The place is called Yad Vashem. It means a place and a name.
The ceiling is beautiful, a triangular prism that points at all the right angles, letting the brilliant light of day pour in. The sky is just barely visible, and the trees outside devour golden sun on this mountain of the dead. The ceiling is beautiful, but the walls are monstrous.
I cannot take my eyes off the video screens.
The bodies are skeletons wrapped in skin. Before they are tossed into the ground, I count their ribs and discern the exact shape of their pelvis. It makes me sick to watch. People once inhabited these bodies, but the cadavers are filled with nothingness. They are bulldozed in heaps into pits in the ground.
I sit on a bench and watch the loop of the film play over and over. I see the same bodies twice, three times, five times. But each time the corpses are thrown into a trench, my eyes see someone different.
Cradled, coddled, nursed. Educated, loved, laughing. Kissing and marrying and selling and sweating. Praying and baking and sleeping and rising. Starving and working and weeping and dying. Burned and hanged and gassed and shot in the heart.
I am someone seventy years removed, but I will not be the one to forget, I will not be the one who passes these video screens without seeing the horror of reality. I am trapped behind a glass wall generations wide, but instead of pounding my fists, I stay transfixed by the screen.
I imagine myself standing in line at one of the trenches. The man in front of me stands before the SS soldier. He spreads his spindly arms wide, shaking. He closes his eyes and tilts his head up to God. Seconds later, he falls into the trench. I have heard the shot, seen the blood stain upon the ground so many times before, but this time I cry out. I cover my mouth with a shaking hand.
I am not brave. I am so afraid to die. I am afraid of the gunshot; I am afraid of my own blood, the last thing I will see before I fall upon the others. After everything that has happened, after I have been tormented and beaten and starved, I am still afraid to die. Hell is on Earth, but what is death? If God is not here with me, who is to say he exists anywhere at all?
On another TV screen, a woman is being interviewed. She has wrinkles so deep I could bring up a garden in them, but she speaks in a low, soft voice that roots me to my spot. They marched, she said. They marched for weeks. It was winter in Eastern Europe. Thousands of women began the march. Less than one hundred fifty ended it. Friends cradled the dead in their arms. Corpses were left in the snow.
I imagine seeing her fall. She is shivering violently. Her lips, fingers, and toes are purple like a bruise, and each vertebra on her spine is a mountain I could climb. A guard comes up from behind and kicks her. “Aufstehen,” he says. Get up. She stands for a moment, wobbles, and collapses again. He spits at her and kicks her in the face. “Ungeziefer.” Vermin. He leaves her there thrashing, delirious; her eyes roll back in her head. “Please,” I beg her, “Please stand up, keep walking, please –” I wrap my arms around her and hold her so close I can feel the contractions of her lungs, but a blow to the head makes me fall to my knees.
“Lass ihr du sterben. Weiterzugehen,” the guard commands, kicking my back. Let her die. He points a gun at her. Her coughing stops. The words are unbelievable, the images indescribable.
I am a mother, a wife, a woman getting off a train I have been on for a week. I am covered in sweat and lice and excrement. The smell is the first thing that hits me as I stumble into the open air. It is overpowering and sickening, the smell of death and burning and suffering. My daughter is writhing in my arms, screaming. An SS guard pulls her away from me. My husband reaches out to grab her from the guard, and he is shot. My wedding ring is taken from me, and I am pushed toward a long line of women headed toward the shower house. I cannot hear my daughter’s cries anymore.
My imagination brings me to tears. The faces I see aren’t nameless – they morph into the faces of people I know, people I love: my neighbor, my best friend, my boyfriend, my niece. What if it was them? What if it was me? But it was someone’s best friend, someone’s family, someone’s death.
I’m crying in the middle of a museum exhibit because I can feel the yellow star branded on my clothing too, the yellow star that says Jude.
This place is called Yad Vashem. It means a place and a name. In this place the beautiful day comes in through the skylights. But for every name, there is a grave gone unmarked. A story never told.
There is not one place and one name. There were so many more than that.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.