Over the last number of years as I have performed The Actual Dance for audiences all over the world. I have been myself transformed in ways that allow me to believe that maybe some small piece of my soul today was there then.
A scene in The Actual Dance recalls the moment I witness a “tuft, a swirling cloud” exit my mother as she takes her last breath. My reliving that moment as I perform the play over and over again has taught me that “life exists in each of us as a form of the divine, a tangible essence of who we are.” The spirit of the divine that exists within us connects us with others, often specific people. I believe that Susan, my wife now of 53 2/3 years, and I share some identical life-force, we are now an “equal half of a single whole.”
So how could a piece of my soul have been there, a day just like today, 75 years ago, a few months before I was even born?
I have a friend. An intimate friend. Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits. We met about 47 years ago. He is and has been my rabbi since then. He is now retired. The word “intimate” I now understand to mean that we are related – spiritually related. Something made us destined to be together. There is a purpose in our unity.
He, on May 2, 1945, was a 17 year old boy, laying on the ground in a place called Wöbbelin in Germany. He tells me that it was a cold, clear, early morning. He slept on the ground, outside, next to what was the remnant of the previous night cooking fire. It gave some warmth. He was, he told me, ready to die. It was just too hard. And on that day 75 years ago, he and about 600 others were liberated by the 82nd Airborne Division.
I have been to that place with him as his travel companion six different times. I was with him for the first time he ever returned. He was 17 at the time he was liberated. He was about 75 years old that first time.
He and I continue in his 92nd year and my 75th year of life to intimate friends. A presumptuous statement I know, yet I think a piece of me now, maybe just a little genetic spark, was with him that morning. It is what perhaps has brought him so deeply into my life.
Today, on this, the 75th anniversary of his liberation, I share three poems. The first, It was A Day Just like Today, just written based on his recollection of that morning as told to me.
The second, Who Will Stand Here, written shortly after that first visit, standing together in the Pergamon Museum, in Berlin.
And then a poem I wrote two years ago, The Dance That Never Ends, after visiting the Ringelblum Archives on display at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland. These are documents written by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
A day just like today
May 2nd, 1945
Bright, clear blue sky
Cool. About 8 degrees Celsius
I lay aside the remains of last night’s fire.
A rough shake of my shoulder
Get up, get up!
A voice shouts in my ear
Another shake on my shoulder
My body resists
Too cold and numb
The mind sighs. I thought I might finally die.
Will there really be another day?
Get up, get up
The voice shouts again.
The Germans are gone!
The Americans are here!
Slowly I rise.
Jeeps and trucks with motors running
American Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division
Here to save our lives
The soldiers do not know who we are
The first of the many strangers whose kindness I receive
People who never met me. Who do not know me.
Kindness extended just because I am here.
These brave and gracious men
Men of the 82nd Airborne division
Treat me with grace and care
Launch me on my new journey
They leave at the site of Camp Woebellin
A small bronze plaque.
Attached to a large rock
“The everlasting value and dignity of every human life.”
Who Will Stand Here?
Two Jewish men, one a holocaust survivor the other his younger, now best friend.
Standing on the floor of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Staring up at the towering replica of The Isthtar Gate, the first of the ancient Babylon gates.
A restored relic, a mix of new and restored glazed-blue bricks and gold hued images of ancient lions, dragons and bulls.
In the center is an arched gateway to the ancient world of Nebuchadnezzar II.
The King who destroyed the first Jewish Temple and launched the first mass exile
A long broad walkway once ended here taking those Jews away from what been their land.
Those tyrants and killers of Jews are gone now.
Only remnants and relics remain.
Two Jewish men, one a Holocaust survivor the other his younger, now best friend.
Standing on the Pergamon Museum floor staring-up at the towering replica of an ancient Gate of Babylon.
Having come here from a more recent scene of horror, POW Camp Woebbelin
A make-shift camp used by Nazis to imprison Jews and others whose fate had yet to be set.
Laszlo, once had lived there, a mere teen not knowing if he would wake the next morning.
Now staring with his friend at the replica of the ancient Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
Remembering Woebbelin, another place where tyrants and killers sought to destroy the Jews.
Those too are gone now!
And look at us!! Look at us!!
Two older now American Jews. A former Holocaust prisoner and his younger best friend.
Standing on the floor of the Pergamon Museum staring at a replica of an original gate of ancient Babylon.
Having just left the remnants of Camp Woebbelin.
And look at us!! Look at us!!
We are still here!
Today, years later we stand among mourners anew.
Mourning the loss of eleven more Jews.
A guard with a gun now at each door. Will he stop the next horror?
Now look at us. Two older American Jews. Soon too we will be gone.
Who will still stand here then?
The Dance That Never Ends
The stench in the air
The screams in the night
The young boy shot in front of you
"Too small bring me another!"
The loves of your life
Gone in the morning
You are next
A knock on the door!
The Orchestra plays and never stops
The song is not your song
There are sounds in shape of words
No beauty nor dignity here
Nothing elegant, nothing clear
There are notes to be written
Documents to be saved.
We must witness what has happened here.
The time is now.
A knock on the door!
Stories must be told
Not by you and not by me
By real fragments of the day
Stored in tins and cans
Buried in rubble and sand
We who read them now
Those fragments written long ago
Do not hear the sound
Do not know the pain
We remember and want to know
We want to once again be whole
But this is The Dance that never ends
Just notes to ne read, documents to be restored
Stories to be retold
Inspired by the documents in the Ringelblum Archives on display at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland. On display are documents recovered after World War II that had been created and then buried by a group of people come to be known as the Oneg Shabbat Project. The Actual Dance Is a play written by Samuel A Simon and refers to a ritual of end-of-life imagined in a ballroom holding the person you love as they disappear with their last breath. It is portrayed as a moment of beauty and meaning.