangkok and Saigon. He left around New Years to return to Germany, and promptly got a string of illnesses clearly caused by post-travel depression, cold weather, and office work.

So when MTC arrived in Sevilla, agitated, irritated, unable to relax or appreciate the sights of Sevilla, I was more than happy to go along with his desire to visit Tarifa, a beach town on the South Coast known for its kite boarding and wind surfing. I would have done anything to uncover the MTC I knew in Myanmar, who gleefully biked through the backroads of Bagan and laughed at the fiasco in which collectors were sent for me on a temple at sunrise . We devised a grand plan: rent a car, head south, spend one night at the beach and then head northeast to Grenada to see the Alhambra.

Of course we got lost driving out of Sevilla, trapped on the ringroad that circles the city, and drove back and forth in a pendulum’s arc around the bottom of the loop before grabbing hold of the road southward. An hour later, down the tollway lined with eucalyptus and divided in the center with oleander, the sides of the road opened. Rows of blooming girasoles tipped their hats to us as we sped by. Above their yellow faces, wind turbines topped rocky hills, turning with increasing fury as we headed south to the sea.

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We checked into the hotel and then headed to the water, the approach to which wasn’t obvious. We got tangled behind some apartment buildings, a soccer field, the Chinese ‘everything for a euro (and up)’ store, and crawled out through a parking lot dotted with camper vans from years long gone, missing paint, plastered with peeling stickers. And then, there we were, next to the magnificent Atlantic, which looked like the gentle Carribean for that day only. The water was in turns clear, then turquoise, then increasingly blue as it pulled out to the sea like the tankers we could see, leaving the safety of the Mediterranean for destinations West, and South.

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It was still hot, being no later than five and Tarifa at a latitude where, mid-June, the sun sets between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. Tourists baked on the sand, feigning interest in shade with small sombrillas and fading coats of sunblock. Couples played in the water, waves poured in, kids built castles in the sand. We took off our shoes and walked almost an hour up the beach before turning back in search of beer, and food.

For dinner, we headed to the other gem of Tarifa: the medina. This was no Moroccan medina. The buildings were white-washed, storefronts wide, and streets clean. Streets that may have once been cobblestone wove through one another around buildings filled with Moroccan jewelry and textiles priced well above their native prices plus the 70 euro ferry trip to Tangier and back. Some sold clothes, others beachtowels with the toro de Espana, others peddled beer to young tourists from Australia, England, and Italy who were here to surf, or pretend that they could. The streets dumped us out next to the Catedral at the bottom of the hill and we looped around it, looking for a way in before giving up and heading to a vegetarian place with four tables.

Like sports towns everywhere, Tarifa is populated by people whose faces have been carved by the weather, the wind shaping their existence as much as it does the line of the shore. They move with a slowness that, even in Spain, is marked by a lack of urgency, a calm that comes with low wages and high levels of activity in something you love, and a tolerance for tourists you accommodate for your survival. People who live in towns like this know the reasons they are here. They aren’t on the search for something they may never find.

In contrast, the MTC and I spend more than half our conversation time trying to ascertain what magnificent, million-euro idea two pedigreed, intelligent, well-traveled individuals can come up with so that we can travel six months of the year. Before we finish dinner, we decide we are skipping the Alhambra and staying here.

The next day breaks so windy that our morning walk on the beach is a sandblasting the likes of which a good hammam could charge a pretty dirham for. Sand from the dry part of the beach races to the ocean, flying across the wet pack to the waves, which appear to turn in slow motion as the wind pushes spray backward off their tops. The neon orange floats that line offshore fishing nets bounce on the water, as do the boats that yesterday so stoically guarded their fish. Our walk is shorter this morning than it was last night.

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We hop in the car and go looking for a beach to sit on. We find perfection ten minutes down the road, at a hotel that is simultaneously expensive and filled with kite boarders and wind surfers. It is tucked into a hillside with a patio partially protected from the wind. We luck into a couple of basket chairs and take them, lounging for hours beneath a partially thatched covering that attempts to shield us from the sun’s heat. Sometimes we are reading, but more than once I catch each of us staring into space, trying to figure it all out. And of course, more than once, I catch each of us checking out a hot Spaniard setting up his board. Eventually the sun burns us out of our seats, and we move to the restaurant where we share tomato salad with salt flakes, and fall asleep on the banquet in the shade.

