By Sarah Keith, Westmount Charter School
Picture this: Belarus, or ‘White Russia’. 1905. A small, largely-Jewish village near Minsk. Sarah Berenstein is 17 years old. For a little while now she has been travelling on foot, delivering messages for the Jewish Bund, a radical, socialist group. Condemned by the Czarist regime. For what she has done, she could be arrested and sent to Siberia. Or worse. For what she has done, she must leave her hometown, the only place she’s ever known, to travel to a distant land, so as to avoid capture. What she has done is express her opinion. She thrived and went on to have children, who had grandchildren. One of such grandchildren- my grandmother- describes Sarah as a somewhat secluded, but very nice, old woman, and a great reader with a lively curiosity. Nonetheless, my grandmother was deeply affected by Sarah and ended up becoming a professor, historical female nonfiction writer, and outspoken feminist. She is the passionate, spunky definition of a retired academic. She is an inspiration and part of the reason I signed up for the Washington trip. I can’t possibly express how thankful I am for this, however, so instead I’ll describe some of the moments that stood out for me.
Sunday night. Night bus tour. We’re all a little bit sweaty and stir-crazy from the day of travel, and there’s that buzz in the air which I guess you get when you strap sixty teenagers together into a metal canister and fire them away from their friends, school, homework, families, all at once into a new country. The tour guide, though helpful and knowledgeable, has a mildly grating tone. I don’t blame him for that, but I’m tired and I’m not really listening. It’s dark out, but we recognize the city outside from the countless movies we’ve seen it in, and from the news, so the dark makes it all the more magical. We get out at the Lincoln Memorial, and can barely stand still long enough to take in the instructions before we explode; the first chance we’ve had to fully stretch our legs since that morning. There is a frenzy to our excitement, and I’m not completely myself as I come to stop in front of the statue. I can’t quite believe it. This is Lincoln. Lincoln. Here is the heart of American democracy, and here is me, standing in front of it. It’s monumental. It’s a feeling I think everyone should experience.
Later in the week we’re walking between memorials, and we come to one that is simply two walls of black stone joining to form a corner. Carved into the wall are names. Silence descends as each person retreats into their own world, slowly realizing what each name means: a life given to the protection of other lives. But more than a noble sacrifice, each name is a person. A person who loved someone. A person who was loved. Who had a favorite colour and a drink of choice and a specific memory that made their heart sing for reasons too complex for anyone to understand. If one wrongful death is that hard to take in, how can I possibly imagine 100, let alone the thousands on that wall? That was the Vietnam War. Ilana tells me that if we had all the names of the people who were killed in the Holocaust, and we wrote all those names on monuments like this one, we would need 100 monuments. And I thought to myself ‘100! I can’t even begin to comprehend one.’
Picture this: you are 25 years old. You’re out of work, with no income and little chance of a job offer. Your country is in economic crisis. The lowest it’s been in your lifetime. Probably in your parents’ lifetimes as well. The government is doing what it can, but for you, a shuffle of power would be welcome. There’s a new party on the block, a little extremist, but you figure if they’re elected they’ll be forced to centralize, so as to maintain support. Do you vote for them?
The year is 1933. Your country is Germany. The extremist party is the Nazi party, and depending on what you chose Hitler could be your new Chancellor. In this context, we can withhold judgement: 33% of Germany made the same mistake. What makes us different- what makes us lucky- is that we have hindsight. We know it was a mistake. And that puts us in the perfect position. Our country has given us the choice; something Sarah Berenstein, my namesake, didn’t have. This trip has given us the reason to make the choice, so I say: make it.