There are crimes committed that exist outside humanity’s scope to understand them, but we can’t close our eyes to them. We must examine those events. Listen to the stories of survivors. Learn from history. Create and study art that attempts to explain the unexplained. If we can do those things, we are doing almost everything possible to make sure such things never happen again. There is a touching Fred Rogers quote soothing in its simplicity, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Author Neil Gaiman learned the value of his art in the context of terrible history. He explains, “My cousin Helen, who is in her 90s now, was in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. She and a bunch of the girls in the ghetto had to do sewing each day. And if you were found with a book, it was an automatic death penalty. She had gotten hold of a copy of ‘Gone with the Wind’, and she would take three or four hours out of her sleeping time each night to read. And then, during the hour or so when they were sewing the next day, she would tell them all the story. These girls were risking certain death for a story. And when she told me that story herself, it actually made what I do feel more important. Because giving people stories is not a luxury. It’s actually one of the things that you live and die for.”
Out of print for almost fifty years, Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of survival in Poland’s Warsaw ghetto, the Pianist gained recognition after it was made into a critically acclaimed film by controversial director Roman Polanski. Polanski drew on his own horrific experiences as a child in Nazi occupied Krakow, Poland. Szpilman was a piano player and composer for Polish radio, after the war, he went on to write over 300 popular songs, compose symphonies, children’s music, radio and film scores, and concert tour both solo and with chamber ensembles. He didn’t discuss his World War II trauma with his family, and his son first learned about his experiences by reading the memoir. In the memoir Szpilman discussed the isolation necessary for his survival. “And now I was lonelier, I supposed, than anyone else in the world.
Even Defoe’s creation, Robinson Crusoe, the prototype of the ideal solitary, could hope to meet another human being. Crusoe cheered himself by thinking that such a thing could happen any day, and it kept him going. But if any of the people now around me came near I would need to run for it and hide in mortal terror. I had to be alone, entirely alone, if I wanted to live.” In the foreword his son said, “My father wrote the first version of this book in 1945, I suspect for himself rather than humanity in general. It enabled him to work through his shattering wartime experiences and free his mind and emotions to continue with his life.”
The Holocaust is one of the darkest chapters of human history. As subsequent generations are farther removed from it, the tragedies don’t get any easier to bear, and the lessons to be learned no less complex. All we can do is be conscious of the patterns of history, and look for the faintest light in even the deepest darkness.
Author: Tara Collum
Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the co-creator of a forthcoming web serial about twins in a small town. She believes it is never too late to be the person you are meant to be. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun