Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first units of the Red Army encountered the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This year, the theme for the day is the power of words.
I think immediately of the lines of the Russian-Jewish poet, Osip Mandelstam, twice exiled, who perished somewhere in the vast labyrinth of Stalin’s Siberian camps:
You gave me my shoe-size in earth, with bars around it.
But you left me my lips and they shape words, even in silence.
I’ve often wondered what words were shaped in the lonely silences, amidst the roar of the surrounding violence and hatred: in the trains which parted people forever from those they loved, on forced marches, in cold and filthy bunks, in the desperation of the devastated spirit. Those words rarely found a compassionate ear, a heart ready and able to help. The silence swallowed them up, with their love, their despair, their longing, all the complex eloquence of a human life.
From time to time, scraps of paper, even photographs, are still found in the restless earth and ashes of what were once those terrible camps. Or the living discover envelopes, and the murdered, a grandfather, a great-aunt, suddenly have a voice. People ask: ‘What do we do with those letters, hard to decipher, in a language we don’t understand?’ I recall the Biblical injunction: ‘dovev siftei yesheinim – give speech to those who sleep in the dust’.
But it is not just to the dead that we must listen; the silence of the living is more urgent.
‘They have no voice,’ a friend said to me. He’d stood together with those who were shot in river X for no reason; fled with cousins and companions who found no hospitable quarter; witnessed the deported depart; been detained with those for whom there was no one to speak out. ‘They have no voice’, he said; ‘they’re lost in the silence’.
But my friend is not right. It’s not that such people have no voice; it’s that too few are willing to listen. That’s always been the fate of the persecuted, the rejected, the neglected.
How do I find your heart? How do I access your compassion? Surely that was the outcry of millions who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and in numerous genocides and mass murders since, and still ongoing. It’s the half-heard outcry of hundreds of thousands now, powerless victims of licenced violence, lawless militias, and calculated hatred.
It’s less troublesome to think only of the silence of the dead. But, more than anyone, those very dead would want us to listen, urgently, this very moment, now, to the unheeded among the living. What words are the persecuted, the hopeless, those who find little or no help, shaping in the silence now?
Meanwhile the world is full of noise. Angry, self-righteous, cruel words fly at us, sometimes from the highest places. Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is essential contemporary reading. Be heedful with words, he warns. Speak truth, read carefully, listen out for honesty. Eschew the slogans of power and deceit. Beware of fake news, post truth and manipulative sound-bites. ‘Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant’ – He was thinking of Goebbels and Hitler, but mindful also of now.
There are few more generous encapsulations of what language is for than the short phrase from Proverbs, in praise of women: ‘Torah chesed al leshonah – the teaching of lovingkindness is on her tongue’.
A heart which listens truly, will speak the truth of lovingkindness.