Author: Iris Rozencwajg
Location: Houston, Texas
Iris Rozencwajg writes from Klaipeda, Lithuania, where she's on sabbatical from Houston Community College-Central. Her work has appeared most recently in Texas Review and in TimeSlice (Mutabilis Press), 2005, and is forthcoming in Straylight and in The Blackbird Anthology (2007).
The trouble with a sabbatical is that it gives a person time to think.
Last fall I went to Czestochowa, Poland, for The World Society of Czestochowa Jews and Their Descendants reunion. Jews, once a third of Czestochowa's population of 90,000, now number fewer than 100. Eleven million Poles died in the Second World War; three million were Jews. Almost six thousand Polish Gentiles are listed as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their own lives to save Jews, mostly by hiding them in their homes. Our group of 200-odd toured sites, heard survivors' stories, memorialized a tragic and evil chapter in history. At Auschwitz, a cab ride from Czestochowa, I thought of slave ships, "practically floating concentration camps," Czeslaw Milosz called them.
For me the conference was also a hiatus in my sabbatical from Houston Community College, a sabbatical I spent teaching at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda, Lithuania's third largest city. In Klaipeda I wore out my cowboy boots (ideal for cobblestones) thinking about the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. Most cities have cleaned up their ruins, putting brass plaques where human beings were massacred. Ninety-five percent of Lithuania's Jews were killed in the war, the largest number of any community. At Kaunas's 9th Fort, a torture site under both German and Russian occupations, the walls have mostly been whitewashed. Only one remains on which those in their last hour scribbled names and last words in God-knows-what on the walls. "Human kind cannot bear very much reality," T. S. Eliot said.
In Klaipeda, nearly bombed out by 1946 and then sovietized, there are still buildings with shell holes. There were only seven human beings left after the last bombardment. Deportation of family members to Siberia is living memory for my students there, as Holocaust deportations are for my generation of Jews, as so many kinds of cruelty and malice, domestic and international, of the past 40 years are for my HCC students.
The Hill of Crosses in Siauliai is a spontaneous, ever-growing monument to the dead in all wars, under all occupations, a sea of crosses around a grieving Christ. There, a colleague spotted a Star of David atop one cross with the words "We are sorry for everything." I thought of Native American children abducted to boarding schools, of some of the bones of others exhibited in the Smithsonian.
At the Klaipeda visa office picking up my teaching permit, a kind of Ausweis that saved lives in the Wilno (now Vilnius) Ghetto until 1943, I thought of my father. Stateless, he traveled on visas to Czestochowa first in 1936, then again in spring of 1939 to take his brothers out--but without their own papers they were forced to turn back in Belgium. I recalled a photo of more than thirty members of my family standing at the Czestochowa train station. All later killed except my father, working for Esso in Aruba, and one of his sisters whose Catholic in-laws hid her.
Here at HCC, as at LCC, we spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about English as an International Language. My students at both places are undaunted by history, eager to make their mark. I often wonder what they would think of each other and of each other's living memories. And wonder too how we can keep the world from going to hell again before they get their crack at it--the young, our wedge into the future.
English as an international language seems like an awfully thin end of that wedge, but it's my only end, and I'm hanging on to it.
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