“In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as having personally gone out of Egypt.” – The Haggadah
Ellen Shaefer was searching for relief. She was so uncomfortable and yet, just when she thought she had found a normal facility, she saw there was no door! People could see her. She was exposed. Like any human being, she needed privacy and this repeating experience continued to be horribly humiliating. The need was always the same, only the scene had distressing variations.
Sometimes she discovered a “communal bathroom:” a long, barren, primitive place with peeling paint and guards at the entrance to the windowless, stinking room with twenty holes in the floor. There was absolutely no separation, no division whatsoever between one privy and the next. The guards weren’t looking in her direction; their backs were facing the fields beyond. This offered no comfort since they could turn around at any second. Her anxiety suddenly made her wake up.
This disturbing degradation was a recurring nightmare. Why was she having it? What did it mean? The images were so real, but why was she haunted by memories that were not hers?
Ellen Shaefer was a quiet girl. She kept her inner world to herself, not even telling her parents about what had started soon after their first visit to Israel. They didn’t need to know how terrified she had been at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It was there that she had encountered the terrorizing photos of unspeakable horror, including the most startling one of all, the one of her! A little girl with the same large, brown eyes as hers, staring mournfully.
She was only nine years old when the nightmares of places she had never been, began to pursue her. Running frantically through forests, her heart pounding, about to burst, nearly paralyzed by fear that she would stumble, fall and be caught. Or she was dashing past a maze of buildings, passing one dead-end alleyway after another, soldiers chasing her as she desperately searched for somewhere, anywhere, to hide…
In her waking time, childhood games of hide-and-seek were very serious for her. She knew that hiding successfully meant life. She found safety wedged between the wall and furnace in their basement, or on the uppermost shelf in the closet under the stairs. Squishing herself above the thick heating pipes gave her a perfect look-out position from where she could watch her siblings searching for her. Storage cellars with trap doors under woven rugs, a small door in the ceiling in her brother’s closet that led to the attic, the unobtrusive, dusty cubicle behind the wall facade in her neighbor’s home, the unused milk delivery shunt that connected the kitchen to the outer courtyard of the old brick house – these were all choice spots that Ellen intuitively knew were excellent hiding places.
Strong endurance was also crucial for survival, so Ellen worked to excel in all the sports her school offered. She had to be the strongest and fastest in order to counter the immobilizing leaden leg sensation that crippled her ability to flee and escape from her pursuers.
The unwanted nightmares forced her to critically question her complacent surroundings. Growing up in what seemed like the safe harbor of America did not fool her. She was followed by the shadows of the Six Million, by the ever so subtle awareness of their vanished presence. They were no more but she was alive. She realized with a shudder that every Jew she would ever meet in her lifetime could have been one of the murdered victims, the Jewish martyrs. Haunted by their whispers, she lived with an eerie sense of awe and appreciation for the privilege, the gift of life, even though she didn’t actually know what the purpose was for her own life. Nor did she understand the inner restless feelings that compelled her to discover meaning. She only knew there was something beyond accumulating possessions.