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After a brief siesta back at our hotel, we drop into the grocery for beer and head to the beach for sunset. Of course, the sun doesn’t set until 9:30 and after ten minutes, the pockets of my shorts and the can from my beer are filled with sand, shoved there by a mischievous wind, so we head to the beach bar just before the poprt. After the sun goes down, all we feel is the wind, and suddenly it is cold. We race back to the hotel through the winding streets of the medina, shivering and laughing at the change in ambiente, to shower and go to dinner.

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On our last morning, the wind is as fierce as it was the day before. It has roared all night, lulling me into sleep through the open window. We detour up the coast for our return trip, driving along a highway that winds through a state park, where wind-molded pinons umbrella over the land. We stop for lunch on the coast, feasting on grilled vegetables and fish before heading home.

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When we return to Sevilla, we leave the car at the train station and grab a cab to my apartment. The heat is heavy here, compared to the coast. Tomorrow, it will be 102. The next day, 104. But we have been scraped clean by the salt, by the sand, by the persistence of our concerns about the future. The wind has carved us, if only slightly, leaving us with our true faces and carrying off the ones we wear to convince the world we are where we need to be.

 

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Europe, Life Skills, South America, Traveling

Nadie Te Quita Lo Bailado

I never realized how much I shop while traveling until I found myself in the sweet little village of Villa de Lleyva, in the Colombian hills. It is a busy weekend destination from Bogota, and I was there during the week, trying to shed The Terror. The shopping was drool-inducing, but my hands were tied: I had an over-full pack, and six months to go before home.

I love giving presents. Though I am famous in my family for hiding one last Christmas present until long after everyone else has finished opening their loot, I’m also known for going a little overboard on the present-giving. It’s not just Christmas. It’s anytime I find something someone I know will like, or has been longing for, or even better will adore even though s/he doesn’t know it’s out there. It’s such a little thing, and the exchange may be material, but the gift is the joy that it brings the recipient, not the object itself.

In the past, I have returned from journeys abroad with presents for my family from the trip, and then gifted them again for their birthdays or holidays with items also bought abroad, socked away until the proper occasion. At some point, I realized I could buy them each just one present on my trip, and gift it at the appropriate occasion, reducing my expenditures and the weight of my pack. My sisters took notice, but a raised eyebrow ended their protest.

Those cobblestone walkways in Villa de Lleyva come back to me now in Sevilla, wanting again to buy a piece of a country and take it home with me. In Colombia, native textiles combined with leather into the most fantastic purses I’d ever seen. Thick, soft wool had been knit into cowl-necked sweaters that could cuddle my sisters through the most vicious of winters. And the jewelry….But it had to be left behind.

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When you can’t shop, what are you taking home with you? Memories. What happens when those memories get confused, and begin to fade? Where was I when I kept getting turned around and winding up in the same marketplace block, with heat bearing down on the smell of the wet market, over and over again? I had to think on this one for 30 minutes to recall it was Cartagena.

In what town did I stay briefly where they had a daily market that I kept failing to make it to, only to happen upon its afternoon remnants on my last afternoon in town? I’ve been thinking about it for two days now, and I can’t remember. But I can still see the empty stalls being broken down on a dusty street, cars again pushing through as they cleared.

Where is the fancy Italian paper store that I am so dead -set on finding again here in Sevilla? I was sure it was on Calle Serpientes, but I’ve walked it four times now to no avail. I don’t even need paper; I just loved that place so much, I wanted to go back.

I took 47 planes, six trains, nine boats, four buses, a couple scary 4WD trips and countless bike, subway, taxi and tram rides on my way round the world in 180 days. I was so alert that each of them has a memory attached to it, but the further I get from each, the more I dip into ‘normal’ life (let’s be honest, this life I’m living now is far from normal), the blurrier the memories get. Misty water-colored memories indeed. If I’m not buying things, and the memories get blurred as time goes by, what do I have left of this marvel of a life I’ve adventured through?

It’s a sentiment. It’s a sensation. It’s a sense memory that lingers in body, muscle, mind and heart, the feeling of it all being new, unknown, still ahead. It’s the knowledge of having done it (for the first time, differently than I will do it the next time). It’s the thrill that comes back, if just for a moment, when I remember climbing to the top of the monastery in Petra and looking out over the valley, or biking through rice paddies in Vietnam, or standing at the base of a glacier in Patagonia. Like muscles, the memory must be exercised to remain strong , so I recall it occasionally, with a glimpse at a picture, a pause of breath, a closure of eyes, to pull myself back to that moment that no one can take away. It is just what a friend said to me before I left, when I worried what would happen when I came back. “Nadie te quita lo bailado.” Nobody takes away from you what you’ve danced.

