This week’s creative non-fiction piece is one that I wrote in spring of 2017, sitting in the Negev Desert in Israel after returning from a week in Poland. It was published in the May 2017 issue of Marin Academy’s literary magazine, “Echoes” and won the issue’s “Best Creative Non-Fiction piece.”
I am alive in all senses of the word: eyes open, heart beating, foot tapping to the Matisyahu song playing in my head. The cotton candy clouds roll in with ease, the birds perform their well-rehearsed repertoire, and the radiant sun melts like butter over rocks, dunes, and mountaintops. With the massive desert and winding hills ahead, I feel free, like my ancestors must have felt upon arriving here after the Exodus. Though thousands of years separate us, the feelings of comfort and coming home are one in the same. As my group summits the desert hills, I cannot help but imagine the Israelites walking beside us, the feeling of liberation burning bright in all of our hearts, only theirs after leaving Egypt and ours after leaving Poland.
Rich blood the color of the Beast’s cursed rose courses eagerly through my veins. It nudges me like a pesky toddler, reminding me that I am here, standing tall, strong, and healthy. It haunts me with the images and sensations of all that I experienced the week before.
I feel my chapped lips stinging with the faint taste of blood. But it is my lips, not my bones, that are cracked. This was not the case for the many who were struck to the ground at the Umschlagplatz, or collection point, where Jews were assembled for deportation to death camps and brutally beat upon any sign of resistance.
My hair blows aggressively in all directions, getting knottier as the minutes pass. I weave my fingers through thick, brown waves. The sensation takes me back to a display case at Auschwitz, piled high with human hair of all different colors and textures. Each strand belonged to a human being. Six million becomes one. A chill runs down my spine; from the thought or from the wind, I do not know but can surely guess.
I feel the tough leather of my sturdy Blundstone boots protecting me from the desert’s sharp rocks. “That was not the case at Birkenau,” I think, remembering the death marches that Jews had to endure with minimal to no protection on their feet from the unforgiving winter’s snow. My stomach cries for sustenance, but I know a warm meal is waiting for me when I descend from my mountaintop oasis, a stark contrast from the Warsaw Ghetto where I learned that people lived off of 250 calories or less. I am shivering, but I have a warm bed to come back to at the kibbutz, unlike the dark, empty beds at Majdanek. I sit in utter silence, but the silence is soothing, rather than haunting, like it was at the Zbylitowska Góra Children’s Mass Grave, the Krakow Ghetto, the Płaszów Labor Camp, or Treblinka.
Finally, I stumble down the mountainside, and soon the sounds of laughter and song return to my ears. We sit around the campfire, snacking on s’mores and performing tone-deaf renditions of our favorite songs. And in this moment of pure joy and bliss, I realize this is the best form of revenge. We are the best form of revenge. There, in an insignificant canyon, beneath an endless expanse of mountaintops and a midnight sky full of stars, we smile for those who never smiled again.