This blog is called "language of conflict" because it focuses on the ways, often verbal, in which we either talk our way further into out of (or back into) strife.
Then, of course, there are the little acts. The good acts that replace the need for words. Yesterday a Holocaust survivor told me this short story that had nothing to do with our interview. I woke up this morning with the story still so deeply in my heart- I decided to let it out by sharing it with you.
This woman, who I'll call Claire, and her family survived the Holocaust and escaped to the United States. Her mother survived in a prison and her father escaped a camp. Upon arrival in the U.S. a Jewish group placed their family an old apartment in Brooklyn where here father began to work at a factory. Not an old man, only in his mid-50s, he was too weakened from his Holocaust-camp forced labor to be of much use. A younger man noticed his weakened state and would lay part of his completed work on the older man's pile everyday so that the factory manager thought the man was keeping up. Every day the young man added to the older man's pile.
Eventually the family invited him over for dinner, mostly to befriend their isolated son. The son had holes in his legs from malnutrition during the war. He kept to himself and refused to come out of his room to meet the nice young man who saved his father's job. So, they forced Claire to keep him company. The man was taken with this 14-year-old girl and told her father the next day at the factory.
My daughter is too young, he told the young man. The young man was 10 years her senior. So, the man came back every Sunday to drink coffee and eat oranges with the Claire while the parents watched from the other room. When she turned 15, he asked her to the movies with the parents permission. He pursued Claire steadily and eventually the parents allowed him to marry her.. They married when she turned 17 and are still married today.
This story sounds like a fictional parable.
The image of the young man piling his work on the old man's work station everyday is stunning. He did not know the older man had a daughter and that he would be married to her for over 50 years.
Thankfully amidst all these stories about torture and survival, I hear many love stories. Perhaps I will write about more of them after all this.
Stories about the Resistance become so political- families and nations desperately want good by telling tales of being on the "right side" of history. Love stories defy political lines. Love stories feel like a moment's visit from a hummingbird -- a brief pause between stories of torture and devastation. Just two people brought together in the context of their times...Many survivors tell me they no longer believed in God, but many still believe in love. Love clearly has not healed all wounds, they tell me they are afraid at night and still see horrible images flash before them. They fall into depressions and become saddened about the world. So, I wonder if that might not be love's job to heal all these wounds, maybe its ours. Not by erasing their pain, rather by simply paying them a visit, caring about them and
Have you ever noticed that memorials that grieve the dead (war, genocide, etc) focus only on those lost and rarely make you think about "who" actually did the killing?
This always strikes me. Take the Vietnam Memorial, for example. Such a touching way to remember those terribly young boys who died. I remember my elementary school gym teacher leaning on the wall and crying during our 5th grade trip to Washington D.C. He lost dear friends.
Though some might, the memorial does not ask you to consider in what ways U.S. policy and paranoia about communism contributed to these deaths. It's as if they occurred in a vacuum. As if, let's say, Godzilla, landed and took all these nice young men.
That's not what happened.
The U.S. made a decision to invade another country, drafted young men, and sent them to Vietnam. They fought a long war which the Vietnamese still consider the U.S. lost and thousands of young men died.
The memorial does not ask us to think about policy questions.
This aspect of memorials haunts me especially when related to the Holocaust. These memorial leave visitors standing in the horror, the enormity of what happened, again without any way to think about what factors contributed to this.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum tries. I consider this museum a memorial because the space offers a permanent commemoration to the destruction of the Jews. The first floor shows you how the Nazis came to power, but after that you're just sucked into the Holocaust itself. The 'perpetrator' or the 'perpetrating' factors dissolve into the background as you wind around the exhibit looking at the myriad of ways people died and suffered.
What allowed this to happen? Maybe they do not know. Of course many visitors may ask themselves as they peruse the names of the thousands of towns completely decimated.
I think perhaps memorials want visitors and if they ask you to consider what aspects of humanity allow this to occur, we might be offended and avoid these sites.
For example, what about a memorial that had a series of mirrors that asked us to consider what parts of ourselves allow suffering. When do we betray our friends and neighbors? In what way have we ignored our own integrity to be accepted by the crowd...Maybe we did it yesterday or last week. We let a racist or misogynistic comment fly or we did not stand up for someone being targeted.
I am not saying we all need to take on the suffering of the world...that would only lead to a suffering world. I do however, think we need memorials that go beyond listing the sorrow. Of course the Holocaust Museum founders want to make sure such atrocities never happen again. NEVER AGAIN is written all throughout the museum. But there is no help as to how.
Perhaps this is what ultimately led me back to grad school. Living in Europe and seeing countless memorials commemorating WWI and WWII showed me the enormous footprint of those conflicts, providing no indication as to how to avoid repeats.
I asked the American University of Paris to help me understand the 20th Century and then asked the scholars/practitioners at George Mason's School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution how to prevent atrocity. They have ideas and so do many others.
People are working on these solutions-- they have not yet made Atrocity Prevention museums or memorials, but there is still time. The closest I have seen are documentaries like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah during which he very calmly interviews those who did the deeds or watched them happen without uttering a word. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem similarly grapples with the mindset that allows crimes against humanity. Most do not.
Maybe years of watching American movies makes me yearn for a happy ending or at least a promise of a better future. Memorials in the 21st Century could contribute to this...Lincoln's Memorial actually offers a clue as to how to do this. His Gettysburg quote etched in the wall reminds visitors about, "the great task remaining before us."
It is great, indeed.