I woke up this morning with a line from the Israeli poet Rachel on my mind:
Will you hear my silence, you, who did not hear my words?
Her appeal, poignant in the knowledge that her death from tuberculosis is approaching, is deeply personal. Someone she has loved has failed to hear her cry. Soon she will have no more words…
But the feeling is also apt for Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first troops of the Red Army came upon Auschwitz and Birkenau. Primo Levi’s description of his first sight of them is unforgettable, four horsemen, silent, a look of shame on their young faces that such a place could even exist, that such deeds could be part of the annals of what is.
Might Rachel’s line not express what the dead are asking of us:
Will you hear my silence, you who did not hear my words?
Will we hear the stifled voices of those forced down forever into the world of death? What might they say? Each time I visit the site of a former death camp, I try to walk in silence and to listen. For these are places which command attentiveness:
Don’t kill me. I love life.
I wish we were together. I’m afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
My child, where is my child? If only I could have spared you this!
Take my hand.
Beneath and beyond is all silence; what do we really know of what people thought and felt in their final moments?
Across the world, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, mothers, children, spouses, neighbours confront the silence of those they had loved. Often, they don’t even know how they met their death or where their bones now lie.
But all is not silence. We still have survivors among us, witnesses, refugees. In my experience, they testify to horror and pain, to the importance of memory and truth, but rarely in bitterness and hardly ever with hatred. On the contrary, the voices of survivors are overwhelmingly a call to a profound and embracing humanity, to the awareness of the transcendent value of life, beyond the differences and barriers of race, ethnicity, faith and nationality. Though they speak of the past, what they really address is the present and the future: where today is that humanity, the courage to confront prejudice and hate, the determination to protect the innocent victims of violence, which was so much lacking then?
Within their words lie the lives and loves of all those whose cries were not heeded, whose voices were silenced with a bullet, a boot, or gas, disease or starvation.
Will we hear? Will we act?
Memory is never morally neutral; it is always a question addressed to the future. It is always responsibility.