“Viste las noticias, Daniel? Mataron a Osama Bin Laden! Mataron a Osama Bin Laden!” I clutched my phone, screaming, “Mami, Osama Bin Laden es dead!”
My mom yelled back, “Si! Lo mataron! Lo mataron en Pakistan!”
I was in a hotel room in Warsaw. My roommates were emerging out of their beds, also checking their phones, getting bombarded by text-messages and news updates about how the world’s most wanted terrorist was slaughtered in the middle of the night. One of them grabbed the remote control and turned on the TV. CNN International: a montage of Osama Bin Laden’s tapes, the World Trade Center exploding, grainy, yellow-tinted pictures of the Pakistani countryside. I imagined that everyone else on the trip was also waking up to the same frantic, celebratory phone calls. We went downstairs to have breakfast in a stuffy banquet room with a hundred other Jewish teenagers. One of our supervisors jumped on a microphone to give a mini-speech about the day’s planned events, and then after delivering a few instructions, cheerfully announced Bin Laden’s death. The room roared.
Most of the trip followed this dynamic—an adult said something into a microphone, regarding Auschwitz, Polish history, or Israel, and we then gave the expected response. In that banquet hall, eating a sad, stale protein bar, it was hard to actually tell how I truly felt about Osama Bin Laden’s death. For the past few days, I was jet lagged and being constantly told how to feel about certain things. If I was at home in my bedroom, I would have gone to my bookshelf and pulled out my American flag Moleskine journal from the 3rd grade and spent the entire day nostalgically rereading my childhood musings on the War on Terror. I was becoming a pest in class, finding a way to weave 9/11 into any conversation, frightening classmates with this newfound obsession. Daniel, I am going to need you to write all of your thoughts about 9/11 in this journal. An entry from March 2002: After Afghanistan, is Iraq next? An entry from April 2002: Why is everyone in the WORLD mad at ME? But in that 3 star hotel in Warsaw, I lacked any sense of the personal; there was nothing to ponder. If the room cheered, I followed.
March of the Living is an educational trip where Jewish high schoolers from all around the world connect to a shared sense of heritage. During the first week, we visited the concentration camps in Poland—eating shitty, pre-packaged Kosher food, dutifully listening to Holocaust survivors recant their traumatic stories, writing scattered thoughts about genocide in notebooks—and then for the second week, we celebrated the renewal of our history in Israel—enjoying a bountiful breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit, hummus, and pita on the beach with wind blowing from the Mediterranean Sea, bonding with beefy I.D.F. soldiers carrying bazooka guns, and engaging in lengthy discussions about the glorious success of the Zionist project. It’s hard to reflect on a trip that’s seemingly designed to be too on the nose. To label it a propaganda trip is reductive. Propaganda trip suggests that a bunch of Jewish baby boomers huddled in a smoky room to study North Korean brainwashing techniques and concoct a plan to train an army of feverous Zionist teenagers. This was way too sincere. If anything, it was just misguided. Regardless, all the evidence of my time on that trip is deeply incriminating. There’s no shortage of cringe worthy Facebook albums—me and my high school friends marching down Auschwitz train tracks with Israeli flags tied around our necks, acting like we were at a World Cup game. Some of us thought it was fine to smile and giggle and joke at Auschwitz because we were bringing life to a place of death.Our teachers frequently reminded us how special it was to visit a concentration camp with a survivor and nearly a decade later, after all of the Holocaust survivors in my family have passed, I can’t disagree. However, I wish that my clearest memory was carefully listening to the survivors’ stories at the camps or some poignant moment in which I realized that my family’s history of oppression was being used to oppress other people. Those moments don’t exist. The most vivid thing I can recall is Osama Bin Laden Es Dead.
“Zero Dark Thirty looks kind of cool.”
“Huh? The Hurt Locker was fucking awesome.”
“We shouldn’t be killing so many people.”
“It just looks like a fun movie.”
