There are certain words native to the Jewish tongue ubiquitously. Shabbat. Shalom. Shoah.
Last Sunday, I trekked to the Park Juan Carlos I, an hour-long metro ride outside of Madrid located off of the same metro line I have taken almost weekly to the airport. Staring into my reflection across from me in the window filled with blackness from the underground, my mind wandered back in time to my recent trip to Germany, Ukraine, and Poland.
This was my first Yom HaShoah observed in Europe, where the wound still aches in the contemporary European memory. In Eastern Europe, I internalized part of this memory through understanding the post-Holocaust Jewish community landscape in terms of young adults' Jewish identities. In Germany, the Jewish community is primarily made up of Russian Jews who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union, causing a community that must adjust its engagement to the needs of Soviet Jewry. In Ukraine and Poland alike, the third generation—my generation—is just learning of its Jewish roots from grandparents, some of whom survived the Holocaust to then only be again deprived of their Jewish identity during Soviet communism. And in Ukraine and Poland alike, I felt the vibrant energy radiating from the Jewish communities when I went to the festival along the river in Kiev, trying the ethnic Jewish foods found across the region and learning of the work of global Jewish organizations, and when I toured the JCC in Warsaw, exploring the space and appreciating its startup culture.
Brought back to reality, I exited the metro at Campos de Las Naciones and waited to meet my dear friend Yael in the station before we huddled under my bright pink umbrella to navigate ourselves to the park. Upon entering the park, Yael pulled out a park map she dug out of her purse, tracing her pointer finger along the map and shielding it from the rain under the umbrella to avoid becoming wet. Her finger landing on the section of the park commemorating different cultures, she lifted her head up and pointed in the direction we were headed.
Behind us was a middle aged man dressed in a suit, holding a large black umbrella. Peaking out from under his umbrella, he confirmed the location of the memorial with us via a nod. As we walked, we spotted another couple in the distance, quickly walking and avoiding the puddles beneath colorful umbrellas.
Turning the corner on the sidewalk path as we passed a board boasting a map of the park, we vaguely made out our destination in the distance. First, I took in the large official, dark blue police van stationed near the large gathering of people, the same van I vividly remembered seeing and feeling protected by at the Idan Raichel concert I attended a few months earlier. As our steps drew us nearer, the large cluster of people turned out to be easily over 100 individuals of all ages—grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren—all cuddling near one another underneath an assortment of a rainbow of colored umbrellas.
The memorial itself was a tall structure, seemingly over two stories high, and a shade of dark brown that blended into the trunks of the vibrant green trees surrounding it. Six rectangular shapes jutted out of the ground, each a different height but together forming an asymmetrical Star of David. Just above eye level, four Hebrew letters were carved into the structure, reading Yizkor. Behind the structure, three children ran around, dodging the puddles of rain water in the soaked grass. Around the front of the structure, the sums of people listened as at first the President of the Jewish community spoke. Straining my ears, I could just barely hear parts of his Spanish though the layers of umbrellas separating me from the front. He spoke of remembrance, honor, and strength as he intertwined the past we memorialized and future we cultivated.
I made my way between the clusters of individuals to take in the memorial from a 360 degree view. As I approached the opposite side from where I first stood, I encountered over ten small rectangular structures, the same color and material of the larger, more dominating structure. Each rectangular smaller structure was a different human-level height with three holes punched out of the top, appearing almost like a face with round eyes and an agape mouth.
This aspect of the memorial reminded me of a visit to the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Israel, where there is a similar memorial of limestone columns, each abruptly stinted at a different human-level height to recognize the victims' lives cut too short, too soon.
I made my way back to stand next to Yael, my pink umbrella overlapping with her yellow one. The faint sound of rain splattered against umbrellas and hoods mixed with the faint Spanish I heard. Turning to Yael, I whispered, would sing the HaTikvah?
Timing in sync, the faint Spanish stopped and the splattering of rain drops was drowned out by a larger union of a hodgepodge of differing pitched voices—the HaTikvah.
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Indeed, there are certain words native to the Jewish tongue ubiquitously. There are also native anthems, tunes, values, and memories. We are one people connected by a past of perseverance and bonded by a future of self-determination.
Hannah Schlacter is a rising senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studies marketing and management in the Business Honors Program. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she has started various student organizations as well as lobbied the U.S. Congress on the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. While living in Europe the past semester, she published an internationally recognized Blog, Ruach 2016, sharing her experiences discovering Jewish communities across Europe. Hannah currently serves on the Hillel International Board of Directors and co-chairs the inaugural Student Cabinet she co-founded.
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