How to travel Europe with your ghosts

To grow up Jewish is to grow up haunted.

I’ve never lived on a Civil War battleground, and I’ve never shared my closet with a ghost (two brothers who tried to scare me to death, yes — but never a ghost), and yet the feeling of being haunted is as well known to me as the changing of the seasons.

To grow up Jewish is to grow up haunted, but it is also to grow up laughing at the ghosts swaying behind you. “They didn’t kill us — let’s eat!” is the descriptor of all but one of our major holidays (and that one’s motto is, of course, “we’re alive and so we must never eat [*for 24 hours]”), and we poke at our ghosts with Quentin Tarantino quips and bloodlust.

Before college, I had been to Europe once — France, spring of my junior year with my French class; the most striking memory I have is of ducking into Notre Dame during Good Friday — and then, suddenly, winter break of my freshman year, I was going again, this time not with certified chaperones and classmates, but with my older brother and friends.

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. | By Massimo Catarinella [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The weather colored much of my trip: the snow swirling down on the crowds in London as the New Year struck, my glasses fogging up as we took refuge in museum after museum in Amsterdam. The weather colored much of my trip, but still, my Judaism managed to follow me, which, given where we traveled (anywhere in Europe) might not be so surprising.

Amsterdam was Anne Frank’s house, her not-a-house-but-a-prison, pushing against tourists while I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to imagine her, the girl whose diary I knew better than my own, existing here. Laughing, teasing, dreaming here. Existing here. I felt a kind of emptiness, struggling to breathe in the too-small rooms, elbows bumping against strangers, trying to bring the ghosts back, trying to feel more than haunted.

Trudging over the floors and imagining the feet that skipped silently over them decades before, I made my way to the guest book, flicked through the countless names and messages of hope, and felt it — felt something. It was hard not to, standing there; the existence of one girl had, somehow, lived on despite it all, turned from a ghost to a breeze, from a haunting to a slip of hope.

Munich was hard; Munich was harder. Munich was taking the train, trying not to gasp as the recorded voice stated “Dachau Concentration Camp” at our stop in a voice so monotonous it might have been announcing the day of the week. The weather and my Judaism teamed up for once, the day as colorless as the camp that stretched before me. It was desolate, a word I’d never felt so strongly until then.

A memorial at Dachau. | By Wolfgang Manousek [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I left my group to sit on my own. I had brought a handful of dreidels from my grandparents, bright spots of color amidst the gray, and I wanted to leave them for the ghosts, for the hauntings that never really stop following you.

I found a bench, somewhere, not near a huddle of tourists, those who take pictures and pretend they’re not taking pictures, and cried. I don’t remember, but I’m sure I made some promise to myself — this was desolation, this was true haunting, and I would never cry for anything less again. I broke that promise, again and again and again, but that’s what it means to be human, to not be a ghost.

We ate lunch before we headed back to the city — it made sense, and there’s only so much time you can spend wandering the grayness of desolation before it becomes too much. Munich — though we weren’t in Munich anymore, not technically — got harder.

I don’t remember what I ate, what we talked about, but I remember buying a book, a book of those imprisoned at Dachau, a book I looked at once before leaving it, forgotten, on a bookshelf.

Munich was losing the feeling that Amsterdam had given me. It was getting to leave when so many before me hadn’t. It was facing the ghosts without even knowing their names, their faces. Amsterdam was knowing the power of hope, the power those ghosts can hold. Munich was knowing the emptiness in the wake of it all, the strength that comes from learning to smile.

I haven’t been back to Europe since that trip. I’m not itching to. Eastern Europe may hold countless lessons, countless things to know, but I’m content without them, content deciding which ghosts I allow into my life.

To grow up Jewish is to grow up haunted, but it is also to grow up, like Anne Frank, laughing, teasing, dreaming. To grow up existing, in the face of it all.


Leah Tribbett is a recent graduate of West Chester University.

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