Alec and I were walking out of a suburban mall, following our friend Patrick to his car in the parking lot. We had just watched Skyfall in a packed movie theater. Besides a scene in which James Bond insinuates that he may be bisexual, nothing else struck me as interesting to talk about from the movie. The most notable thing was the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty, a Kathryn Bigelow film about how the C.I.A. spent a decade looking for Osama Bin Laden that remarkably, was released a year and a half after he was killed. The trailer looked cool just like how the trailer for Skyfall had once looked cool.
Beautiful C.I.A. agents scheming in ugly offices
Helicopters taking off from the sun kissed desert
A shady handshake at a sports car dealership in Kuwait
Navy Seal Officers remarking on what a big deal it would be to murder Osama Bin Laden
Night cam footage of soldiers entering in Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan
A skeletal building, conspicuously inconspicuous
Something clearly goes wrong
Jessica Chastain looking out into the distance
I said, “I don’t know, it just looks fun.”
Alec hissed, “No, Daniel. We are killing a lot of people.”
“But… doesn’t he deserve to die?”
“I don’t know…I guess, it’s interesting that they made a movie so fast; you know, instant historicization.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Shame On You!
How are you supposed to eat a shitty turkey sandwich at Auschwitz? With appreciation, soberness, or nonchalance? Are you not allowed to complain about how hard it is to masticate cardboard bread?
“Don’t complain about the food. Have some respect.”
Me and a dozen other members of the Los Angeles delegation sat on a grassy field at Auschwitz, quietly struggling to eat our turkey sandwiches. A flood of teenagers sporting Israeli flags as capes began approaching the memorial site. The wind picked up giggles in various languages: Spanish, German, Portuguese, French. But my group sat in complete silence.
When we got up, everyone broke off into cliques and started marching towards this giant stage a few hundred yards away. I walked with two friends and within seconds, they started horsing around. One pushed the other followed by both pretending to be hurt. I watched and egged them on.
A wrinkled voice manifested out of nowhere. “This is a place where millions of people died! This is a place where my family died! This is a place where I went through the worst things imaginable! This isn’t a place to be silly! Shame on you!”
The voice disappeared before my friends and I could properly apologize. We looked around, the sky was grey, foreshadowing a light rain; in silence, we continued walking, solemnly listening to the giggles.
A Coked-Out Debate About Whether or Not President Obama Lied About Osama Bin Laden’s Death
The last time I ever did cocaine Barack Obama was president and I still had a penchant for turning mundane scenarios into melodramatic catastrophes. It was at my friend’s New Year’s Eve party, and I spent the night ping ponging between her bedroom and the rest of the party, desperately trying to catch the attention of her friend. I had hooked up with him the week before in the bathroom of Good Luck Bar. I thought he was going to be pleasant, maybe flirt a little or at the very least, politely acknowledge my existence. Instead, he entered the party, walked right past me and immediately hit on the other loud Jewish guy at the party. It struck a nerve. The night ended with me executing a misguided plot to make him jealous. He didn’t care. He left when most of the attendees moved to the next destination, and I was left coked out of my mind, sitting with a circle of friends around a coffee table, rattling through topics at a rapid-fire speed—He didn’t cheat on her, she cheated on him / Maybe that warehouse party isn’t worth it because this is so much more fun, isn’t this more fun? RIGHT? This is more FUN / Daniel, don’t be so prejudiced towards Sqirl, it’s actually amazing! Don’t say it’s rabbit food! / OH MY GOD, DON’T TEXT HIM. / Should we just like, finish off the baggy? And then the last topic of the night came—Osama Bin Laden’s death.
“DID YOU READ THAT ARTICLE IN THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS ABOUT OSAMA? SHIT DOESN’T ADD UP WITH HIS DEATH! THAT SHIT WAS STAGED!”
“DANIEL, WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”
“THE WHOLE THING WAS STAGED! THE PAKISTANI GOVERNMENT WORKED WITH THE AMERICANS! ZERO DARK THIRTY IS A LIE! PROPAGANDA!”
“BECAUSE OBAMA! CNN SPECTACLE!”
“THE PAKISTANI GOVERNMENT KNEW WHERE HE WAS! THEY GAVE HIM UP TO OBAMA FOR GEOPOLITICAL REASONS! THE WHOLE RAID IS A LIE! DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT OSAMA WAS HIDING NEXT TO A MILITARY BASE!”
