Friday, November 20, 2009
Reflections on Suicide and the Holocaust
I write this with hesitation, and with apologies to those who may be offended. But there is a sorting process that occurs in grieving, as we try to discern what is true and what is not, what to hold and what to discard, how we might someday embrace life again and where death has caught us in its tangled grasp.
A couple of months ago, the journal published by Spiritual Directors International, Inc. contained a wonderful piece about accompanying suicide survivors in our journeys. The writers have both lost sons to suicide and, between the two of them, three other family members. Their article stresses that this particular path is a very long one, and emphasizes the time and patience demanded of the spiritual directors who venture across its rocky twists and turns with those who have no choice but to walk it. I know a couple of people who can attest to that.
At one point in the article, and here the exact words escape me, they claim that the experience of surviving a child's suicide is akin to that of Holocaust survivors.
Now, I do not believe that we can compare and contrast experiences of loss, or slot them into a hierarchical framework. Mine is worse than yours, and yours than his, and on and on. But I was startled enough by their argument that I gave it a great deal of thought in the ensuing weeks, and now I have returned to it.
I know a number of Holocaust survivors, and many of their children, and many more of their grandchildren ~ my former students and colleagues, their grandparents and parents. I have listened to many stories. A few years ago, one of my high school freshmen, who did not know much about that part of her heritage, opted to write and perform a soliloquy as a history project based on her World War II research. "Ms. Gannet, Ms. Gannet," cried my students as she finished her presentation, "Ms. Gannet, are you all right?"
All I had been able to think about, as she spoke, was that two generations earlier, it would have been them. My beautiful students, murdered in horrific ways, with perhaps a few of the boys surviving the "Left, right, left, right" as they disembarked from the trains as Auschwitz. Most of them, through, would have been gone.
One of the grandfathers, on Holocaust Remembrance day, came to an assembly to tell the story of his own experience. As he spoke, I was somewhat baffled; the details of his liberation story sounded so familiar, but I was sure that I had not heard it from him. And then he mentioned that he had been in the same compound as Elie Wiesel, and I understood ~ I had taught the book Night on more than one occasion, and my students and I together had explored not only the events of the Holocaust but the range of human response to the questions of faith that arise in the context of a nightmare life.
And so, when I read the article linking my experience to theirs, I was taken aback. And I thought, No. I have not witnessed the murder of my entire community, have not hidden, trembling, as terrorists burned it to the the ground, its inhabitants trapped within it buildings. I have not had to absorb the discovery that members of my family died in agony as Zyklon-B hissed into their nostrils. I live in a comfortable home and I sleep into a warm bed every night. This is nothing at all like Holocaust survival.
And then I thought: they have a point. It lies in that question of human response. It lies in the questions that seep, unwanted, into our consciousness and settle into every corner of our lives. Questions about who God is and who we are. About what matters to God and about how people treat one another. About what we once took for granted and never can again. About who bears responsibility, and for what, exactly? About how time seems to move forward and about how we long for it to reverse direction. About who or what, if anything, is reliable. Or good. Or graceful.
I stand in the cafeteria line, wrinking my nose at meatball sandwiches or smiling gratefully when linguine with Alfredo sauce comes up, and I ponder those questions. I sit in class, taking notes, and they fill my head and cause me, upon occasion, to write "No" in the margin next to one assertion or another. I take long walks and try, in my prayer, to place my thoughts before a God whose priorities are no longer apparent to me.
One of my colleagues once told me something of what it feels like to live in a world in which the Holocaust happened to your family. I was stunned by what he thinks of the culture in which he makes his way, by what he anticipates people like me might do in circumstances like the one from which his family emerged. Stunned. "It's difficult to hear, isn't it?" he said. And then he added, "This is the first time I've ever discussed these things with someone who isn't Jewish."
"You should do it more often," I told him.
We should all share our stories more often. It is only in sifting through our stories that the answers to those hard, hard questions emerge.
Elie Wiesel was once a devout young boy, eagerly studying Torah with the neighborhood rabbi. He became a hardened adolescent, indifferent to the suffering of his own father he witnessed in the concentration camp to which they were both sent and in which most of his family died. He grew into one of the most wise and compassionate of men, someone whom I described to one of my students who was off to sing in a Carnegie Hall concert at which he would be in attendance, as one of the giants, one of the great heroes, of the past century.
He has somehow, absorbed the living of those questions into his very being. Who is God and who are we? What matters to God, and how do we treat one another? Who bears responsibility? Who takes care? What is reliable? Good? Graceful?
It is these questions which we share in common. Our experiences of a world turned in upon itself, of tumult and catastrophe, weight different scales. But the ultimate question, and the text, we do share, remains. We sink into its regret and anguish and then, perhaps, we will stride forward, changed by its challenge: How then shall we live?
(Image: Ezekiel. Source Unknown.)