Friday, April 17, 2015

Saying Goodbyes

This week’s New Yorker features an article entitled “Moving to Mars.” In focusing on the much-anticipated future one-way journey of a group of astronauts to the unknown on Mars, the writer opens with a story of the explorers who first traveled to Antarctica in 1898.  It was a harrowing and mostly tragic venture. The writer seems to be speculating on whether the trip to a distant planet will be more or less worrisome than the adventure to the bottom of our own planet.  
The story made me think about loneliness as well. And about goodbyes. Last week, Audrey and I went to see the movie Woman in Gold. The movie focuses on the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1938 and its impact on members of a wealthy Viennese Jewish family. While it’s mostly about evil and art theft, it’s also about fear, sadness, and injustice. Spoiler alert: There will be justice served by the movie’s end, which we will cheer. But our cheering is tempered by what is known but not shown in the film about this period in history.
In one emotional scene shown in flashback near the middle of the film, the young Maria Altmann (who will be played as an older adult by Helen Mirren) tearfully tells her parents goodbye before she makes a daring escape from Vienna with her new husband. It is clear that she will never see her parents again, and they all realize this. She plans to go to America, but she might as well be going to Antarctica or Mars, for that matter. She is leaving everything and almost everyone she has known. She is sailing without an anchor into uncharted waters, at least for her.

Maria Altmann and her husband make their escape
from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
 And knowing the way my mind likes to wander, Maria Altmann’s tearful farewell to family in Woman in Gold came to mind again yesterday when I lit a memorial candle for Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Lighting a Yom Ha-Shoah candle helps us remember.
The Holocaust is mostly an abstract concept for many of us, especially American Jews born after World War II whose relatives came to the U.S. long before the rise of Nazi Germany. [Not so for Audrey’s family. Her father and grandfather spent some time in a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s, and her father’s parents died in the Theresienstadt camp near Prague in the early 1940s.] But lonely farewells and journeys into the unknown are something all of our Jewish ancestors understood very well. They were always ready to pack and be on the move. For example, my mother’s mother, a tiny but determined woman, came to America from Poland all by herself at the age of 18. And when the relatives she expected to shelter her in Brooklyn stifled her freedom, she simply left their home and found an apartment and job in a notorious sweatshop in Manhattan.
It’s a long trip in time and space from Poland in 1908 to Vienna in 1938 to Mars in 2018, but that’s how my mind works. And now I’m wondering just how the space travelers to Mars will say goodbye when they are ready to leave. Will they and their relatives here on Earth be filled more with sadness or pride?

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