‘It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage’: thus Primo Levi described the restraint and confusion on the faces of the four Russian soldiers on horseback who loomed out of the mist on this day sixty-seven years ago and who were part of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was that shame ‘the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist’.
We sensed some of that shame last night in our congregation when we remembered together, we the Jewish community and approximately eighty members of the Congolese community (some of whom had travelled from as far away as Newcastle specially to be with us). We heard shocking and heart-rending testimony.
Dani, a charming lady who was hidden as a young child in Paris during the Holocaust, described how the visits by her mother, made lovingly but at great risk to them both, become rarer and then stopped. ‘Why had her parents abandoned her?’ she wondered after the war was over. What crime had she committed, what had she done wrong? Finally she was told, ‘But no, your parents adored you; they never abandoned you!’ ‘Then where are they? I want to see them!’ ‘They’re dead!’ I will never forget, she said, the hope and despair of that moment.
Children who have been traumatised, she went on to explain, can be helped to share their feelings rather than being told repeatedly to ‘forget’. But one doesn’t forget; the pain stays with one all one’s life.
Young people from the Congolese community acted out harrowing scenes which happen repeatedly in their country: ‘Why am I in this mine, working as a slave below ground with just a hammer and a torch? They killed my family then they kidnapped me. I miss my family so very much.’ ‘You want to be a soldier? Then you shoot her!’ ‘I can’t do that! She’s my sister!’ ‘Shoot her, or I’ll first cut off your ears and then…’
A young woman stood up and testified: ‘They killed all the guards outside. A bullet came through the window and hit my husband in the shoulder. He said, ‘Hide under the bed’. They came in and killed him in front of me. They took me away. I was raped twice. But I’m happy my children are alive, and I’m alive.’ The lady shook as she spoke, just as Dani was shaking as she told us about her ‘childhood’.
I expect we all went home with the same question pulsing in our consciousness: ‘What to do? What do we do?’ Such suffering exists in our world this very moment; such deeds are being perpetrated even this minute.
There are specific answers and we need to learn more about them: Our Drop-In centre helps (please support it); caring for those who survived the Shoah is an essential responsibility. There must surely be more we can do to bring healing to the trauma of countless children.
There is also a general answer: our existence is justified solely by serving life, by loving others, by listening to, caring about and striving to lessen suffering.