The woman walked through the doorway,
looked at me and came straight towards me with her arms wide so I stepped forward into her embrace and we stood together, saying not a word. When she disengaged from me, I looked at her, she patted my arm and she went on into the small hall where I was due to speak. One of the younger women, overseeing the entrance , said “That was lovely, is she a relative ?” “I don’t think I have ever seen her before in my life “ I said. I think of her often, especially today. She was a survivor of the Shoah, the deathwind.
I was in my thirties when I first heard the phrase “survival guilt”, the idea that there was a cost beyond simply being glad that you made it and went on living, when other poor souls didn’t. Most of us don’t have grand philosophical thoughts about why this one died and that one didn’t. We just want to survive. But there is a cost to survival.
The most usual, the most ordinary, is to cherish what you have, that the other person lost – your health, your home, the people you love, the pet, the flowers in the garden, every silver moonbeam, every sunny sky. That sort of person can always find something to give another because they know what can be lost. Beyond that or aside from that, there are people who can’t sleep or can’t sleep without a pill or a potion or a drink and that is a permanently extending kind of palliative. There are people who can’t bear to cherish – it’s too emotionally expensive, too risky: you may be disappointed, worse it may be taken from you. Again.
Most of us try to balance between the difficulties of our lives and the blessings. You can ascribe all sorts of things to that sense of balance, how you were brought up, who your parental figures were, the work you did, the people you met, your innate sense of self. But when all these things have been harmed often hideously and wantonly, destroyed, pulled away like skin from flesh, over and over again, in everybody you knew – you begin to see why healing is sometimes relative at best and balance is difficult indeed.
And perhaps balance implies taking time out to weigh everything and sometimes that means you don’t answer as you wish to, but as you think you should. Though sometimes, too, it is helpful to know how you wanted to answer, even if you felt compelled to answer differently.
The internet has let a genie out of a bottle and even in Disney’s “Aladdin”, the genie was nearly overwhelming. Power isn’t good or bad, it’s just power – good for you maybe, same power, bad for me. There are all kinds of wonderful things about the internet beyond shopping and talking to your grannie in Australia, but you don’t have to look very far to see horrors. I have come across things from the slightly distasteful to the frankly abhorrent, just looking for pictures. And as my son taught me “If you can find the question to ask it, it will give you the answer”, in a frame of reference that is very easy to learn when you are young.
Reading about Molly Russell who killed herself aged 14 and how her family have tried to understand what she watched on the screen, what she saw, how it affected her – we might reasonably conclude that if it is hard for a grown person to find and maintain balance, it is much more difficult for a youngster. I am not in the habit of underestimating the young though I can tell you as one who works with words, that much of what is written is open to the interpretation of the reader and most of the readers want desperately to belong, not to be different. They have already imbibed one of the most sinister messages of the age – they fear that difference kills. And if there is a risk of difference, those clever words endorse your darkest fears, and offer another kind of killing wind.
Holocaust Memorial Day 2019