Friday, July 06, 2007

What Has Changed in 60 Years?

How we can we -- not as individuals or as a nation, but as a people -- ever forget what we have done to each other in years past, and what we continue to do to each other to this day? How can those few on the fringe, with so much overwhelming proof to the contrary, deny those very things that we have done to one another?

A. and I watched a documentary this afternoon as a continuation of my reading and learning about Elie Wiesel, Elie Wiesel Goes Home, a film which covers his return home to Sighet (in what is now Hungary) and a visit to Auschwitz with a fellow survivor and close friend -- both of which occurred in mid-1996. The main portion of the documentary is sandwiched between footage from the 1993 opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington and from his acceptance speech at the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. It was extremely interesting, but what made it so incredibly powerful and emotional for me was the footage from the 1940s that was played along with some lovely traditional music from Eastern Europe and William Hurt reading excerpts from Wiesel's works. Some of the images may have been familiar, but the combination of sight and sound was overwhelming; I got particularly emotional during a sequence of photographs of small children at Auschwitz, accompanied by Hurt reading this passage from Night -- a passage which I had read several days ago but which has now taken on a whole new meaning for me after having heard it and seen those children:

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

"Men to the left! Women to the right!"

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father's hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn't know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.

Watching this segment, I thought of my daughters. And then I thought of the sons and daughters, grandchildren, sisters and brothers -- all of the children who were the age my daughters are now and who never had the opportunity to grow up. If people knew then what was going on, why wasn't more done? Wiesel has written (combination of quotes here): "The free world, including Jewish leaders in America and Palestine, had known [about the Final Solution] since 1942, but we knew nothing. Why didn't they warn us? ... If other Christians had acted like her [a neighbor who had tried to offer refuge to some of the Jews in Sighet], the trains rolling to the unknown would have been less crowded. If priests and pastors had raised their voices, if the Vatican had broken its silence, the enemy's hands would not have been so free."

The two questions with which I started this post are the questions that were running through my mind at the end of the film. I've been raised with the phrase "never forget" buried in my mind somewhere, a phrase that applies to so many things. But I can't help but wonder how the world turned a blind eye to the Holocaust when it was happening, and how there are so many things to which we're turning that same blind eye today? I've always thought that the most important things in our lives are the things which we experience and which impact us directly, but with the world growing smaller each day, won't nearly everything impact us directly one day? Because of 24-hour, instant news, the problems in places like Darfur and Rwanda aren't as far away as they used to be. More voices are being raised about these problems now than were six decades ago -- but we can do more, should do more, and (I hope) will do more.

Watch this documentary. Even if you think you've heard it all, seen it all, or read it all, watch this documentary. The combination of sounds and images will make you consider the past -- and our present -- in a whole new way.


Sandie said...

Eli has been my hero for a long time. Dafur and Rwanda have upset me for years now. It frustrates me to no end that we can't/won't get a world peace keeping force with enough power together to do something about genocide where ever it is happening in the world.

Kristen said...

Thank you for your post. I remember having a similar revelation in one of my Judaism classes in college. Our professor showed us photographs of one village in Europe, of the local temple and of pictures of some of the Jewish residents. Then she told us that everyone in that village had been killed during the Holocaust. My professor choked back tears as she told us, and I have never forgotten the shock and power of that moment. Thank you for this reminder about the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Darfur. Even though these are things I've been horrified by and care very much about, it helps to be reminded again and again.