Thursday, January 27, 2011


Today is my fourth on the continent, and I travelled into the darkest hours of history, visiting Sauchsenhausen Concentration camp just outside of Berlin. It was exactly what I expected, which means it was entirely different than I expected. Everything was normal. So everything was disconcerting. It was more saddening and disturbing than I could have ever imagined, just like everyone said it would be. A seemingly normal cobblestone – how many political prisoners, Jews, Roma, gays, passed over this stone, cried silently over it? A seemingly normal field, half brown in the winter – how many thousands stood here freezing, during 5:15am roll calls?

Everything is as it is supposed to be, according to the documentaries, the pictures, the testimony. But then there are the souls. You can’t capture souls on film or in words. They shudder in cramped wooden bunks. Their stomachs turn inward at roll call in the cold morning, after a breakfast of crumbs and water. They writhe on whipping blocks in the camp center, after failing to complete the afternoon work detail. They silently disappear, slowly snaking skyward. The camp is barren. Its victims have been erased from the book of life.

If we allow the crimes of the Nazi regime to depress us, to permanently sadden our limited time on earth, we are handing Hitler a posthumous victory – confining another soul within the walls of barbed wire that his SS erected at camps and Ghettos across Europe. The Holocaust commands us to celebrate diversity, to fill our lives with joy, and to make sure that all of humanity is privileged enough to experience life as rich as life can be. Liberation was not a single moment in 1945.

NB: I may post Sauchsenhausen pictures when I have a chance. As I've said, no words or pictures can capture the camp. Your life has to pass through the gate in order to experience the power of the site. Below, please find a wonderful and non-sequitorial shot of my unconventional arrival in northern Germany late Sunday night.

As we got closer to port, the fog became denser and denser. By the end of the day on Sunday, as we approached Bremerhaven (our destination port in Germany), we were sailing through a thick cloud turned deep orange in the midnight flood lights. 14 story cranes towered above our massive vessel, and 4-story container trucks were barely visible as they busily hummed through the misty stacks of cargo that would be coming on board.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Greetings From a Mid-Atlantic Closet!

Current Coordinates:
W 31 degrees and 08.5 minutes
N 46 degrees and 27.0 minutes

I am writing as the wind whistles overhead in a small closet on the Bridge Deck, labeled "Crew´s Post Office". The other passengers ("spare officers")and I are getting used to the boat´s regular 5-10 degree rolling as we put on our sea legs. In this little email station, where this is only a wooden desk and one computer, I am enjoying the challenge of staying balanced in the unwisely-chosen revolving chair. I can estimate how far we are rolling based on the swinging of an oversized russian calender that hangs over the desk. We can only send outgoing messages (via satellite), so I am thankful to my parents for pasting this text onto the blog site.

Today marks our farthest distance from land, and I just returned half-soaked from my daily walk around the main deck (I always go with a friend, employing the trusted "buddy system"). When I first walked outside this afternoon, the waves on our port side were sendind up a dense mist that created four rainbows in less than a minute! We have four meter seas today, which gently rock our creaking giant as she plows eastward at a steady pace of 20 knots. The ocean is simultaneously chaotic yet inspiring, heaving and unpredictable yet beautiful and relaxing. At home, our understanding of rising sea levels is often detached from the chaos and magnitude of the oceans themselves. The same oceans however, inspire awe and respect.

We will land in Germany this Sunday morning, and I hope to put up pictures and offer more thoughts when I am back on terra firma.

Sunset in Port Elizabeth, NJ. I call it "Star Wars Meets Van Gough" - it was a very surreal scene, taking in the sea of red and yellow containers stretching towards a bright red and yellow sunset! The scale of the equipment, like the 13 story crane at the right, which dwarfs the roaming 4-story truck in front of it, is something I would expect to find in the imagination of George Lucas.

The view inside the lifeboat was very reassuring as we headed out to sea. It is torpedo-shaped and orange, capable of holding all 25 people on board.

This picture requires no caption. Incredible.

A view between the stacks of containers.

Sunday was our first full day at sea. For dinner, Captain HJ Muthwill organized a smoked fish party and cheerily invited the passengers to join in. The chief engineer is the fellow in front, who was in charge of the "oven" (which was a converted barrel, in the back).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Environmental Pilgrimage: The Slow Trek To Israel

Early next week, I will board the MSC Tanzania in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, for a transatlantic passage aboard the 300 meter freight ship. At first, I viewed the distance to Israel as obstacle to overcome. Now, I see it as an opportunity to learn. My trip will reduce carbon in the atmosphere – through planting and carbon credits – rather than pollute. I will volunteer in Europe, rather than contribute to worsening humanitarian crises that will result from climate change. I will visit sites relevant to Jewish history and my family’s roots, rather than flying over them. I look forward to spending half of a week in Berlin, followed by two weeks volunteering on an organic farm in northern Italy. I will arrive in Israel in mid-February, for a semester studying environmental science and peace-building.

My project-trip will address the reality of distance in a down-to-earth way. Long distance travel (especially by air) produces greenhouse gas emissions which ultimately contribute to rising sea levels and the displacement of future generations. Rising seas could create a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, potentially displacing 2-4 million Egyptians living on the Nile Delta among other potential humanitarian crises in a geopolitically fragile region. Rising seas could also flood Israel’s coastal plain: Netanyahu and Abbas could draw the borders of a peaceful two state solution today, but climate change could rewrite their coastlines tomorrow. I did not want to return to Israel in a way that damaged my people’s homeland and displaced future generataions from their own.

I am not hoping to offer simple answers, but rather to share the questions that I am asking myself: what are the consequences of my actions? How are my choices and my life related with others across the world and across generations?

I look forward to writing blog posts approximately once per week, sharing the most powerful experiences and my reactions to them. When I arrive in Israel, I will be studying at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the southernmost desert region, with a student body of 1/3 Israeli Jewish, 1/3 Arab/Palestinian, and 1/3 international students.

Many thanks to the Doris Baron Environmental Studies Student Research Fund and to the Winter Term Grant Committee at Oberlin College. This trip is only possible because of their generious support!