Dearest Rachel –
The climax of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the moment when Scrooge brushes the snow away from the tombstone of the ‘unknown’ man he had seen lying dead earlier in his travels with the Spirit of Christmas Future. It’s the turning point in which he realizes how worthless his life has been up until that point – the man spoken so poorly about after his death not only could have been him, but actually was him. It’s the moment that he decides to change, if only to alter the outcome.
It’s a scene of high drama – if it weren’t just ever so silly. Because, after all, Scrooge knows full well it’s him under the sheet in his own bedroom. It’s why, when the Spirit insists that he lift the sheet to see his face, he refuses: “This, you cannot make me do.”
It is how I’m feeling when the group comes to a metaphorical fork in the road after ascending from the well of judgement in David’s citadel. Junior has been plugging the ancient tattoo parlor in the old city; one would think he was getting a commission for each customer he brings to them. And while I might have an idea for a souvenir tattoo (three Jerusalem crosses, two filled in, and one a mere outline, to signify the trips I took both with and without you), I don’t see myself as ready to alter my body permanently, let alone with something so frivolous as a mark on a fighter plane.
But the other option is to go to Yad Vashem.
The Holocaust Museum.
The place stands as a brutal monument of man’s ultimate inhumanity to man. And for all that I don’t relish the idea of being jabbed over and over with an ink-filled needle, I think I would almost rather endure that than this.
And I know that you would agree with me on the score. On our second visit here, there was a couple who brought their eight-year-old son with them; you offered to babysit him while they toured the museum, rather than go through it a second time.
Indeed, for a while, I understood that this was to have been left off the itinerary; we weren’t scheduled to be going here. There’s no biblical significance to the place, after all, although there is unquestionably historical importance to what it commemorates. So what is the purpose of subjecting ourselves to this?
Yael speaks of the dual purpose of a memorial such as Yad Vashem. First of all, there is a need for the memories. Of the six million lost in what we refer to as the Holocaust (and its sufferers call the Shoah, the Hebrew word for ‘catastrophe’), the names and stories of four and a half million Jewish victims have been documented. That leaves a million and an half about whom nothing is known – a million and a half tragedies that are, for now, nothing but a statistic. They were wiped out, completely, they and their families, with nobody to remember them by.
Secondly, of course, is the attitude encapsulated in a simple motto “never again.” Even as we remember the lives, the families, the communities destroyed through this, there is an underlying current whispering that this cannot be allowed to happen again. But there’s no question that this is a heavy-handed lesson to have to learn even once. Three times is just too much.
But for a while, it seems like we won’t need to go in after all; the museum is being visited by a delegation accompanying the Hungarian president, and the museum proper is being emptied so that they can go through on their own, undisturbed. Honestly, I’m just as happy about this.
We find ourselves standing among the trees that mark the Righteous Among the Nations; those individuals that, at great risk to themselves, hid or transported a handful (or many, in some cases) Jews throughout the war.
They are the one thing about this that makes this, not so much worthwhile, as just the slightest bit hopeful about humanity. But it does give me a pause; were I in a situation like this, would I act righteously? After all, in my home country, I have been accused of being a ‘semi-fascist’ by certain people; but is it really true? Would I go along with a government that required me to round up members of a certain racial or ethnic type for removal (by whatever means implied by that)? Would I be willing to give them refuge from such tyranny, bearing the cost in mind were I to do so? Or would I simply keep my head down, not speaking up… until they decided to come for me?
And I wonder sometimes whether ‘they’ might not someday. Again, consider what those of my political beliefs are called; who’s to say those beliefs won’t someday be considered worthy to be eradicated? It’s a frightening thought.
Now, as an American, I might console myself with the thought that “it wasn’t me; it wasn’t my people who did this.” But one of the things that tore you up about the exhibit was the story about the plight of the steamship St. Louis; you compared it to the garbage scow that had been roaming the Hudson and East Rivers, without a place to dump its contents, at about the time we were visiting Israel. We Americans didn’t let the Jews on that ship in, and so many of them went back to their deaths in Germany, just like so much garbage. It broke your heart, and kept you from wanting to venture in a second time.
And that scares me about the whole concept. You would think that, by keeping the memory of such a well-organized and methodical disaster in mind like this, we would see anything like it coming from many miles away. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. We continue to see different groups of people as ‘others,’ rather than simply fellow humans. We fear or hate them for some of the most trivial reasons, many of which are beyond their control, such as skin color, or ethnicity. And let’s not get started about political beliefs; back home, it seems like each side considers the other to be absolute evil. With an attitude like that, how can we not fall into something like this, and soon?
I mention this to Pastor Scott in the hotel lobby, as most of the folks receiving tattoos begin to return. He points out that this is the way of humanity; we are fallen creatures, with a sinful nature, dominates us. Evil simply exists within us, not because we are (or mean to be) evil, but because, in our natural state, we lack good, or more specifically, God. That’s all that evil it is, the lack of goodness, or godliness in any of us. And we can see from this place where that leads.
The problem is, on a much more universal scale, whether we as humanity are capable of a similarly happy ending. And I confess, I’m not all that hopeful.
This is what happens when we are forced to pull down the sheet, and stare at our own rotting corpse, the evil in our own soul and spirit. It’s a terrifying sight, one that I wish I didn’t have to see. Again.
Now, I know that is evil has been covered, and I am righteous in God’s sight because of events that happened right here nearly 2000 years ago. But I still have that potential within me. And here, more than anywhere or anytime, are the words more heartfelt: “God, help me.”
Wish me luck, honey; I’m going to need it.