Friday, June 26, 2009

The Auschwitz Album II

It's funny how one thing leads to another. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the album of photographs from Auschwitz depicting various Nazi officials and underlings enjoying some leisurely downtime when their day's work of murder was done and they were free to unwind a bit in each other's company. I don't believe anything I've written to date has generated as many comments, both oral and electronic, from so many of you. Like me, most of you simply couldn't imagine what to say to such pictures and, also like me, most of you experienced the odd sensation of being unable to look and unable to look away at the same time.

Pictures such as theseand, more specifically, the experience of looking at them and pondering the implications they have for our sense of what it means to be a human beingfoster a kind of "us vs. them" mentality in most of us: we were the victims, "they" were the perpetrators; we were the innocent, "they" were the guilty; we were the martyred, "they" were the murderers. There's a certain truth in that kind of thinking—we were the victims, after all—and, indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone viewing those pictures and not feeling a sense of complete antipathy towards the monsters depicted in them.

But then, it turns out, that there are also "thems" out there who are not only doing as much as we ourselves are doing to preserve the memory of the martyrs, but far more than most of us could ever claim to have done ourselves. And we need to consider them too in our thinking when we try to develop a sense of where we actually do fit into the human family.

Perhaps some of you saw the article in the Times a few days ago by Elaine Sciolino, the New York Times bureau chief in Paris and the wife of one of my best childhood friends, about Father Patrick Desbois. Father Desbois, a French Catholic priest, has undertaken a project of some breathtaking importance that I wanted to bring it to your attention if you didn't see the article in the paper. For me personally, of all the stories connected with the Shoah, the ones regarding the massacre of the Jews of the Ukraine by the roving murder squads known as the Einsatzgruppen have always been the most difficult the read. The detailssome of which have haunted my nightmares for almost forty years noware almost too horrific to describe in normal prose. My response, and the response of many, has been to look pay lip service to wanting to recall the suffering of our martyrs, but not actually to force myself to read accounts of mass murder that are almost unbearable to contemplate. But, it also turns out, there are people with a stronger sense of obligation than that! And Father Desbois is one of them.

One by one, he has been visiting the towns of the Ukraine in which the Jewish citizens were massacred and buried in mass graves, mostly unmarked. He has managed, also, to find any number of living witnesses to the round-ups that preceded the killing and, in some cases, to the actual murders themselves. And he has succeeded in getting these people to tell their stories to an extent that is hard to imagine, encouraging people to speak openly about events regarding which many have never said a single word for all these many years. Perhaps it's because he's a Catholic priest. Or perhaps it's just a function of his non-judgmentalism and the genuine interest he has in listening. But he has somehow managed to collect stories of massacres that no one has ever heard. And he has also identified the sites of dozens of unmarked burial sites, all together comprising the final resting places of tens of thousands of Jewish people, if not more. More to the point, he has managed to create a kind of memorial to whole forgotten communities...and those who lived in them and who died as martyrs during the Shoah.

So that puts a bit of a crimp in the "us vs. them" thing. I think about the Shoah constantly. Indeed, a day doesn't pass when the Shoah doesn't impinge in some way or another on my thinking. The ghosts of the dead are with me always, but the work this guy is doing is sacred...and it's work I don't think I could ever do as well or, even, at all. I pray that God grant him the strength to finish his work and to create a permanent, accurate registry of the unknown, unmarked cemeteries in the Ukraine in which lie the remains of uncountable numbers of Jewish martyrs.

And may Father Desbois inspire us all to realize that, for all it is possible for human beings to debase and degrade the divine image so totally that it becomes almost unrecognizable (as was wholly evident in those other pictures I wrote about a few weeks ago), it is also possible for human beings to bring honor to that same image by devoting themselves to holy work. Bad people are the people who do bad things. It sounds so simple when I write it out like that...but it takes the example of a man like Patrick Desbois to highlight the corollary of that thought: that good people, regardless of their nationality or their religious affiliation, are people who do good. And that there is no other reasonable definition. (October 12, 2007)

1 comment:

  1. very interesting because i blogged about the auschwitz album AND about father desbois just this week on my online holocaust memorial Never Again!

    i'm doing my best to preserve this tragic piece of history...i hope you will take a moment to see what i've posted in my blog's short existence


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