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?