Daughter, what have I done?
|Thoughts from a Rocking Chair|
I think again these days of the six weeks I spent in Israel as a student archaeologist, assisting in the excavations at Tel Gerisa, an ancient settlement in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. As a part of our historical studies, we visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial. I ought to have trembled, I know. I didn’t. All was remote. I felt alien, a voyeur of the remnant of something occult and sinister, something cankerous.
Back on the tell a day or two later, we came to a “destruction level,” a layer of ash. No one knew for certain who had lived there three millennia ago—Canaanite, Philistine, or Israelite. There was no voice among the ashes. There was instead the sonic boom of an F-14 Phantom fighter speeding away to strafe or bomb in Lebanon.
I carried with me that summer a paperback copy of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. I read it when we traveled, whenever there was free time, at night before returning to my tent to sleep. The story recounts, among World War II subplots, the fate of Natalie, an American Jew caught in Italy and transferred with her infant to a detention camp. To mark progress, each time I came to the end of a chapter, I tore it out of the book and discarded it remnant by remnant in Galilee, Samaria, Judea.
I remember Natalie’s story keenly because in order to be in Israel that summer, I left behind a wife, three sons, and an infant daughter—six weeks old at the time. I distinctly remember the regret I felt, especially at night in our camp, not being able to hold her and rock her as I had done so often with her brothers.
These are fragments of a memory from twenty years ago. I came back unscathed from a war zone, and my family was intact. The dust and ash of antiquity no longer paints my skin, but the uncertainties of the tell go unresolved. The Middle East still invites violence. Herman Wouk so ably fictionalizes the terror of European Jews, and the Yad Vashem archives the evidence.
The agony of the Holocaust is enshrined in memorial architecture. It resonates in Western literature. It flies in the machines of war. It is preserved silently in the dust and the ash and coarsely inhaled by the act of breath. And it sleeps in the arms of each man and woman who brings forth new life.
The Holocaust still devastates the mind. We cannot claim that it was an act performed by people more barbarous, more primitive, less developed than we. We can—wrongly, but easily—ignore the genocide in East Timor, the Sudan and Kurdistan. We can suppress inclinations to examine closely the treatment of Native Americans, north and south, and of African slaves, first by European invaders and later by Americans.
But we cannot shrug off the Holocaust.
We might try to explain it as the behavior of a people defeated in war and mired in economic depression. But the Germans are a people of high culture, deeply philosophical, religious. We cannot deceive ourselves that we are better than they or would make better choices in similar circumstances.
The growing body of literature on the subject attests to the immensity of the Holocaust. It was perhaps the most successful attempt at genocide to date. As slavery was in America, so the death camps became a part of the economy, and even more, specific technology was developed in its service. But unlike American slaves, the internees were never thought valuable. Millions of people were exterminated for some “racial” or “social” reason-- not only Jews, but Romany (gypsies), Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the infirm, homosexuals, political prisoners, and prisoners of war.
The Holocaust is so immense that it interrupts our history and radically revises our thought, much like divine revelation. And for many it has the same theological dimension. For many it creates a disturbing problem in that they realize that the unfathomable structural and social evils of the Holocaust are somehow within God’s plan or that they are the results of human free will, which God did not thwart. A study of the Holocaust provides a case history to discuss the serious matter of theodicy—God’s justice in an evil world.
Perhaps more than any other, Holocaust literature has a spiritual dimension and can be explicated on the assumption that such dimension is part of its subtext. Furthermore, it is important literature because it helps us to acquire a tragic vision— eyes trained to observe humanity’s relentless, anguished, and protracted struggle; eyes awakened to the reality of evil; eyes transfixed by human agony; eyes that pity; seeing eyes that neither gape nor leer.
I've placed such reading in my daughter's hands and watched my daughter grow since then, too big these days to hold and rock. I sit here in the same rocking chair-- and back and forth, back and forth, goes the rocking of my mind-- for alternately I wish and do not wish that this sweet woman-child would have her father's eyes.