This week I began a new ritual that, God willing, will continue in my life. I read Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt and The Good Old Days: the Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders edited by various people.
The crisis, as I see it, is a lack of a communal ritual that routinizes the event that rememberance day symbolizes. When Catholics remember Jesus they literally eat his blood and body in communion with each other and God. Taking communion, one is confronted with the mystique and awe that is the Son of Man. When Canadians remember today for the freedom that has been won, there are some scattered ceremonies and parades. Oh and a day off. I don't care what anyone says; a parade isn't enough. If today truly is a day to "remember", perhaps we could find out the object of what is being remembered.
Some say we remember the soldiers who fought and the war that was won. However, without anything really concrete in mind, the process of "remembering" something not personally experienced is not really remembering at all. It is more like recognition. Recognition day? Perhaps it is accurate.
To have a rememberance day that is actually a day of remembering, I suggest to bring the history into the present. Into the now. If you want to remember what happened, I suggest reading a book or a diary; talk to a vet. One particularily chilling story will be retold here. It is something I have not forgotten since I read it earlier this week.
In Eastern Europe during World War II, the Nazi's had established (at least) one massive grave for Jews. Jews came to these graves because their Council's pretty much lied to them and told them they had to be resettled. The Council's, in turn, were spared. In return, thousands of Jews at this particular site were mass murdered. About 33 thousand to be approximate.
Jews first dropped all of their belongings in an open field. A kilometre away, they were led to another site in a valley. They were forced to take off all their clothes and give their money to the Germans. At that point they were asked to turn around. They then received a bullet in the back of the neck. But at certain points there were just too many Jews and not an efficient enough system to kill Jews. So they asked certain groups to lay face down on top of other dead bodies that were previously killed. Germans on top of the valley essentially would mow down the Jews with machine guns. Terrible, yes. Very.
In the diary of one particular German, he records that these bodies, after they had been shot, had been covered with sand, presumably to begin to burry them. Then, moments after the sand had covered them and the machine guns had been dispersed into the valley, it was recorded that one particular hand came up from under the sand to the surface. It did not grasp to escape. The hand, "presumably, pointed toward his heart" for another bullet.
It is a gruesome image. One we must never forget. But lest I think the Germans were psycho-maniacs, my reading has unveiled a very shocking conclusion.
Both books on Eichmann and the Jews pound home one common point not to be missed. It was caught and summed up very nicely by one reviewer:
"The people doing this killing were just normal guys, not unlike friends, family or myself. Wow, it is just amazing to me the way they try to justify what they were in charge of, the crimes against humanity that they committed. That is what was so disturbing to me. It is much easier to think that the mass killing was done by some group of homicidal maniacs let out of the asylum and given guns."
Like Eichmann, the Germans who carried out the final solution were not psychopaths. Many of the people who actually took part in the killings developed major psychological trauma. Many bawled, many were transferred, many committed suicide. They were human, which is counter to some of our attempts which seek to demonize the Nazis as the epitome of evil.
Today I remember that we are all capable of evil. And perhaps that can bring us closer together as humans - in rejecting the call to dismiss 'the other' as evil, is it possible that we could even better understand the failings of 'the other' in terms of our own?