Neither Heaven nor the Earth could convey
Halina Birenbaum

With very deep emotions but also with great surprise I have received the news about the Award I was given by the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, as the Reconciliation Person of the Year 2001. So much is tied to the word "reconciliation"! Especially in the view of my past as a Holocaust survivor. Life through its prism of the sensitivity of wrong doings and the distortion of the facts: past and present. Often it is difficult to agree and keep silent. I can not reconcile with one - sided, narrow view and to tread the convenient path of imaginary tendencies, doing what is profitable, saying what everyone else says, because the majority says so, in those circumstances and at that time... So wanting it or not I am get tiny in different conflicts, in my need to tell the experienced truth, wanting to hear it, remembrance, all this that is so painful for many and would like to forget it - holding to an independent thinking, analyzing, evaluating this situation, people, their deed and reactions. Sometimes I argue with myself after an incident putting myself in other people place, trying to understand their motivations and arguments. In many instances, this brings remorse, contrition and the will for mutual forgiveness. The best joy is for me to see hatred changing into understanding, when a rocky friendship turns again into acknowledgment. However, never at the price of forsaking the justness when there is any, in the name some sanctified goals. With this, I will never agree. I think that the Person of Reconciliation is obliged to more leniency and thus my surprise with the choice, and the responsibility. In my mind a Person of Reconciliation is someone special in his (or hers) mission to reconcile people, nations... A person actively engaged in the welfare of others, in the country and beyond, an experienced diplomat, with many diplomas and titles. I am far from all this. This mission is too grandiose for my modest private persona and possibilities. I do not belong to any organizations, do not practice any religion and do not work for anybody. How do I raise myself all of a sudden to such hights - from a wife and mother, grandmother, a witness to the Holocaust, to such occasion of importance? Such an obligating distinction? I am full of doubt, pride and fear. Do I really deserve that honor to be a Person of Reconciliation of the year 2001? The Award given to me in the city of my birth, where my parents tried so hard to raise me as a good human being? They taught me the values of decency, still in Warsaw Ghetto although as a Jewish child I was sentenced to die, together with the old and the weak. However, the values were destroyed according to the rules of Hitler's Germany and their theory of the New Order in Europe. The rest of the teachings: about the world, people, ethics and faith, I had to learn soon by myself in the hell of concentration camps, without my Mother who was put to death in the gas chambers in Majdanek, my Father who was put to death and burnt in the crematorium in Tremblinka, my Brother and my Sister in-law, so young, but cared for me like my Mother, tormented and burnt in Auschwitz.

Trough the long months when I was standing on the roll-calls for hours and hours, in Birkenau, drowning in mud, hungry, wet, frozen, in my rotten lousy cloths, pressed into large wooden clogs, my wounded feet all covered with mud or snow, I was standing in front of the ramp where for days and nights cattle trains were bringing new people, who after arrival were ejected from the wagon, beaten and screamed at, rushed into the gas chambers then to the crematoriums. I was comparing, I was thinking about the absurd of this situation - the reality now - and the values I have learned at home, about human beings. Once, at home, I was reprimanded because I could not comply with various restrictions. Here, there were enormous crimes committed against humanity and no punishment for it. People being killed, burned and even the voice of God kept silent, I in view of the atrocities against mass murderers. No illusion was left. Nothing happened that would shutter the world to the core... There, I have lost more than my faith of my parents and my ancestors. However, at the same time there was born in me a new immense sense of life. A deep feeling emerged to get to know the human soul and also my own, from which I could mature and survive these dreadful circumstances. I had to understand this impossible situation, from which there was no way out, except through the chimneys of the crematories. I had to remain in those terrible conditions, not losing the consciousness and myself what is vital in life, how a human being should behave and how I should behave. I remember all that has happened, the dying people around, their desire to live and the begging at the end for only the memory, if they will not be able to survive. There is still in me every detail of their and my suffering, the bits of good, the smallest ray of light, warmth, the friendship in the remnant of life - in that unleashed onslaught of death. The fragments of good in an ocean of power and evil! It should last now for generations. I have felt then in every passing moment the velocity of generations, decades, centuries, myself growing into them and entering old age with a different measure of time. In addition, today, my unexpected, Joyful day of Reconciliation, in the first year of the new millennium! I wondered, what did I do that was so special in all those years after the liberation at times of all the new wars, bloody conflicts in my land -and many unpleasant signs of anti-Semitism in the land were I was born. I have searched and found understanding and friendship. In the Golden Room of the Warsaw University I was surrounded by many reporters who have asked me about Jedwabne... One of the inventive journalists pushed in my face a TV camera, herself wearing an Arafat scarf, covered till her eyeballs, and reminded me, here in Warsaw, of the struggle of the Palestinian people, to show it here and abroad, as I would not be familiar enough with all this, or I would agree with that situation. I was supposed to hear an explanation what was the reason that I was chosen, I a Jewish woman, from Israel, a Person of Reconciliation 2001. I did not speak of current events or of sensational news. I did not tell any jokes. Feeling the tension, I was very moved. The pathos was better for me (as one of the journalist called it) for my concentration and recollection. The fragments in my recollecting what is human in the inhuman of THEN brought identification with me from the audience and a heartfelt closeness.

