“This Is What I Was Scared Of”: First Thoughts After a Massacre

When I saw the news I tried to think if I know anyone who lives in Pittsburgh. If any of my Jewish friends have family there. If any of the first years we’ve welcomed to Hillel over the last few months grew up there. I couldn’t think. I called my friend and cried on the phone. And I cried after we hung up.

When I saw the news, I got up and put my Magen David necklace on. It took a minute to untangle it from my other necklaces. It belonged to my grandmother. I need to wear it today.

When I saw the news there was no news yet. Two police officers shot but not killed, no information about further causalities. Situation developing. I refreshed. 8 confirmed dead, further injuries reporting to the hospital. Suspect at large. Suspect surrenders. Suspect yelled “all Jews must die” as he entered the Shabbat service and opened fire. 11 confirmed dead. I couldn’t read more news after that, not for a little while.

I thought about the chill that ran down my spine and into my toes when I heard the audio recording of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” I was scared then. This is what I was scared of.

I thought about the desecrated Jewish cemeteries with the gravestones tipped over. The rocks that were once stacked on top spilled off into the grass. I always put rocks on top of Jewish gravestones when I go to cemeteries. It feels like a promise. It feels like telling the buried and the dead that even though they are gone, they succeeded in passing down their customs. That there are still people who know to put rocks on gravestones. They succeeded, they can rest.

I thought about the swastika that was chalked onto the Jewish community center in the small Vermont town where I go to college. It was in the weeks after the last election. We held a memorial service on campus and we lit candles in the November night. It felt like maybe every Jewish person in Vermont came to mourn with us. I held a candle. It was freezing out, and I felt so much less alone.

When I was in Prague this summer I visited the surviving synagogues all over the city. Prague still has most of their synagogues standing because Hitler planned to use the city to prove the inferiority of the exterminated Jewish race. Now they are sites of remembrance and learning. In the Pinkas Synagogue, they have painted the names of every known Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust. 78,000 names. They are arranged by community, families clustering together. The names cover every inch of every wall downstairs from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, they have an art exhibition, children’s art pieces from the concentration camp Theresienstadt. The children drew on scraps of paper and their drawings survived, hidden from the Nazis. Most of those children died in Auschwitz.

I remember studying those kids during Yom HaShoah at my Hebrew school. We learned about Holocaust art to understand our cultural inheritance. When I was 15, we did an exercise where we each received the profile of one of the children in Theresienstadt to memorize. We stood in a circle and we told the other students about our assigned child. At the end, if the child had died before the war ended, we sat down. Writing this, I don’t actually remember if the child I learned about died or not. But I can tell you exactly which of my friends sat down in that circle. My little sisters were both in that circle. I know they both sat down.

Outside that synagogue in Prague I walked through the Jewish graveyard. It’s all stacked on top of itself, since Jews did not have the right to expand it. The graveyard is 12 layers deep now, and the graves are crowded together. I stepped across the rope to place a pebble on top of a gravestone nearby. It was the only rock I could find.

I can’t stay away from the news any longer. I click through the articles. CNN. NBC. Washington Post. New York Times. A former rabbi at the Tree of Life synagogue said that the fact that many congregants were late to services probably saved their lives. Brings a whole new meaning to Jewish Standard Time. The shooter, they say, was a known white supremacist and anti-Semite. He posted evil words on the internet, as so many do. I don’t want to know his name. I don’t care what his story is.

He said “all Jews must die.” But I am still here. Standing in that synagogue in Prague, I thought about that. I am here. In a city that witnessed unspeakable atrocities, on a continent where six million people died for believing as I do. I am still here. We are still here. At the time, that gave me some small amount of hope. It still does, even on days like these.

In memory of those who lost their lives, I will try to practice gemilut chasadim, acts of loving- kindness. I will remember that our fight is never over, and that my Judaism teaches me to fight for so many others, too. For all those who face threats of violence and erasure. On this day of mourning, I wish all my fellow Jews a sense of comfort and peace. I hope you are able to be with people you love. My heart goes out to all of those who lost loved ones on Saturday. May their memories be a blessing.

Sarah Asch studies English literature and creative writing at Middlebury College, where she will graduate in February 2020. She serves as the Editor at Large of the Middlebury Campus and her past work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press and Tikkun Magazine. 

Featured image credit: BruceEmmerling|Pixabay.com.

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