“I KIND OF AGREE WITH DANIEL ON THIS ONE…!”
“THIS SOUNDS LIKE A WEIRD CONSPIRACY!”
“YEAH IT’S A LITTLE OUTLANDISH.”
“NO, I AM RIGHT ABOUT OSAMA BIN LADEN.”
“WHAT ARE YOU GUYS EVEN TALKING ABOUT?”
“IT WAS ALL STAGED. THE WAR ON TERROR NEEDED AN ENDING AND A
MOMENT OF… !”
My Abuelo Leo spent the last years of his life sitting in front of a TV, watching CNN and drinking whiskey on the rocks. He always brought a quiet sense of terror to the house. We walked on eggshells around him, fearing that he would do something to piss off my dad and subsequently, cause everyone to explode. He had an acquired taste of humor. When I was five, I sat next to him in the living room and asked him as he got his nightly fix of CNN—what are those numbers on your arm? He ignored me and kept basking in the soft glow of Wolf Blitzer. I asked again—que son esos numeros? He grabbed his glass of whiskey—I sometimes forget my phone number. Him and Abuela Klari’s story came in bits and pieces. Years following his death, under a heavy dose of morphine after hip surgery, Abuela Klari told my dad all the details about how at Auschwitz, she and her twin sister were experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele, only surviving because he had a perverted fixation on Jewish twins. The day after I got back from March of the Living, my mom explained to me that not all survivors are so willing to be walking relics. While some are happy to talk to a bunch of teenagers at the site of their trauma, others prefer to just watch CNN on full blast, evading questions. He took another sip of whiskey and then turned up the volume: a recap of George W. Bush and Al Gore debating; pundits chiming in. I asked—que estas viendo? He answered—dirty politics.
At the end of our tour of the Auschwitz Memorial Site, we gathered with hundreds of teenagers in front of a giant outdoor stage for a two hour long show. It was like a music festival headlining mild-mannered Jewish educators. Speeches were in a mix of English and Hebrew and topics ranged from how to honor history to the glory of the state of Israel. There was a steady wind and some light rain and a few of us took off our Israeli flag capes to throw on parkas. The last act was a hunchbacked rabbi who gave a compelling speech about the Amalekites—an ancient tribe that throughout the Bible, posed an existential threat to the Israelites. The turkey sandwich was rapidly disintegrating in my stomach, bubbling up in all sorts of directions. I was growing impatient and my attention went back and forth from the stage to the rows of busses, promising that we would be heading back to Warsaw soon and then later that night, fly to Tel Aviv and finally be hundreds of miles away from this horrible place. But as his speech snowballed into a rallying cry, there was nowhere else to look: All throughout history, there has been a force that wanted to destroy the Jewish people—the Amalekites! In the story of Purim, Haman was the Amalek. We are standing in a place where an Amalekite thought he would wipe us all out! But here we are! CELEBRATING LIFE. And this morning, it was announced another enemy of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, was killed. Osama Bin Laden was greeted with the same fate as all Amalekites have been greeted with in the past and will be greeted with in the future!
Everyone stomped on the ground, righteously cheering. I had no time to think. At the moment, it barely registered how this was blatant historical revisionism—a weaponization of collective trauma. By being there, I relinquished individuality. I was agreeing to this imposed narrative. I had to act accordingly or be excluded. The cheers grew more furious. I followed.
An Oral History of the Hand Job
I haven’t been completely honest. I am sorry. Here’s a clarification: when I think about what I remember from March of the Living, in addition to that morning where I learned about Osama Bin Laden’s death, I also have a clear recollection of the most notorious hand job in my high school’s history. I called a few people who went on the trip with me to interview them about this hand job. What follows is an oral history:
“He was actively telling other people about getting this hand job.”
“Everyone knew about the hand job. It occurred under a blanket, on the plane, next to a Holocaust survivor.”
“He seemed very excited at the reaction that he would receive to getting a hand job next to a Holocaust survivor.”
