A Year of Morning Thanks
That I can be dead wrong
On this day--April 11, 1945--Allied forces found the concentration camp at Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, where, during World War II, 56,000 prisoners were "eliminated," the flatest of all synonyms for Nazi treachery. Up until this day, rumors of death camps had circulated, but none of the Allied forces knew for sure that such places existed. Today, 53 years ago today, there no longer was a question.
It so happens that this whole week I've been deeply engaged in Holocaust stories, by choice really, but not by preference. Long ago, I put together the biography of a war Resister, Diet Eman, and that biography, Things We Couldn't Say, became the heart and soul of a documentary film, The Reckoning, whose initial script I also wrote. That film was the feature event at Sioux City, Iowa's annual Tolerance Week.
I had a choice to attend and participate, and I did; but after teaching a course in Holocaust literature in 1995, I hit some kind of wall with respect to Holocaust studies. My mind and soul seem incapable of admitting more, as whatever human capacity I have for reviewing the immense horror of the period has been reached. I sat through the movie again two nights ago, but I had no wish to see it again.
When American troops entered Buchenwald, Edward R. Murrow was with them. He didn't break the story. Honestly, he couldn't. His heart and mind and soul were so rent by the experience that he couldn't write.
That's been a problem for all the years that have passed since "The Final Solution" went into effect in Hitler's Germany. Writing about the Holocaust--what I'm doing right now--is fundamentally impossible because, really, what language can I borrow? There are no words for the inhumanity Jews--and many others--suffered in those hellish dens.
Yesterday, in a lecture, I tried to show the thoughtful and systematic way in which the Nazis went about "dejudification" in the occupied Netherlands. Early on, before the Dutch Jews were almost totally deported to Auschwitz, when members of the Jewish community would beg Nazi officials for some news of their departed loved ones, the Nazis would tell them that, should anything happen to their fathers and mothers, their parents and children, those left behind would certainly receive some kind of notice.
That, of course, was a bald-faced lie. Those deported Jewish folks--100,000 of them from the Netherlands--never returned. How could ordinary people--the German people--cooperate in such horror? I don't know.
I've long ago lost my ability to peruse all those famous Holocaust pictures--you've seen them; everyone has: emaciated bodies stacked like cord wood, cadaverous human beings in ragged, striped uniforms, children jammed in box cars. It's hard for me to look anymore.
But when I think about how systematically the German people went about their demonic task--how thoughtfully, really, how perfectly logically they created an industry with no other purpose than murder--then, once more, this old-line Calvinist is struck with an almost crippling realization of how dark our own purposes can become--all of us.
There are so many lessons of the Holocaust that the story simply demands retelling, despite my weariness. We all need reminding, even those who have long ago had their fill. But here's one moral truth that I can't hear enough of: I am capable of treachery. That humbling moral realization is a good reason for the relative discomfort I've felt this week, returning, once again, to what happened back then.
I can be dead wrong.
This morning, once again, I'm thankful for having been reminded.