It seems to me as if the farther the whole horrifying experience recedes into our past, the easier it is to talk about it--the Holocaust, that is. For years, really wise people, survivors especially, used to debate whether any Holocaust story-telling was legitimate, whether, for instance, good fiction could be written about what happened, because anything anyone might imagine could never reach the real horror. No language could be borrowed to describe it. If survivors would not talk about the Holocaust, it wasn't because they were trying to escape it; there simply were no words.
And it's true. Even the adjective I've already used, horrifying, seems cheap. Here's synonyms from an on-line thesaurus--none of them really get there either. Alarming?--what's alarming is the rise of persecution of Christians by Muslims. Appalling?--it's a word I've always liked because it carries the image of a face gone pale; but what's appalling to me is the levels of gun violence in America.
How about daunting? What's daunting is trying to change the culture of violence on the bloody streets of Chicago. Disgusting?--are you kidding? What's disgusting is Shawn Hannity using a bigot cattleman to stoke fear. Frightening?--Alfred Hitchcock is frightening. Outrageous?--a word so overused it might be impossible to find a politician who hasn't used it a half-dozen times this week. Shocking?--before and after pictures of what tornadoes wrought this week down South are shocking. Terrifying? Sickening? Intimidating?--nothing, really nothing, comes close.
Try it--"the Holocaust was sickening." What's sickening is days on end without sun.
Here is just part of the story. On January, 1942, in a suburb of Berlin named Wannsee, fourteen Nazi men-- thoughtful, educated fellows, I'm sure, good family men, too--met to iron out details of “the Final Solution” to “the Jewish problem.” All of Europe would undergo “dejudification,” the annihilation of an entire race. That prosperous and cultured men could sit down together over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer and finalize a plan to wipe out millions of people is as impossible to describe as it is to comprehend. (My software puts a red line beneath dejudification; it claims not to know that word. I don't know if that's good or bad.)
Church-goers, men with an eye for art and an ear for Beethhoven and Brahms, looked over rolled-out blueprints that pictured spacious, modern factories engineered to kill vast numbers of innocent men, women, and children as cleanly and efficiently and economically as possible. Social engineers designed entire cities of barracks where thousands, millions, were meant simply to starve. Didn't any of those smart, cultured men have second thoughts? Didn't they swallow at least once uncomfortably? Did they sit there and swap jokes that night? Did they giggle if they spilled coffee on those plans?
What words can even begin to describe all of that? Try out your own.
Last night in an ornate music hall, I sat through a presentation of art and music and newsreels that, once again, tried to tell the story--and did in a way I'd never before experienced. But I told myself that somehow it gets easier, that the telling, seventy years later, feels less impossible. Maybe it's because so few of those who were there at Dachau or Bergen-Belzen are with us anymore.
Or maybe it's just me. After all, I've tried more than once to tell the story myself--will again tomorrow night, in fact.
Or it's my age?--the acculturation of wisdom. "The years teach much which the days never knew," says Emerson.
Maybe it's simple repetition. I've heard it all before. You know what I'm saying: Once there lived a man who never sinned; we hung him, actually freed a murderer in his place, then buried him, sealed the tomb with a skid loader; and then--good night, what language shall I borrow?--that sinless man walked right out of the darkness and into the dawn, left whatever hell he'd visited, stepped out of death's iron shackles and back into our lives. Seriously, it happened.
Maybe it's just time that wears the telling.
Doesn't matter, I guess, does it?--even if there are no words. Perhaps even the stories that can not be told can not be left to fade into silence.