One of the great things about holidays is the chance to do some reading. Yesterday I took along “Night” by Elie Wiesel to finish during a whale watching boat ride. It was about 90 minutes out and 60 minutes back and most of that time I spent somewhere else. There below deck I travelled a little over 60 years into the past and completely across the Atlantic from where I was hunting for whales and into Germany. As I read I was a little self conscious about the crowd around me seeing the cover of the book. First because it was a “Oprah Book Club Selection”. I’ve got just enough pride left to prefer a good jellyfish sting to a passer by thinking I was part of the Oprah’s club. The second was a little awkwardness about finding pleasure in reading a book that is essentially a first hand account of a young teenager in the Holocaust.
When I visited Boston over a year ago with some friends, one stop was a Holocaust memorial. Walking through it and connecting with the reality that trying to take in the names of all those who suffered and died at the hands of my fellow human beings, in the most inhuman ways, was like trying count all the stars in the night sky. It literally took my breath away.
So there I was, onboard this boat with about 300 others, and reading this powerful, painful and brutally honest account of those days. I kept looking up from the page as I read to see if anyone was looking at me, particularly an older person there with their grand-children whose sleeve of their windbreaker didn’t quite hide the number tattooed on their wrist. I had this sick feeling of culpability just by reading as a voyeur, not as one who started the horrible event but as one who watched and did nothing, could do nothing but felt like I should do something.
On the way back to port after watching humpback whales breech, feed, roll onto their backs, all to the ooos and aaaas of the claustrophobia inducing crowd on the boat, I reflected on our efforts and attitude about save the whales. A race of people, it seems, we can watch be tortured, shoved alive into burning pits, ripped from families, forced into slave labour and finally sent up chimneys without a single word. But if we club a seal, kill a whale or disturb some other animal’s ‘right to live’ we’ll march, get our celebrities lined up to go on camera to complain and generally freak out. Is it that we’ve come so far from the Holocaust that now we even jump in to save the whales because there are no people being treated this way today?
“Night”, however, isn’t about protesting or marching or memorials. It’s a simple story simply told of a young boy who goes through the most evil experience and loses his faith and his father. Only a teenager, a young teenager, he sees things no human should ever see and tells, with painful honesty what that horror does to who he is on the inside. He is powerless to stop what is happening. The worst is not what happens to himself but his witness of the beatings and downward spiral to death of his own father who he has managed to look after in the concentration camp. The final brutality is when his father disappears near the end during a few brief hours of sleep and finally escapes the Nazi camps through the chimneys. When he wakes and realizes his father is gone he whispers to us that at some level all he felt was relief.
It’s a heavy read but I highly recommend it. It is both beautiful and terrible.
I wondered yesterday why I was so taken with the story and not so moved by the whales. For me, the story of survival, of the way these humans passed through this great evil and were changed by it – some becoming more like animals, others more like angels- was a sign and a wonder. I have friends who have suffered things that would have left me in a permanent fetal position in some corner of some institution or dead. That a human could experience the Holocaust, endure it, and come out the other side (if anyone ever truly ‘comes out’ of the experience) still capable of love, still in touch with compassion and mercy – to me it’s proof we’re made of something more than DNA strands and evolved from more than protoplasm and locked into a system of the survival of the strongest.
Enjoyed the whales. In love with people. In awe of people.