All this was above the current affairs of Jedwabne, the fights between the Israeli and the Palestinians (of course I do not minimize the importance of this tragedy). The Holocaust suffering can not be compared to anything, this hell on earth and the horrific deaths of the Jedwabne Jews also accounts for the Holocaust. I just wanted to underline the feeling of the victory of the HUMAN spirit over the most horrific evil. The heartfelt atmosphere took over everyone and transported them into a different reality. Understanding other way of feeling - good and bad. I was 15 years old by the time I was out of the fourth camp in Germany. My diplomas - scars were equipped only with those experiences and my recollections. I had to start a new life. I had to cover my wounds with a smile, as well as my orphan-hood and poverty. My strength seemed to be the experiences I have acquired since the beginning of the war, when I was 10 years old and from then on, my age started to count differently in other measures. These are my privileges until today, also for those who listen to me tell the story: without self-pity, despair and hatred. The people listening to me are almost living it themselves, feeling all the helplessness, pain and degradation of the victims who perished. They suddenly realize through the stories the sense and value of life, friendship, love, devotion to other human being, they reach different proportion and outlook on life, history. Only then the differences among people disappear, the provocation subsides, the ironic smile die out on the mention of the word Jew, which has nothing to do with hostility or other reasons. Maybe this is the birth of absolute Divine powers? I was always, and still am sure that for any reason silence on this topic is forbidden. We are not allowed for any circumstances to forget. Neither heaven nor earth can explain in any clear way the deadly silence, these ambiguous echoes from the Auschwitz hell on earth. Only deep understanding, knowledge of the facts and real comprehension can wake up in the soul of people the situation from THEN and can bring good will a clean slate and to arrive to the right conclusions, then tears wipe out bitterness, and forgiveness can start a new. Neither goodness nor evil can come by themselves. Nothing ever is black or white. However, mean thoughts are easier to spread and to talk others into believing. On other hand, good deeds are more difficult to believe and there is a long and hard road for the truth. Everything is already in us, it all depends on us and through us, it spreads or disappears. Not always, it is necessary through the people who believe in God, like the Christians or Jews. I do respect other people faith, their opinions, but I also appreciate when others tolerate my beliefs. I always feel in the first place a human being and other nationalities, religions are not important. However, if someone is attacking - my nationality I am very much then a Jewish person. I am also appalled when my people attack others just for their religion or nationality. I am not afraid and I am not running away from the pain of my memories. I am talking about them to people who were lucky enough to be born later, which does not mean that I am opening old wounds. Those wounds stay open; with me and to some extend with all humanity, if we talk about them or not.

