On the bank of the Danube, Pest-side just south of the Parliament building, there is an eery memorial consisting of an irregular row of shoes. The shoes are made of metal, but their brown rust looks like worn, brown shoe leather. It is in remembrance of the victims of the Arrowcross Militia who were shot there and left to topple into the river.
The Arrowcross Militia were Hungary’s Nazis. Hungary was allied with Germany at the beginning of World War II, but at one point (in 1944, as I recall) Hungary tried to break this alliance. Germany responded by taking over Hungary, and giving the Arrowcross (their fellow hardcore fascists) greater power and influence.
Thanks for joining me on the veranda. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this post flows from a book review I did on Elie Wiesel’s Night, which can be seen here. But don’t wander off just yet.
I married into a family of holocaust survivors.
Being sufficiently narcissistic, I haven’t been able to avoid thinking of the profound impact this had on my life. I am married to the most extraordinary woman in the universe [my apologies to all other women, I’m sure you’re someone else’s most extraordinary woman] by virtue of the strength of a man who wrestled his way to the top of a pile of corpses, bleeding profusely from multiple shrapnel wounds, clawing his way out of a pit, and cleaning the gashes with his urine. That man was married to a woman, tiny of body but colossal of mind, who was in the group force marched from Budapest to Mauthausen. After the war, they had a child–my mother-in-law. Yada-yada-yada. I have marital bliss.
Not being completely narcissistic, I’m reminded that every one of our lives have been shaped by strong people who lived through close calls. Each of us comes hither as a gift from men and women who passed through a hail of bullets that bore no name. Some, like my wife’s grandfather, were riddled by bullets bearing their name, and still refused to heed their deadly whisper. Every holocaust survivor survived by a thin margin. Every battlefield veteran’s life is an execution order rescinded. Every prisoner of war was one germ away from an unmarked grave.
No pressure or anything, but that sounds like a heavy debt we all bear.
Telling this story in greater detail is one of my bucket list tasks. It’s a project I’ve had on the back burner for far too long. There are several reasons for this. The most feeble of which is a hope to find the right timing. Sadly, there are so many such stories that I fear it will be lost amid a sea of sorrow. Then there is my need to develop grace with language sufficient to do the story justice. In a way the two novels I have drafted, and whose mess I am now painstakingly trying to dance into shape, are practice exercises. Wish me luck.
On the plus side, my wife’s uncle had the foresight to have her grandfather speak his story onto about 20 tapes before he died. With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for anyone’s life-altering story to go untold. So I guess if there is a moral to my rambling post it’s this: don’t let anyone in your life with a spectacular story pass from this world without it being heard.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, tells his story as a boy caught in the Holocaust. A Jew from Sighet in Transylvania, Wiesel was evacuated from the ghetto as a teenager and shipped off to Auschwitz–later to be moved to Buchenwald.
At little over 100 pages, this thin book is tragedy distilled and condensed.
A few of Wiesel’s experiences stick with one because they are just so gut wrenching. One such story is about a woman in the train car who hallucinates fire and flames. Her insanity no doubt spurred by hearing of the massive crematoria. Her delusions were prophetic for all too many of those packed in that cattle-car.
Another key moment came after their train rolled into Auschwitz. Both Elie Wiesel and his father followed advice to lie about their ages, he to make himself older and his father to become younger. This got them both directed to the left; the people who would live for the time being– though they didn’t know that at the time.
The climactic portion of the book deals with the boy’s attempts to cope with his father’s severe illness. On the one hand, his father was all he had. On the other hand, he feared that he would not survive if he had to keep looking after the ill elder. Wiesel is quite frank about the dilemma that clouded his mind. His father’s death would make his own survival more likely. The guilt caused by these thoughts tormented him. This kind of guilt is a prevailing theme in genocide literature. It reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s comment in Man’s Search for Meaning in which he says that the sad truth survivors must live with is that, “the best of us did not return.”
I will end my review by suggesting that you read this book. It’s quick and–while not painless–insightful. I’d intended to ramble on with some personal experiences and observations, but have decided to make that its own post entitled <em>The Bullets that Bore no Name: or, the Burden we all Bear</em>.
If you’re just here for the Night review, thanks for visiting and Godspeed in your journeys through cyberspace.
If you’re at all curious about what I have to say, grab your mint julep and join me on the veranda. The veranda is this way.