I walked in to an apartment not really knowing what to expect. A tall woman with high cheekbones and kind eyes greeted me at the door. Although I had never met her before, she was hardly a stranger. Paintings of little girls in vibrant colorful worlds holding the pain of visions that darkened their eyes lined the walls. The space and energy that held this home spoke of a complicated joy, despite the fact that joy had not been a constant for the woman with the contoured look of grace and beauty welcoming me into her home. Her name was Marika Roth. Standing at five foot five, Marika held an innocence that told of a childhood lost to the throws of World War two. Thrown into the despair of a country taken over by the Nazies, Marika spent her childhood as a fugitive. Forced to fend for herself after escaping her own death after witnessing the execution of hundreds of Jews by the side of the Danube River in Budapest, Marika became a lost orphan in the sea of hopelessness running starved and shoeless through the streets of Hungary Society had thrown her out like garbage and she found herself as a lone stranger in a cold world foreign to humane conditions. Her story continued as she finally immigrated to Canada, only to have been thrust into a forced marriage which lead to abusive conditions.
I had the chance to read Marika’s memoir, which has recently become a finalist for the book of the year, entitled “All the Pretty Shoes.” It told her story at length and spoke of her challenges to find hope and meaning despite her suffering. To my surprise, Marika’s disposition is one of wonder and awe to the world that surrounds her despite her traumatic past. Her innocence permeates like a child that never stops searching, that never stops evolving towards hope.
Today on Yom Hashoah, we mourn the loss of millions of innocent lives. We spend the day reflecting on our pain and we can’t help but ask the question Why?
Yesterday I attended a funeral of a thirteen year old girl who had nearly drowned when she was two leaving her with severe brain damage that eventually led to her untimely passing eleven years later. During the funeral a friend said under her breath, “This is so unjust.” I couldn’t help but ask myself, how could G-d have expectations of us to act justly when so many times we see children, our most precious gifts given unjust sentences? How is it that when there are a million broken little pieces that seem to have severed our complete world, we can go on? Is there any way to mend this fragmented reality?
Why should we rise above the feelings of despair and loss and anger when a young life is taken too soon or when a young child is stripped of her or his innocence? Why should we go on?
Yesterday at the funeral, I expected to hear the father of his thirteen year old child scream at G-d. I expected to hear indignation and rage. Rather, the first thing out of this pure man’s voice came the words, “I must begin today by first Thanking G-d for our precious gift we had the opportunity to be entrusted with.”
I was awe struck by his sincere gratitude. Just as I was awe struck by Marika’s willingness to continue on believing in the goodness of the world despite her real experiences that told her otherwise.
Many of Marika’s paintings had small broken pieces of mirror entwined in her artwork. I couldn’t help but notice that while I was staring deeply outward towards the painting, I was simultaneously staring inward at the reflection of myself viewing my reaction of the colors entwined with the darkness. The juxtaposition of the light Marika searched for and the pain that danced alongside her became very evident through her artwork. It had me thinking that while I was staring at her hope and pain I was also staring at my own reaction and my own hope and pain was mirrored figuratively and literally. Suddenly I understood how a father’s words could be of gratitude instead of indignation. I understood that we are complex creatures who can stare at pain and at the same time stare at hope. How we go about reacting becomes our only choice. We only have our reaction. The question should not remain, WHY but rather WHAT and HOW? WHAT will we become? HOW will we react to it?
On Yom Hashoah, a day of remembrance, it is up to us to not only remember those that left us too soon, but how to believe in goodness and gratitude even after witnessing such horrific acts of murder. If a father standing at his own daughter’s grave can muster up such gratitude, surely we are capable of such character as well. It is up to us to remember that all those broken little pieces can find its way back together again if we choose to create the space that will house and repair these splintered shards of pain. Every year that we celebrate Yom Hashoah we must ask ourselves, do we see our eyes filled with resentment and anger, or do we search our eyes for wisdom and sincere gratitude for having been given the determination to persevere despite the raw pain and ghosts that haunt us as a collective human force?
It is up to us to remember we can continue to survive using our creativity and our blessed ability to endure difficult times as displayed by Marika’s paintings and her aspirations to transform the world around her using her memoir as a tool to connect with children and adults alike who have gone through similar tragedies. Although it feels unjust, we are yet small beings created by a Higher Power who understands past the veil which we cannot see. What seemingly looks unjust to us, may indeed have another side to the story we are not privy to. Our job in this world is to remember that fact and to remain humbled by a Higher Power we can not dare to understand. By creating beautiful connections through art and through the written word, and by empowering our reactions using our knowledge, understanding, wisdom, kindness, discipline, beauty, ability to bond with others, humility, ambition, and leadership we can indeed transform past the pain of our realities that haunt us.
(Stay tuned for a new song entitled “Broken Little Pieces” Chava will be debuting soon.)