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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why do we keep reading about the Holocaust?

Anne Frank
I just finished reading Night by Elie Wiesel. It's a small book, a bit over 100 pages long. It kicked me in the gut. It tells the story of a teenage boy, Elie Wiesel, who loses his family - and his faith -when humans demonstrate their inhumanity in the Jewish ghetto and in the concentration camps.

By coincidence, just before I read Night, I read the two graphic novels in the Maus series by Art Spiegelman. Like Wiesel, Spiegelman records one tale after another that breaks my heart.

I've read so many books about the Holocaust. Why do I keep reading them? Why do I keep them on my bookshelf instead of giving them away?
Elie Wiesel

Many years ago, I went folk-dancing every week in Milwaukee, and there I met a man named Sidney Iwens.

Sidney Iwens
 I got to know him and learned that he, like Elie Wiesel, was a teenager when he was imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the Nazis. Eventually Sidney wrote a book called How Dark the Heavens (1400 Days in the Grip of Nazi Terror). I bought the book from Sidney and read his harrowing and often unbelievable account.

My most vivid feeling for the Holocaust comes from the time I interviewed Sidney Iwens, when I was writing weekly features for Community Newspapers Inc.

This is what he said to me: "Still, when I'm walking somewhere, if I see a big rock or a big shrub, I think...I could hide there." People nowadays would probably label that thought a post-traumatic stress reaction. For Sidney, it was a habit so ingrained from the ghetto, the prison, and the concentration camp, that he could never erase it from his instinct. Like Elie Wiesel, Sidney survived by luck, raw intelligence, and daring.

I interviewed Sidney Iwens in 1992, but I often think of Sidney's words. When I'm walking past a big rock or big shrub, I think about how Sidney would see it as a good hiding place.

So why do I keep these books about the Holocaust?

In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article last weekend, Mike Fischer reviewed Country of Ash: A Jewish Doctor in Poland, yet another account of that unspeakable time that we are compelled to remember.

Fischer puts it perfectly: " matter how many films one sees or memoirs one reads, it remains difficult to trace the descending circles in this inferno."

We are speaking of an inferno of the human spirit, twisted downward into evil. We don't want to look, we don't want to see, we don't want to admit it's there. But it is. Over and over again, we are reminded of its presence - in Boston this week, we were reminded again.

Most people in the world just want to live their lives in contentment and take care of their own front stoops. But there are a few whose souls go black. They continue to be a wonder to the rest of us. That is why we keep looking, and watching, and reading.

When Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he spoke of this evil that is certainly not confined to the Nazis. He spoke about Apartheid, Solidarity, and the exile and imprisonment of peaceful leaders. He spoke of racism, political persecution, and the hunger of children all over the world.

He said, "Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere."

But he was not without hope. He insisted that "one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death."

Wiesel said, "We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering." Eventually, he found his faith once again, but he never stopped speaking of the horrors that he saw. He kept working for peace and for justice.

When I was a girl, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. How I wept when I read her words "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

I too believe.

Martin Richard, age 8, who lost his life in the Boston Marathon bombing

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, and Dessert First, all available from 

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