“This is beautiful,” I said as I held my baby close. We were standing on a terrace overlooking the Danube below. The elegant Hungarian Parliament building was directly across from us. We’d taken a tour of it earlier in the day. It was the most stunning example of neo-gothic architecture I’d ever seen. It was unfortunate that the current government was dominated by a right-wing authoritarian bastard whose anti-Semitic language was more reminiscent of the Nazi era than the twenty-first century. Now that I was part of a Jewish family and had a Jewish fiancé, the attacks felt personal. That we’d just spent a week in Israel only highlighted my sense of Jewish identity, in spite of my concerns about the worsening prospects for peace in the Middle East.
Snuggling my baby close, I enjoyed the feel of his bare shoulder against my chest. We were both wearing tank tops – not wife beaters – I’d never call them that again. To think that I’d nearly thrown my love away made me shudder in the chill of the late afternoon air.
“Are you okay, Babe?” Kyle asked as he undoubtedly felt me shudder.
“Couldn’t be better, with you at my side,” I answered as I squeezed him tight. We’d spent a lot of time talking as a family since my breakdown in Paris. Yes, it really was a breakdown and I was still coming to terms with it. That Kyle and his family… my family, we’re so willing to forgive my episode was something I could never take for granted. How a total fuck-up like me could ever be deserving of such wonderful people was something I’d never understand.
After playing catch-up and racing through Spain, Portugal and southern France, we’d spent a full week in Italy, seeing the wonders of Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice. The great museums of Florence alone we’re worth a couple of weeks, rather than a couple of days. Rome was an education in more ways than one. The ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum were incredible and I really gained an appreciation for Roman architecture, but poor Kyle had his wallet stolen by a hoard of Romani children, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been any older than he was. At least he didn’t have any credit cards or a driver’s license to have to report as stolen, but the time spent reporting the incident to the police turned out to be a colossal waste of time. Ky was out a few hundred Euros and it would have been nice to have thought the money was at least putting food on someone’s table, but as the police explained, the money bought the kids nothing more than a promise of protection. Their stealing for street gangs only funneled money into organized crime.
From Italy we drove to Zagreb and Sarajevo, where the scars of war were still evident, and to Sophia, which was nearly as beautiful as Paris. I’d really been looking forward to seeing Athens, the birthplace of modern civilization, but I wasn’t prepared for the abject poverty I saw there, nor the extent to which mass migration had transformed the society. We saw some of that in Italy, but nothing like what we saw in Greece. What’s more, acid rain has largely destroyed the very architecture I’d come to see.
Istanbul, on the other hand, was a wonderful surprise. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, a former cathedral built when Istanbul was Constantinople, were amazing in their beauty and architecture. The museums of Istanbul were outstanding, particularly the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. It was a shame we didn’t have more time for them.
Although the government has become increasingly authoritarian, the Turkish people couldn’t have been more friendly. I was impressed with the culture and history of Turkey and although I didn’t much care for the heavy-handed way Ataturk banished Islamic fundamentalism, I appreciated his desire to bring the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the eventual backlash was what led to Erdogan’s rise to power.
From Athens we flew to Israel and spent a week there. Although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, I was shocked by the deferential treatment we were given on arrival as American Jews, myself included. Although I was still coming to terms with my Jewish roots, the fact that I was one quarter Jewish by way of my maternal grandmother meant that by Jewish law, I was considered 100% Jewish by the state of Israel.
Rome and Istanbul had already exposed me to the world of ancient architecture and archaeology, but Israel was another matter entirely. Nowhere else on earth was the history of human civilization so visible. I could almost feel the presence of my ancestors in my very bones, spanning thousands of years. Everywhere we went in Israel was a lesson in history that could never be realized in a classroom.
However, everywhere we went, it was impossible to escape the pervasive sense of conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Jewish and Muslim societies flourished side-by-side, but there were checkpoints and barriers everywhere we turned. The feeling that the Palestinians were second-class citizens was inescapable and yet so was the fear of terrorism. There were constant reminders… echoes of the past… restaurants and busy marketplaces where people had been killed by suicide bombers. The thing was that the extremists on both sides were driving the ongoing conflict. So long as fear and mistrust persisted, things wouldn’t change and the opportunity to forge a lasting peace was being lost, perhaps forever.
From Israel we flew to Bucharest and then we took a train to Budapest, which was truly one of the jewels of Europe. Scarcely two more weeks were left in our adventure, but that hardly mattered as I snuggled up with my baby. There was still so much left to see and do. Tomorrow we would drive to Kraków, where we would begin our exploration of Poland, once the home of three million Jews, nearly half of Europe’s Jewish population.
“Boys,” Jake’s voice called out from behind us, “we need to head back to the hotel.”
Reluctantly, Kyle and I pearled ourselves away from the view and from each other. We took a tram back across the river to our hotel, a rather modest place in which my boyfriend and I shared a room with three twin beds with Roger, Kyle’s brother. True to our word and as per Stéphan’s recommendations back in Paris, we wouldn’t share a bed until we returned home and, more importantly, until I tested negative for STDs.
The hotel in Kraków was much nicer than what I’d been expecting. We were sharing a two-bedroom suite and were right by the old Jewish quarter, within easy walking distance of all of the historic sites we hoped to visit. Unfortunately, we had less than two half-days to see them, as we’d be spending most of tomorrow visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps.
What was particularly odd about our visit to Kraków was that, in spite of rising antisemitism, traditional Jewish culture was surprisingly popular in Poland. Poland was overwhelmingly Catholic, but there were Poles who actually dressed up in traditional orthodox Jewish garb and danced to klezmer music. Well, I was raised a Catholic too, but nominally. I was baptized, but my parents never took me to church, nor did I attend Sunday school or ever go to confession.
But it was no secret that many Poles had helped the Germans to round up and deport their Jewish neighbors while nearly all the rest stood by and watched. The Jews weren’t some culture that was stolen from them – they were a people the Poles had directly and indirectly helped to eliminate. Maybe I shouldn’t hold the current generation responsible, but watching them emulate the culture of the people their parents and grandparents helped exterminate was surreal.
We had to get up early the next morning as we had a lot to do. After eating a heavy Polish breakfast at the hotel consisting of bread, cheese and cold cuts that I could’ve done without, we drove to nearby Oświęcim, the Polish town by which the concentration camp was built, and toured the local Jewish museum. We then drove to Auschwitz only to find the parking lot filled with humongous tour buses. It was a mad scene with hoards of people lined up behind their tour guides as they were led through what should have been one of the most solemn places on earth. I was horrified by the mad scene.
Fortunately, the dads had already made arraignments through the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York and hired a private guide to take us around both Auschwitz and the much larger, neighboring facility at Birkenau. Rather than having to strain our ears from the back of a group of fifty or more people, just to hear the monotonous droning of the tour guide, we were taken through the facilities at our own pace and we received much more in-depth, personalized information. We were able to ask questions as we went and they were answered in a way that neither patronized us nor assumed we knew more than we did. Not only that, we were able to skip the lines and proceed through the place in a much more logical order than that taken by the large tour groups.
We started the day at the museum at Auschwitz and proceeded to tour the main facilities, which consisted of series of long multistory brick buildings. As we would soon see for ourselves, this was an unusual arrangement for a Nazi concentration camp and it spoke of an exceptional degree of permanence. The reason was that, unlike with other facilities, Auschwitz was converted from a former Polish army base and was built to last.
Inside the buildings, the museum exhibits continued, with entire rooms filled from floor to ceiling with artifacts. There was an entire room filled with nothing but shoes and another with toy dolls. There was a room filled with wigs and another with eyeglasses, and yet another with dentures. I knew that the Nazis took away all their prisoners’ personal effects, but what possible use could they have made of such items?
Auschwitz seemed like a maximum-security prison, with solidly built buildings, tall barbed-wire fences and cordoned-off sections, guarded by tall guard towers. Etched metal plaques with professional illustrations told the story for those able to deviate from their tour groups long enough to read them. It was only upon seeing the crematoria with the ovens, perfectly proportioned to the human body, that I came face-to-face with death and the horrific nature of the place.
There were plenty of archival photographs throughout the facilities to remind the casual visitor what Auschwitz was all about, yet the experience seemed somehow sanitized. It didn’t feel real. The stuff they sold in the souvenir shop was totally bizarre and much of it was frankly inappropriate – things like giant pencils in bright colors with Auschwitz stamped in the side.
And then there was Birkenau. Thank God hardly anyone took the time to visit the much less developed facilities at Birkenau. In the movies, when they show trains arriving at Auschwitz, it’s really at Birkenau. Although nothing remains of the original wood-framed barracks other than the foundations, the original brick stove chimneys are intact, giving a true sense of the meager provisions available to those deemed capable of providing slave labor. The shear scope of the place defies description. There were hundreds upon hundreds of rows of barracks, each housing hundreds of prisoners, several in each bare bunk bed. For those not ‘fortunate’ enough to be deemed adequate for slave labor, the ‘showers’ were in huge facilities with observation skylights where the Nazis could observe the final death throes of their victims. More than four thousand could be gassed at a time. The place was so large, it took a couple of hours, just to walk out to the International Memorial on the far side of the facility, and back. Along the way, we saw the ruins of ovens that were still smoldering, even after all this time. The place was a freakin’ death factory and it literally made me feel sick.
We were able to go up into the guard tower over the gatehouse. From there we could see the entire grounds of Birkenau and Roger spent quite a bit of time photographing the entire panorama, piece by piece. He explained that he intended to use software to stitch all the individual photos together to make a high-resolution, mammoth photo of the entire scene. Somehow, I felt that no matter how large he might make his photo, it couldn’t convey the true scope of the place, nor the madness.
Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau like this really affected me – far more than I thought it would. When we were in Israel, of course one of the places we visited was Yad Vashem, a vast archival museum that cataloged all the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Shoah, the Hebrew name for the Holocaust. Because the Germans kept meticulous records of everyone they rounded up, detained and executed, and with the aid of eyewitness accounts, Yad Vashem houses as comprehensive a record as humanly possible of what happened to all the Jewish families in Europe during that horrible time. Unfortunately, those sent directly to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau weren’t recorded, but the record of being sent to Auschwitz without a corresponding record of registration pretty much told the story.
Of course Jake and Ken looked up the data available on their own families and were shocked at the amount of detail. Ken in particular had an extensive family tree and with the exception of his great great grandfathers and grandmothers, all of whom immigrated to America during the waves of immigration during the latter part of the nineteenth century, none had survived the Holocaust. He was able to trace the fate of dozens of cousins that perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and others. Some of the lucky ones were assigned to work details at Treblinka and Sobibor, only to end up at Auschwitz nevertheless. One even ended up at Bergen-Belsen for a possible prisoner exchange with the Allies, only to die of typhoid, just as Anne Frank did at the same facility.
Jake’s family’s fate was similar except that his great grandparents escaped from Hungary to Brazil at the start of the war. All of his other relatives perished. Were it not for the daring escape of Kyle’s great great grandparents, my baby wouldn’t be here today. Out of curiosity, however, I decided to try looking up information on my mother’s family. I didn’t even know my mother’s maiden name, let alone her mother’s maiden name, but thanks to my mother’s fame and notoriety, she had an extensive Wikipedia page. In the section on her early life, according to Wikipedia, ‘She was born as Sophia Stein, the daughter of Joseph Stein, a prominent businessman from Strasbourg, and Eleanor Moscowitz, a Jewish socialite from Paris whose family had ties to the French defense industry. Although the means by which her family managed to survive the Nazi occupation remain unclear to this day, rumors to the effect that the family had ties to organized crime have persisted in spite of a complete lack of supporting evidence.’
Naturally I expressed shock that both of my mother’s parents were Jewish, but then Jake reminded me that Stein is as much a German name as a Jewish one, and that Strasbourg had originally been a German town; hence, many German surnames persist in eastern France. I asked him about what involvement in organized crime might have meant, but when he suggested that it might have involved collaboration with the Nazis or sex trafficking as a means of bribery and blackmail, I wished I hadn’t asked. I already had a low opinion of my biological mother, but the possibility that her family might have survived the Holocaust by selling their fellow Jews into the sex trade was appalling. Nothing could justify that.
In any case, I looked up my mother’s family in the database at Yad Vashem and found that her family had been extensive. Dozens of men, women and children had perished on work details and in the gas chambers of Eastern Europe. Only my grandmother and great grandparents had survived. I had very mixed feelings about the possibility their survival might have been the result of Nazi collaboration or sex trafficking, but were it not for that, I wouldn’t be here. In any case, many people did some pretty horrible things in order to survive, and it wasn’t up to me to judge them.
Now, as I looked across the vastness of the Nazi death camp at Birkenau, with ovens that were still smoldering, I was at peace with my family’s past. This evil was perpetrated by one man and his followers. I could only pray that we never see anything like this again, but the way things were going in the world, I feared we might, even in my lifetime. Actually, we already had.
Coming to a final decision, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “I’ve decided I’m gonna do it.”
“Do what?” he asked.
“Be bar mitzvahed,” I replied. “Or rather, become a bar mitzvah,” I corrected myself.
“You know it’ll be a lotta work,” he responded with a thoughtful look on his face. “Please don’t do it for me,” he added.
“Much as I love you,” I replied, “I wouldn’t go through all that, just because I love you. There are a lot of things I’d do for you, but that isn’t one of them. No, this is something I have to do for myself. I might be only a quarter Jewish but the possibility that my mother’s family may have survived the Holocaust through bribery, blackmail or collaboration with the Nazis isn’t something I can ignore. I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for that, so it’s not really up to me to judge them, but I still feel in a way I should try to make amends.
“There’s nothing I can do to bring back those lives lost or destroyed by the actions of my ancestors, nor is it my responsibility. But maybe by exploring my Jewish roots, I can at least bring closure to the possibility that my getting here is because of some pretty awful things done by my great great grandparents. Becoming a bar mitzvah won’t change the way I feel about God or religion and I’ll probably always be an agnostic. However, by understanding Judaism, maybe I can reclaim a part of me that my family managed to utterly destroy in themselves. Maybe I can purge the last of the poison I inherited from my relationship with my parents. I know I still need counseling… lots of counseling, but I think I need this too.”
“When do you think you’ll do it?” my boyfriend asked. “Our schedule’s pretty busy this year, and then we’ll be in our freshman year of college. How are you gonna find the time to study the Torah, let alone memorize the prayers, learn how to chant and prepare for the ceremony?”
“I’m already fluent in Hebrew,” I pointed out, but Kyle wasn’t having any of it.
“Modern conversational Hebrew isn’t anything like ancient Hebrew, let alone the Hebrew in the Torah. It’s like studying Latin is hardly enough to prepare for the priesthood.”
“With my ability to learn new languages, I doubt it’ll take me long to learn how to chant the Torah,” I countered. “And by reading the Talmud, I’d be even better prepared than most bar mitzvahs are when they turn thirteen.”
“Jewish scholars spend a lifetime studying the Talmud, and yet most say even then, they don’t truly understand it,” Kyle challenged and of course he was right.
After a bit of thought, I responded, “Perhaps when we get back, I can discuss a study program with your rabbi. Already I can read and write Hebrew. What I really need is a private tutor who can meet with me, maybe once a week, and guide me in my studies. Being ready for my bar mitzvah in December’s probably unrealistic, but with an intensive course of study, maybe I could be ready by next summer.”
“That sounds really ambitious… like crazy,” my boyfriend replied.
“You know I’m capable of doing it,” I countered.
“Yeah, you are,” Kyle agreed. “So am I,” he added. “In fact, why don’t we do it together? God knows, if I wait until I’m in college, I’ll never get around to it. We can study together and maybe help each other in the process of helping ourselves. I’ll never read Hebrew as well as you do, so you can help me with that, and I can help you with the Jewish liturgy, which I’ve been exposed to all my life.”
“Yeah, but even if you finish your studies this summer, you won’t be able to go through with your bar mitzvah until you turn thirteen,” I pointed out.
“Perhaps,” Kyle acknowledged, “but you know, orthodox girls become bat mitzvahs at the age of twelve. Our congregation’s pretty liberal when it comes to things like that, so maybe I can talk the rabbi into letting me go through the ceremony a year early. Maybe we could schedule it for winter break next year, just after I turn twelve but before you turn fourteen, when you’d still be thirteen. We could have a double ceremony.”
“That’s a really interesting idea,” I agreed. “Actually, it’s pretty outstanding. We should definitely talk to your rabbi.”
“Definitely,” Ky agreed.
Our European vacation was nearing its end. From Kraków, we’d traveled to Vienna, Munich, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. Soon we would fly to Reykjavik, where we would explore the wonders of Iceland and the land of the midnight sun before heading home to New York.
Prague was the absolute highlight of the trip in terms of its shear beauty. Every time we rounded a bend and came upon the sight of Prague Castle across the Vltava was enough to take my breath away. The sex trade in Prague was rampant trough, with teenagers of both sexes and kids, some of them barely out of diapers, catering to every taste. Ky and I were both hit on by tourists anxious to get it on with a couple of preteens. That was an aspect of Prague I’d have rather done without.
Berlin was an interesting study in contrasts. We all knew of the history of the wall and even though it had been decades since the wall fell, and even though all traces of the wall had been obliterated, it didn’t take a genius to realize that in many ways there still were two Germanys. There were a couple of museums dedicated to life in the DDR, the Deutsch Democratic Republic, and there was the STASSI museum, all of which were fascinating, but nothing could have been more stark than seeing homeless youth, curled up on makeshift mattresses and living on the street in the shadow of the elegant buildings that had arisen where the wall had once stood.
I’d always thought the social safety net in Western Europe should have prevented homelessness altogether. I was all too used to seeing the homeless on the streets of New York and to the smell of urine in the subway elevators there, but finding the same thing in the major cities of Europe and especially in Germany was totally unexpected. Germany was the richest country in the European Union. Yes, the absorption of the DDR had put a severe strain on the economy and the more recent absorption of the Syrian refugees had strained it even further, but Germany had a huge trade surplus and jobs were plentiful for those who wanted to work. But then why was youth unemployment so high in the former East?
Hadn’t we come far enough in the twenty-first century to eliminate homelessness, poverty and mental illness? What would future societies say about us when we couldn’t come up with the will to solve such a seemingly simple problem. Maybe that was something left for me to do. Maybe once I became the architect of entire cities, I could find a way to provide plentiful affordable housing for all that needed it without sacrificing the amenities that make cities attractive to those who generate society’s wealth. Now that I had some experience with being homeless myself, brief though it had been, I knew that this was going to be one of my priorities in life.
But there was much more to the problem than affordable housing as I knew all-too-well myself. Affordable housing could help families without alternatives to survive, but unless we addressed mental illness and drug dependency, homelessness would remain intractable. I couldn’t help but wonder if allowing people to make the choice to live on the street rather than undergo treatment was in anyone’s best interest, but then there was no choice if treatment wasn’t available. No one wanted to spend money on a problem until it affected them personally, and even then, they’d rather spend more to lock people up than to rehabilitate them.
I had a lot of healing to do, and with Kyle at my side, a lot of studying to do about a part of me that until this trip, I’d barely known existed. Kyle and I had already sent an email to his congregation’s rabbi and although there wouldn’t be time to meet with her before school began, we’d tentatively agreed to meet with her every week after attending Saturday morning services.
I was about to begin a new chapter in my life – one that would help to define the man I was to become.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay preteen and teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. Some of the locations described are real locations, and some of the characters and organizations described may bear a strong resemblance to real individuals and organizations; however, this is a fictional story and should be taken as such. The author retains full copyright.