On top of the monastery in Petra

On top of the monastery in Petra

Europe, Life Skills

The Yoda You Know

Paris just redeemed itself by allowing me to do something unbelievably American and dorky, which turned out also to be fascinating and valuable. It was a great reminder that behind every blah façade, there’s a nook or cranny you’re bound to love. (Cue the Parisian outrage.)

Twenty years ago, I didn’t make it to the New Year’s Rave at DV8 before it hit capacity. Shut out of the fun for a couple of hours, two friends and I wandered south of Market Street in San Francisco (before it was posh, had a W hotel, or was called SOMA). We happened upon a black tie mafia wedding in a hotel, and stood before a cigarette machine in the hallway, paying homage to that device in the last moments of its legal life in California, as hours earlier it had been outlawed, and would soon be removed. And then….then we struck gold.

Coming around the corner of the newly-opened Yerba Buena Arts Center, I looked up and saw a Storm Trooper on a Speeder Bike, the kind that is ridden heart-racingly among the redwoods in the Ewoks’ forest (aka, Marin). It was the Star Wars exhibit: costumes, robots, models, storyboards – every little thing my Star Wars-loving heart could want. Three days later, we returned to drool over all of it.

So when I looked up on the Paris metro and saw this: imageYou can imagine my glee. I mean, Louvre, Rodin, Orangerie, blah blah blah. But storm troopers? Darth Vader? Bring on the nostalgia! Bring on the original trilogy crush! Bring on the hive of villainy, the nerfherders, and “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

I bought tickets online, and the site was in French. Since I don’t speak French, I  actually wasn’t sure exactly what I was buying tickets to. Unlike the original exhibit, this one went far beyond displaying the makings of a movie. Instead, it was an investigation of the creation of identity. At the entrance, I was given an earpiece and smart wristband. The earpiece activates automatically in areas of the exhibit that discuss the physical and emotional development of the characters and of humans in general, either via costumes and storyboards, or short movies about aspects of identity.

The smartband, when held up to 10 octagonal pads along the exhibit, stores information I put into it based on choices I made as I learned more about certain facets of identity. It started with simple concepts, like choosing your gender, home planet, and occupation, and moved toward more complex ideas, like how you respond to certain situations, to help demarcate ‘your’ personality along the Big Five – the five broad categories: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Not at all surprising: C3P-0 scored off the charts on neuroticism, and Darth Vadar is highly conscientious (which is defined as being a planner – something may be lost in translation here). (Pardon the poor images – hard to take an image of a screen with twelve people pushing you.)

Neuroticism: off the charts

Neuroticism: off the charts

Someone likes to plan his evil doings

Someone likes to plan his evil doings

Discussion topics in the exhibit included parenting style (on a two-dimensional scale with control or demand on one axis and responsiveness on the other; mentors

Accumulating Yoda's knowledge to pass on to mentee, Luke

Accumulating Yoda’s knowledge to pass on to mentee, Luke

which included noting how it’s been physiologically determined we are in fact never too old for new tricks, using painting as an example and I’m 99% sure using a Bob Ross sillouette as the mentor; influences, i.e., your friends, and I’m sad to say Jabba the Hut has only two – Boba Fett and someone else;

Friends

Friends

pivotal experiences (like losing your mother); and your values, of which there were ten, including stimulation, power, benevolence, hedonism, and self direction. Don’t worry about Jabba, though – the discussion of his layer was titled “Gangster’s Paradise,” so at least he has a sweet pad. Again, no surprises: Darth values Power, Han Solo needs stimulation. “Don’t ever tell me the odds.”

POWER

POWER

STIMULATION

STIMULATION

I loved this exhibit for the way it addressed theories we all know are behind the original trilogy – the influence of eastern philosophy, Native American culture, and the values of equality and diversity that were persistent in a movie that presented non-humans as completely normal participants in our daily existence. Between two drafts of the film, Lucas debated transitioning Luke to a female character, and his refusal to let go of the female character is in part what led to Luke and Leia as twins.

I imagine this exhibit was headier than most of the parents present bargained for. How do you explain to your five year old that his mom could die soon, or that later in life, her friends may need to be ditched in favor of better influences? “Mama, what’s neurosis?” I felt for them. Yet as much glee as I get out of seeing models of the Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon

and an imperial cruiser,

Imperial Cruiser

Imperial Cruiser

it solidified for me that Lucas wimped out in the sequel series. How can a creator who was so committed to diversity, to the complexity of human spirit, to exploring the forces that guide us, how can that man create Jar-Jar Binks?

No, seriously…I don’t get it.

What I look like as a Wookie from Tattooine who is friends with Leia

What I look like as a Wookie from Tattooine who is friends with Leia