Thursday, January 18, 2007

"Night" by Elie Wiesel

Night by Elie Wiesel

I read this for my library's book group. I confessed to another groupee as we met across the circulation desk that I was reading it in fits and starts. I told her I was reminded of Field Notes for a Compassionate Life, in which one person the author interviewed said it should be a law that no one can read or see anything about the holocaust. It is forbidden to speak of it, until one reaches a certain age when it is mandatory that every citizen visit the National Holocaust Museum. (I tried searching in that book at Amazon but couldn't find that passage again.) We would all be so horrified that we could never collectively do such atrocities again. As it is we become inured to the violence, the horror. We see so much of it, it becomes ordinary. I think that's how people manage to be complacent with such atrocities. The oppressed are seen as non-human. They become animals played with for sport. I don't think I've read a first-person account since Anne Frank, and of course Anne's diaries were left behind when she was taken to a camp. Just as everyone should face this past in the museum to keep it in the past, this book should be read by all, to keep us from doing it again. (Our book group was cancelled due to weather...hopefully will be rescheduled.)

Elie Wiesel talks about God dying. He had been a child attracted to the mystical, with a special connection to praying. Reduced to animals scrabbling for food, trying to appear healthy enough to avoid "selection," people would forget to say the verses for the dying. He witnessed sons denying their fathers to survive, resolved he would not leave his father behind, only to ignore his father's calls when he did die. I wonder how Elie found God again. I suppose that may be in the other two books of the trilogy.

When war reigns supreme, those who have no conscience and a severed connection to others, the sociopaths, the psychopaths, gain power. The compassionate go underground or die. Even within the orderly system of the German camps, people managed to help each other some, managed to slow the work down, some, managed to spread the word on strategies to live.

Right now I sit in a cafe, an old veteran interrupted me. "I see you have a peace sign. Do you believe in peace?" I said, "I do." "Do you know why the United States brings peace to the world?" uh oh. this could get difficult. I avoid the question. "Sir, I'm sorry, I'm busy." "Nobody's invaded our country because we have a strong military. If you don't have arms they come in and take you over." It's more complex than that, what can I say? People count on certain societal rules to maintain the peace. Elie and his family and neighbors were warned of the camps, but they didn't believe. The world let them happen. Was it because they couldn't believe such systematic killing was possible? The US was friendly to Germany in the beginning. Companies did business with the Nazis.

So here I am contemplating evil, and along comes this article On Evil from the New English Review (via ChezBez). It has happened again, and again I ask, how do people so divorce themselves from each other that such killing seems to create hardly more of a bump in their consciousness than the cutting of wood or baking of bread? The Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis in Rwanda, the author says, "In that slaughter, in the space of three months, neighbours killed without compunction those with whom they had been friendly all their lives, only because they were of the different, and reputedly opposing, ethnic designation."

How could I have a conversation with that grizzled old veteran? When this aspect of human nature is encouraged, the loving kind can indeed be mowed under while the warmongers slaughter them. Yet someone encourages it, and that someone's power has more to do with money than with ideals or defense. He mutters, continuing his argument to himself as he gathers his things and heads out the door. He needs to believe his time in the military was for a noble cause. Other veterans, indeed active troops, believe we don't belong in Iraq. We are the aggressors, and the tinder that continues to fuel the strife there. Yet how could I not have a conversation with him? Isn't it by not talking that people could be herded into cattle cars? Isn't it through our disconnection to others that violence continues? What I could have done at least was listened. Instead I had this list of tasks to do, looming in the background, didn't want distraction while I got caught up...not that I got caught up anyway.

I'm thinking if I make it to New York again, it's about time I visited the Holocaust Museum. I'm thinking next time I wear my sparkly peace pin I'll be ready to listen. I'm thinking I have no clue to the horrors of this kind of violence. They were made to run miles in the snow, if they stopped they died. They had to trample or be shot. It is because of this that people say this was the "good war," but I wonder how it got that far in the first place. How do otherwise ordinary individuals accept and approve this collective madness that attempts to exterminate an entire people? It's too easy to blame it on a monstrous icon. It happens too easily I think because many people keep disconnections alive through many other smaller violences. As long as we think the only protection is violence, like the old vet, then we continue to reap violence.


Tom Paine said...

I was at Dachau outside Munich some years ago, and after emerging from their museum, the weather outside was splendid: sun following the rain, a perfectly lovely Spring day. And I thought about the beautiful days the inmates must've seen, and could understand how many camp survivors lost all belief in God. What kind of God is it would let 6 million perish in that way? Such questions are not easy to answer.

Moi said...

I have not been to the museum in NYC, but have been to the one in DC and the experience is awesome...and by this I mean my main experience was one of fully dumbstruck awe.

The museum was an experiential one. We are not afforded the comfort of detached observation there. The room with the hair of all those killed in one village, the elevator, the films, the clothing...powerful.

There it is, there we are, connected to those who lived that time and passed over to another. All there is is to breathe.