Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Fresh Perspective

One of the many hats I wear is that of Yad Vashem freelance tour guide. I took the course in April '05 when I randomely stumbled onto the fact that there was a need for foreign language guides whilst speaking with an Israeli friend from uni. I really love what I do, which sounds a bit morbid, but working there is something which utilizes so many of my talents. I've always said one of the things I love about acting is taking words and directions off of a page, giving them feeling and emotion, then conveying that to an audience, giving them an experience. Giving tours at Yad Vashem encompasses much of that - I need to utilize the knowledge I have in order to create an intellectual and emotionally stirring experience for the group I'm leading, many of whom are in Israel for the first time.

I usually judge my success by how many people I've made cry, but the group I took last Friday demanded a whole new set of standards. Since December, Israel has been invaded by birthright
which brings college students who have never been to Israel for a 10 day trip during their semester break. A mandatory part of the tour, for every single group, is a trip to Yad Vashem. No exceptions are made, even when the museum might not be particularly appropriate for the group.

A few weeks ago, my boss booked me for a Friday tour, and then casually mentioned the group had special needs, but told me that it wouldn't be a problem. The day before the tour, the term was expanded upon and I learned that the group was a birthrigh Yachad group, comprised of young adults with a variety of emotional and developmental issues. I was fairly nervous as I've never really had any special ed experience, nor worked in any of the summer camps dealing with special needs. Friday morning, my fellow guide and I approached the group, and my stomach dropped. The group was comprised of individuals in their late teens through early thirties and for the most part, their physical features categorized them. There was a large number with Down's Syndrome, and many who looked just a little "off". The counselors divided the group into two smaller groups and I was told not to speak for over 2 minutes, and to constantly engage the group, ask questions, involve them. So, I started by taking the group over to a great view of the museum and asking them why they were here. I received a whole variety of answers, for the most part on the ball, excluding the one individual who told me that we were here to remember those who "...passed away in 1987". One member of the group (let's call him Joe) contained an impressive knowledge of the Holocaust, including dates and locations. However, as soon as Joe mentioned the word Germany, a voice from the middle shouted out, "I dated a Nazi, my boyfriend was from Germany!". After a slight ruckus, and some group reshuffling, we were ready to proceed.

As we entered the museum, I explained that we would be watching a film compsed of clips taken of Jewish communities in Poland between WWI and WWII, in order to have an idea of what life was like before the Holocaust. Joe spoke up again, and I suddenly heard

"The Holocaust is like the AIDS virus."

Not wanting to discourage, but fairly sure that my training hadn't include any analogys like this, I asked Joe to expand upon this statemtent.

"Well, AIDS starts off with the HIV virus, and when Hitler began making laws and ghettos, that was HIV. But when he opened up concentration and death camps, that was AIDS."

For one of the very rare moments in my life, I was speechless. The analogy was on the ball, not one that I would have used, but accurate and incredibly sharp. This was the beginning of an hour which brought me a number of suprises and lessons. It is often noted that children are incredibly honest individuals, and dealing with a group of adults whose emotional and often intellecutal level was that of children gave me a completely unique experience. The groups I usually take are teens or young adults, and are fairly jaded and involved in maintaining a cool facade, more than being open to exposing themselves to what the museum imparts. Every question I asked elicited refreshingly honest answers and results. I had to be very careful with my language and what sorts of terminology I used, but when I spoke about hatred, and people being made to wear a yellow star, the group reacted with anger and true hurt, not understanding how people could be so cruel. It drove home a point which I try to make, and was taught to me by the group - no matter how you perceive it, no matter how educated or mature you are, the sheer senslessness of it eludes you, and leaves you with the question of "why?"

After exiting the museum in the middle, as it was deemed inappropriate to take the group through parts of the museum detailing mass murder, we went to the childrens memorial. Many of the group began to cry as I spoke about children not having a childhood, and at one point, one of the women suggested that I give some hugs. I usually am careful to maintain a physical distance from the groups I guide, even when people are crying, but by giving hugs, I was also able to remind the group that crying is ok. People are often so afraid of visible emotion, and are told to control themselves, and that point was driven home with this group whose emotions are so often on the surface, but who were so worried when their companions began to cry. The worry could have been a product of genuine caring for their friends, or of being told to control themselves in public, but it was incredibly emotional to watch this group, whose attention span was so short, who wouldn't remember the details or know the extent of the horrible facts, cry for the children who had lost their lives, for people they perceived to be their peers, for they had truly grasped, even for a moment, the enormity and sadness of the event.

When it was over, I was exhausted but gratified. We ended the tour by singing Hatikva and then singing and dancing. It was amazing to see a group that embodied not one, but two of the traits which Hitler had wished to eradicate - Judaism and mental handicaps- singing and dancing in a memorial to their slain brethern in the hills of Jerusalem.


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