Recognition of the truth, the whole truth and opening ones heart and sharing the experiences is necessary to stop the evil, to gel rid of the aggression, the hate and the prejudice. To convey the Auschwitz truth is a great lesson. Finding the answers teaching others tolerance, getting rid of evil which is waiting for us constantly and sometimes in us, prompting us to run away from difficult decisions and memories. God and love can spring up in any human being, the same way" as the evil can grow in any of us independently of our origin, nationality, beliefs in God or the lack of faith. I have experienced it many times. I believe in people, trusting everyone until there is a proof that I was mistaken. However, this does not discourage me to forgive and start new friendships. I try a new with a clean slate, not dwelling on the past mistakes and without anyone to blame. I know that nothing in life is full proof, eternal or perfect. Neither all good nor bad. Those things exist, change like the light and dark, life and death. I think that there is more evil than good, but goodness is more powerful and that is the reason why evil can not succeed, otherwise the world would cease to exist long time ago. I am trying to behave toward people, as I would like them to behave toward me. I feel for others, try to understand them, learn what is right and dismiss what is not. I transmit my experiences through my deepest true emotions. We are all aiming toward common goal: Christian and Jews, Catholics and Lutherans, secular, young people and older feel the same pain joy, suffering, grief and desire to love, warmth and hope. Sincerity wakes up in others good feelings, which turn to closeness and understanding. I experienced it in all my meetings, in different countries, cities, schools, synagogues, churches - and lately also in Majdanek, on the Holy Cross Pilgrimage where among two thousand of Catholic young people were pandering the Passion of Christ. We were stopping ten times and I was reading about the suffering in the camp. Everyone was listening to my stories in deep concentration and silence they showed me respect, honor and love. After the pilgrimage they stayed with me until late at night: hugging, kissing and thanking God for my survival. Our guide, Ft. Mieczyslaw Puzewicz said at the end, near the Mausoleum, were the ashes of the murdered lay, "get rid of all aggression which brings only hate, wars and holocaust. Shake hands and be grateful for yourselves and your friends". This common feeling is still with me. I can hardly comprehend how this could happen. There was a large crowd, without divisions. We were all ONE. There were only people who had a heart, tears, who wanted to live, love and be loved. People understood what does it mean to lose everything and what it means to be victorious over the evil, death, to remain a human being in all situations and all circumstances. Those people gave me all: their hearts, smiles, understanding and their clear, good tears. My - our pilgrimage was the true reconciliation. In Majdanek and everywhere in Poland. They gave what is the best in humanity. I have it all: in my soul, the letters written to me by many. Everything is possible, in spite of other manifestations. I, myself have never experienced any animosity toward me and what I represent. There is always - a goodwill and hope.

In those stories and experiences is my very best part, truest tears which I did not have THEN, joy of victory and return back to life. From this position of victory, I am telling the stories, trying to return for my dear departed ones a moment of life. In the passing years I was accused that I don't want to let go of the suffering, that I should forget and live a normal life without all the I complexes and nightmares, that I did not really get liberated at all coming back to the dark times obsessively, like a masochist, and that I can not get out of the camps... That I only tell about good Poles, traveling to Poland and Germany, to the enemies of the Jewish; people... Nevertheless, many are happy to know, thanks to me, that not the whole world hates us. Now everybody is going to Poland and Germany, they teach young people about the Holocaust, teach other guides how to show the places from which many have their roots and the places where many have perished. They also read from my book: "Hope is the last to die", walk in my footsteps, they give my experiences of survival as an example and in the academies they read my poetry. However, the most important are the letters from the readers and listeners especially from the young people -Israeli, Polish, and German - secular and religious alike. They write me that they can experience it all together with me, just like it would be their own. They feel with those who perished there and they wake up wanting to be a better person. Suddenly all this not a cold impersonal statistics of the German Nazi's murders, it is human truth with which you can identify, imagine and understand. The fact that I could survive so many hardships and loses and never broke down, never lost my humanity and later was not afraid to return to those places, those memories, opening my heart and wounds before strangers, telling about it without hate, self-pity, with a smile, even when I speak about what hurts the most, let people know about hope, belief in my own strength and possibilities and facing my fate and whatever lies ahead. They also se that their insignificant problems are not that important as they thought, against those described by me from THEN. They realize that they have it all and are happy Now they will tell others the things they heard from me, from the one of not many, who went trough it and survived. I have received hundred of letters and am still getting more, of admiration and gratitude, love. Not only from young people. I have never thought that in this way I am contributing to reconciliation among nations. I wanted only to tell to get above the past and the present, to bring closer for today's people the history and characters whose only trace in the world is my recollection. I want them to live as long as I am alive. Doing it by letting people know about the tragedy that was done by hate and fascism. Without a vengeance, without enumerating the suffering and wrong doings. Which can start anew hostilities and wars. I was thinking about my parents when I've read the letter from the Polish Council of Christians and Jews about the decision to give me the honor and title of the Person of Reconciliation of the year 2001. Maybe my parents see me now? They will be with me again in Warsaw, proud that their upbringing has worked, even at the brink of death. That nobody could destroy the values they thought me. Now I am handing down my experiences to new generations and teaching them how to be simply better people

Translated from the Polish by June Friedman