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Chris Honoré: Commentary

Part One

Of late I’ve been thinking of Elie Wiesel, who passed away this summer. He was 87.

He spent his life bearing witness to an experience so horrific that it defies understanding and ultimately description. There is no language that can ever capture what took place during what became known as the Holocaust.

Wiesel was born in Romania, in 1928, and at the age of 15 he and his family, along with the Jews of his town of Sighet, were rounded up and crowded into cattle cars and shipped en masse to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a German concentration camp in southern Poland.

In his eloquent and iconic memoir, “Night,” he describes arriving in a haze of startled confusion. He stood with other men and boys, his father nearby. Across the way he noticed a line of women, luggage at their feet, some with small children in hand, others holding babies in arms. A few were pregnant. He saw his mother and younger sister, Tzipora, waiting, and then watched them walk toward a brick building in the distance. In desolate relief, against a blue sky, were tall smoke stacks that stood as sentinels to all that was taking place below.

In that moment, watching his mother and sister move ever closer to the building, he did not realize that he would never see them again. They would soon vanish into a reality beyond all comprehension. His father would later die at Buchenwald.

Wiesel was liberated in 1945, and for 10 years he remained silent about all that he saw and experienced at the camp, about the depth of inhumanity that defined his fragile, wretched days. And how could he live with his agonizing memories?

Finally he decided that to say nothing would allow the world to forget, and “if we forget we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

And so he raised his voice to bear witness and his voice filled pages and echoed in lecture halls, and he spoke to anyone who would listen about the enormity of what occurred: the systematic massacre of more than 6 million people (it is estimated that 1.5 million died at Auschwitz). Wiesel insisted that we not turn away.

He was tormented, however, by guilt for having survived and was filled with doubts about a God that would allow such carnage. In “Night,” he wrote, “Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith ... and forever murdered my God and my soul and turned dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

President Obama visited Buchenwald in 2009, where the president said about Wiesel, who accompanied him, “He raised his voice not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms. He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real the pledge of  "never again.’ ”

Germany — and those who followed — has made a concerted effort to not only remember but to memorialize those places where such unspeakable acts took place. Germans have created museums and shrines to the Holocaust. Auschwitz still stands, a severe reminder of what once was. And even in America there is, in Washington, D.C., the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which remains today a powerful symbol of our nation’s commitment to not turn away, despite the pain that is inherent in every room, in every surreal image of exposed mass graves, in every photo of a skeletal human being, draped in a shredded blanket, standing behind a wall of wire, gazing out with hollowed and vacant and imploring eyes, implicitly asking: “How can this be?”

America has woven into the fabric of our history a period as dark and ultimately inexplicable as is the Holocaust. It is called slavery. (Part Two will follow next week).

Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.