My story always begins with, “My grandfather, my Zayde, was a Holocaust survivor.” Sometimes I am embarrassed by how salient that fact is to my identity. I have often pondered how strange it is to have an identity rooted in tragedy. My perception of myself and the way I engage with the world is inextricably shaped by the death and suffering of so many others relatively long ago. Trust me, it’s an awkward icebreaker.
Last month, I walked across the Diag on the way to the last class of my undergraduate career. I paused to wonder how many times I crossed the Diag over the last four years. It must have been in the hundreds. But what about the times I have not crossed? The times I entered the Diag without a destination on the other side, but with the intention to spend time at its center?
The first memory that comes to mind is the picture I took with my sister at her graduation four years ago. She had just finished her time at the University of Michigan, and I was about to begin mine. We took a cute picture of her on the ‘M’ while I stood behind it, as I had not yet earned the right to step on it.
Besides that picture, there were the days I spent hammocking in the lawns, some occasional moments of doing homework or waiting for friends on the benches, and times like the morning of April 29, when I stood in the Diag to hear names.
That day, it was Lori Kaye.
Throughout my time at the University, I have been part of the organization Students for Holocaust Awareness, Remembrance and Education. Every year in April or May, around Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — we organize a 24-hour Reading of the Names vigil on the Diag. For 24 continuous hours, students and community members take half hour shifts reading names of victims of the Holocaust from a stack of about ten thick books — one name at a time.
In April 2016, I sat on the Diag to read names, then again in April 2017 and again in April 2018.
In October 2018, my friend Zainab accompanied me to the Diag to hear names. Zainab and I have often bonded over the similarities between her Muslim and my Jewish identity. The two of us are no strangers to histories of marginalization and targeted violence toward these identities, and we have mourned victims of that violence together. That day, it was Cecil Rosenthal, and ten more names.
In March 2019, I accompanied Zainab to the Diag to hear names. That day, it was Mucaad Ibrahim and 49 more. I did not linger too long to listen to names that day, though, because we had to run.
Zainab and I fled the Diag after reports of an active shooter in a nearby building. We huddled behind a barricaded door on the fourth floor of Hatcher Graduate Library for upwards of an hour-and-a-half, repeating, “this doesn’t feel real.” Fortunately, it was not real. It was a fear-fueled false shooter alarm prompted by the sound of popping balloons, which coincided with a vigil for victims of yet another instance of identity-based violence.
In April 2019, I sat on the Diag to read names again. This year, we rediscovered some old books from past years of the vigil. It was in one of these books that I was startled to read aloud the name Israel Ringewirtz from Nasielsk, Poland. My Zayde’s last name was originally Ringewirtz, and his father was from Nasielsk. After four years of reading so many names from so many books, I read the name of a family member. The thing about the vigil, about every vigil, is that I read and hear too many names. They blur together. They feel distant. Then suddenly, they are close to me again. They feel like the attacker is right there on the Diag with me, running towards a group of Jews, or Muslims or whoever has gathered to remember the latest victims. Or they are the officer, running toward us, shouting at us to scatter.
It didn’t feel real. What a privilege that situation was not real. This was not the case when my cousin in California posted those words on Facebook: “this doesn’t feel real.”
Zainab texted me. “I heard what happened in San Diego. I hope you’re doing okay!” I wish we did not have to keep trading these words. This time, I responded “it was my family’s synagogue so I’m a little shocked.”
Two days later, I stood on the Diag to hear a name. That day, it was Lori Kaye. This time, there was only one degree of separation.
I have read and heard possibly thousands of names of victims of identity-based violence in the Diag. It would have been 253 more if I had not felt too emotionally drained to attend the vigil for the victims of the Sri Lanka bombings.
The last time I lingered on the Diag was a week after the San Diego shooting, when I returned to take a picture of my sister and myself standing on the ‘M’ together in honor of my own graduation. I think I earned the right to step on it. They tell us that we cannot step on the ‘M’ until after we take our first Bluebook exam, otherwise we will fail that exam. I like to think of this superstition as the University asking us to work hard, to engage with the world and to dedicate ourselves to causes we care about before we stand on the ‘M.’ For me, that has taken the form of embracing sadness and loss in the aftermath of identity-based violence in a pattern that has continually brought me back to the Diag to mourn and to fear the next time I will need to return.
When I finally stood on the ‘M,’ I might as well have laid down on it because I am exhausted. While I have always embraced my own identity rooted in tragedy, I feel weighed down by the burden of the names I have read and heard on the Diag of identities that ended in tragedy. Perhaps that is why the bricks around the ‘M’ are so cracked, from the weight of communal grief.
My challenge to the University community is to keep putting weight on those bricks. When inevitably you read another headline where safety is threatened because of identity, show up to support those who endure grief due to violence towards their communities. My story always begins with “my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor” because identity-based violence is woven into my identity and sharing that piece of identity with others helps me feel part of a supportive community. The people who organize and who show up to vigils on the Diag in the wake of identity-based violence — who choose to share the burden of others’ sadness whether it feels close to them or not — those are the people who make the Diag feel like a space for being in community with others, even if being in community means being sad together.
Melissa Berlin graduated from LSA in 2019 with degrees in sociology and psychology.