Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Not Why, But How?

October 2, 2014

Holocaust Survivor Rose Beal died September 30, 2014. Rose used to speak to groups in Boise and the surrounding areas about her experiences in Nazi Germany, about the erosion of civil rights, about Kristallnacht, about being loaded up and taken away from her home to be sent to a concentration camp, her miraculous return home, and how she and her family finally made it to America. I heard her speak, and I took my daughter to hear her speak, so that the Holocaust would seem real to my daughter, instead of being some dim memory in the history books.

I wrote this story about ten years ago, after another Holocaust survivor died. Unlike Rose, she had actually been sent to a concentration camp; she survived, came to America, met her husband and made a life here.

I’ve never been satisfied with this story, but for what it’s worth, here it is.


Tova Nachmann died last night.

When she was a young woman, she moved to a foreign country, met a man, helped her husband with his business, and raised a family, like millions of other housewives. You’d never think that anything out of the ordinary had ever happened to her.

But Tova was a survivor—of the Holocaust.

I remember the night she showed me the scars on her back. I’d asked her why she never talked about what happened in the camp. Without a word she got up, lifted her shirt, and showed me the scars where she’d been whipped. How could you talk about something so painful?

There are some questions I can get answers to, by talking to survivors: What was it like, jammed all together on those bunks on hot summer nights? Did the heat and the mosquitoes nearly drive you insane? In the bitter cold winters, did your muscles cramp because you were huddled up so tightly, hugging your knees to your chest while trying to keep warm? How did women deal with personal and sanitary issues?

But some questions I can’t get the answers to, because the people who could answer them don’t dare. If they did, they would give themselves away, and spend what little remained of their lives in jail.

I wish one of them would write memoirs, to be published anonymously, or posthumously, that would answer these questions:

            How could you treat another human being that way? How could you throw a man into a cesspool and laugh while he drowned in a pool of excrement? How could you torture—slowly, methodically—so many people? Did it affect you at all? Did you mind at first? Did you mind at the end? How could you justify treating other people that way?

We know that many of these men escaped to other countries and went on to lead normal lives. They raised families and tended gardens and were friendly with the neighbors. How did they do it? How did they live with what they’d done? Did they just see it as a job they’d done, with no remorse and no regrets? Did they wonder why the rest of the world made such a big deal of it?

Or in hindsight, did it seem as horrific to them as it did to other people? Did it take on a dreamlike quality, something that happened to someone else or that happened in a nightmare? Did they say, “That couldn’t have been me, it was someone else who did that!”

And sometimes I feel the question rising in me like a tide, and then the whole world is keening a question to God, and the question isn’t, “Why, God, why?” but “How?—How?”

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