Monday, December 19, 2011

Beyond evil and beyond good

My good friend Liz came to see the kids' musical on Sunday. The show was about the children of Terazin, the Nazis' "model ghetto". I warned her up front that she was likely to need tissues; it's incredibly sad.

Liz, who is Jewish, replied, "I dunno. I've faced all that so many times I don't get worked up too much any more. When I held my first baby in my arms, I thought how magnificent she was -- and then I thought that in another place and time, the Nazis would have thrown her up in the air to use for target practice. Because they did that with babies, you know."

Yes. But I had never connected that atrocity with my own newborn.

The conversation reminded me of a conversation I overheard after 9/11, in which someone was terrified because "there are people out there who want us dead just because we're Americans!"  The other person responded gently, "Ahhh. Yes. Now you know what it feels like to be a Jew."

I have written here before about our neighbor Freida, who died last September. There is also Rose, a neighbor who is turning 100 this year. A while back she had to go for an MRI, and the metal detector kept going off. The good folks at the MRI center kept asking her if she had any metal on her, a pacemaker, perhaps, or hairpins. No, there was nothing. After a while, Rose's face lit up as she figured out what the problem was. "Oh!" she said, "It's the bullet!"

The bullet? It turned out that when she was young the Nazis had shot her father in front of her. And a fragment of the bullet had spun off and entered her brain. And it was still there, all these years later.

*        *        *         *        *

My husband Andrew had a wrenchingly hard time watching the show. Snuggler, who played a teacher in Terazin, is almost an exact replica of his Jewish mother. He is keenly aware that if our children had been born in Europe two or three generations ago, they would have been targeted for extermination. And given the stats -- fewer than 100 of the 12,000 children who entered Terazin survived -- our children would have died. They would have died apart from us, alone beyond alone, more alone than I can begin to imagine.

Real nightmares, the kind that people actually live (and die) through, are beyond our capability to process. We grope our way along, striving to understand, trying to give shape to what we're up against so we can grasp it and expel it. But darkness is not graspable.

It is, however, pierce-able. A pitch-dark sky is made different by a single star. Light, even when it's not as strong as we want it or need it to be, is transforming.

Gerda Weissman Klein, who was featured in an Academy Award-winning documentary about the Holocaust relates, "Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to a friend."

Yes. Imagine that.

Evil isn't the only thing that's incomprehensible. There's incomprehensible love, too. We get to choose which one to focus on. We get to choose which one to emulate. Every day, we get to choose.


  1. I was so sorry to miss the show (we had every intention of seeing your young thespians this weekend when we were laid low by a virus) but am privileged to read your related post.

  2. wow, julia. thank you for this.

  3. A couple of years ago we went to Prague and took a side trip to Terezin. It was sobering. It was hard to wrap my brain around it. And what still puzzles me is that there are many people who live in that town today. Can you imagine living there???