Confronting Time

Time disappears at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony and a high schooler imagines the anguish of 1944.

Editor's Note: This was originally published in 2014. 

As the lights dim and the candles flicker, time loses all meaning. Time, in all its complexity, is simply a fragile concept, slipping through our fingers like water. I am always tricked into thinking I can save the water from escaping, if I just press my hands together a little bit tighter, if I just hold still a little bit longer. But I am always fooled. You cannot hold on to water, and you definitely cannot hold on to time, a phenomenon even more evasive. You cannot see it or feel it, taste, smell or hear it. And tonight, in this bubble that’s defying the space-time continuum, time is melting away to nothing more than a futile human attempt at understanding the unexplainable ways in which this capricious world works. Time comforts us into thinking we have a semblance of control in life. But not tonight. Tonight, time will not anchor us down.

We are seated in rows of benches in the main sanctuary of my synagogue in Great Neck. It is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The lights are dim, and the candles flicker. The survivors march by, an eerie reminder of a time when Jews were forced to march in line, barefoot and starving, for endless miles. However, tonight they are free from such physical and mental torture and with each step, they crush those who tried to knock them down. And still, with each step, I see memories, dark like the shadows in their wrinkles cast by candlelight that tell the stories of their lives. Here is when time stops. Time is gentle; he doesn’t shove and scream, despite the bad reputation most of us give him. Time simply picks himself up and quietly slips out of the room.

It is 1944 and my world is upside down. Their memories are so real that I can feel them. I am waiting in line to be shoved into a cattle car; I am running through a forest constantly checking over my shoulder; I have left all my belongings behind. I breathe in charred air. None of us are safe. I look over at my mom sitting next to me and realize that the comfort of her soft, strong hands can no longer save me from what lays ahead. In this world, operated by hate, every Jew has no individuality, no identity. We have only each other. The walls of my synagogue no longer feel like a sanctuary, instead they become the bars of a cage closing in around me. I feel a sense of claustrophobia I have never known in this room. Everything outside these walls has disappeared and all I can think of is 1944. Time has deserted me and I want him back. I can’t shake this feeling and I need to be back.

It is 2014, and as I relax, a voice in my head whispers, “You wouldn’t have made it anyway.”

The survivors are finishing their march. The lights are dim and the candles flicker. Shadows dance around the room, ballerinas with no faces, bending and stretching and making no sense at all. The final survivor strides past me and I begin to realize the ages of these heroes. Just when I think time has come back to save me, I see the headline: “Last Holocaust Survivor Dies, 102.” My throat tightens; I am not used to the air of this future. I am not used to an air without oxygen that has been filtered through the lungs of the strongest people I could ever imagine. I am not used to a world without their air. My children have never spoken to a Holocaust survivor. They’ve never seen the intensity that only exists in eyes that have seen so much hate but still have so much love to give. How many years will it be until the last person who ever spoke to a Holocaust survivor dies? How many years until this horrific genocide is just history?

I look at my watch: 8:15 p.m., April 27. Time has returned. He sat down right behind me, so silently I hadn’t even noticed. But I scoff at him; he means nothing to me. Time means nothing when the world is ravaged with such blind hate and cold-hearted brutality. We are all born, and we all die, and the time we spend in between is so insignificantly trivial to the entirety of earth’s lifespan. Time is so natural to me that I check my watch more often than I tell my parents I love them. It’s supposed to help me understand the unexplainable, but despite making schedules, setting alarms and always needing to know the time to the exact minute, I still don’t understand. Time has not helped me understand the unexplainable. I don’t understand how one man can render so much death, I don’t understand how so many can just sit back and remain silent, and I don’t understand how it is still happening around the world today. Time hasn’t explained any of that to me and it wasn’t until he disappeared tonight that I realized how he’d been fooling me all along.

author's bio: 
Juliet Freudman is a senior at Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, N.Y.