“I heard that the Holocaust survivor was asleep for most of it or all of it like I didn’t hear that that she woke up at any point.”
“I remember learning this fact and being very disturbed.”
“The majority of the people from what I remember thought it was really funny. I can’t honestly remember anyone that I spoke to who was incredibly, like upset or disturbed by it.”
“I remember asking ‘what were the mechanics of getting away with something like that on a plane?’”
“I think the hand job was the perfect capstone for that trip because there was nothing about that trip that really honored survivors.”
“I remember something wackadoodle happened but I can’t really say. I was shocked but I was so happy that I was home that I blanked it out.”
The trip ended with everyone celebrating Israeli Independence Day in Jerusalem. During the day, we walked through the Old City waving Israeli flags and singing patriotic songs and at night, we went to a music festival in the outskirts of Jerusalem with multiple stages and tents of catered food. All the teenagers were wearing buttons from their home country. I was a bit tired and forgot mine at the hotel room. Some students from the Los Angeles delegation dispersed across the festival, befriending teenagers from other countries and then making out, later bragging about their misadventures with international lovers. I spent the entire night with my friend Jesse, observing the spectacle and exchanging clever remarks about the mediocrity of the performers. The basis of our friendship was that we both vaguely knew what the term “postmodernism” meant. And standing in the back of the crowd, we acted above it all—joking about this clumsy Jewish rendering of a rave.
A splatter of neon lights
A heavy dubstep beat blaring through the speakers
A Hebrew song about planes and adventure
A Jumbotron screen
A montage of pixelated Israeli flags interspersed with postcard photos of Jerusalem
A sunset hitting the Western Wall
A slideshow of male teenagers, crying and praying at the Western Wall
A techno song about Tel Aviv summers
A sea of students grinding and screaming
I turned to Jesse. “Dude this is so postmodern.”
“Yeah, totally, dude. What the fuck is this…. most postmodern shit of
Dos Niñas Pequeñas
When my dad found out Abuela Klari was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he asked me if I would fly with him to Caracas to say a final goodbye. I obliged. There was so much violence and uncertainty in the streets of Caracas that for the majority of the trip, we were just camped out in her apartment, watching movies and feeding her pills and meals. Abuela Klari always personified elegancia. Her hair was dyed a perfect, mahogany brown, her pantsuits were well-fitted and chic, and she never left the house without a pearl necklace complimented by pearl earrings. This Abuela Klari was grey haired and frail, wearing oversized bathrobes. She was totally sedated so it didn’t really matter what we said or did around her. The point was just to be there. And at times, she got confused and asked for her late husband Leo or would gesture towards a traumatic story that was creeping to the surface.
One day, we brought her twin sister Lilli to her apartment and pulled out pints of ice cream from Caracas’s most famous gelateria. Lilli was a reminder of Klari’s past—though she was in the throes of dementia, she looked healthy, sporting a turquoise pantsuit, jewelry, and a full red lip. Papi and I sat them down in front of each other in the dining room. My tío served each of them a scoop of vanilla. After exchanging a few pleasantries, they moved past a fog of confusion and began eating in unison like two little girls, scarfing down a treat after school. My dad pulled out his iPhone and started filming. I followed and started snapping pictures with my iPhone. My tío took out his Android to document the two of them, enjoying one another’s company and bouncing off remarks about how el helado es demasiado dulce.
My Abuela’s nurses came out of the kitchen to observe.
“Hay que lindo.”
“Como dos niñas pequeñas.”
They finished the ice cream but kept on scraping the bowls with their spoons, unaware that it was all done. Their spoons clinked against the bottom of the bowls; a piercing ringing sound. We stood there in admiration. Eventually, we told them to stop; our phones filming it all. My Abuela died three weeks later. I could never tell if she knew she was performing.
Daniel Spielberger is a writer based in Los Angeles who is an M.F.A. candidate at CalArts Creative Writing Program. His nonfiction, fiction, cultural criticism, and journalism has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, Interview, Business Insider, Playboy, Peach Mag, Talk Vomit, and other outlets.
Image: “Live Free” by Jacobe Zimmerman