Witness

A few years back, gathered on the sunny deck outside our venue for a (slightly tiddly) workplace lunch, my boss started giggling and couldn’t stop. She eventually excused herself and went into the kitchen, with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks. Her brush with mania was somehow infectious though – with almost all of us doing our best to stifle laughter at the bizarre situation. The only hold-out was the confused teenage girl, a workmate’s girlfriend, who had unwittingly sparked all the hilarity. Her mistake: she had mentioned the Holocaust.

I actually can’t remember how the subject even came up. She had asked a question, with the same kind of cute, wide-eyed idiocy that (many years later) saw another work colleague ask me about whether a WWI photo was fake “because they didn’t have cameras back then”. Sitting around at that Friday lunch, we had collectively been talking about something else entirely, and this somehow led the girlfriend to ask a silly (but ardent) question about the Holocaust. Something along the lines of “but why didn’t they all just leave the country?” Teacherly as I am, I did my best to answer her question in a considered and reasonable way. But it was too late for my boss. On that lovely, sunny afternoon, overlooking the gardens, with no more work left in the week, she started laughing and couldn’t stop.

It’s not that she found mass-murder funny. It was just such a deeply serious subject to suddenly, inexplicably intercede on our happy afternoon.

And that in itself was actually a huge relief. The poor girl could have unknowingly ruined a perfectly nice lunch. Instead, she injected it with a moment of pure absurdity, simply by not understanding that mass-murder is a very serious thing. I don’t think she ever understood why my boss started laughing.

It could have been so much worse. Like the conversation I once overheard in a doctor’s waiting room. Two gentlemen in their 50s sat discussing how the Jews “knew what was going on” and “would have just left if there was any real danger”… which seemed to be an insane contortion of logic to me. That people were responsible for their own fates because they could, magically, foresee that their family was about to get slaughtered but chose to collude with their murderers by standing still. I think the implication was meant to be that the Holocaust really wasn’t all that bad… and that it had to be (somehow) the fault of the victims because… you know. Jews. Not like us.

In a universe this vast, I simply cannot, cannot understand how people will only recognise suffering in those with whom they share a sex, or an ethnicity, or a religion. In the Western world we have at least, mostly, embraced a knowledge of the Holocaust as if it were something that happened to all of us. But despite many of my friends changing their profile pics to French flags and Belgian flags and rainbow flags over recent months (which is a good but marginally silly thing), I’m yet to see one take the time this week to change to a Turkish flag or an Iraqi flag (which is a bad but similarly pointless thing). That unconscious sorting of victims is sad. And it has to change. Because oppression and ignorance (and mass-murder) hurt all of us.

Of course, the one thing that puts this in the forefront of my mind (apart from stewing about the lack of headlines about the Iraq attacks, which has been pissing me off all day) is the death of Elie Wiesel. I read Night while I was in high school, and the slim volume still bears a lot of weight down on my bookshelf. He had a remarkable ability to fill us all with the duty to bear witness.

I don’t know if that’s the reason why I chose to try and answer the girl’s question rather than burst out laughing. She didn’t know what she didn’t know. I also (in the separate conversation) helpfully explained to the other girl that there are indeed photos of WWI as cameras have existed since the 1830s. It’s not just about being a know-it-all. It’s about assisting others to understand things they didn’t see, so that they can then go on and share that understanding with even more people. It is bearing witness, as others have done before me. It is about creating a chain of knowledge and compassion.

And, despite all of our connections and our new-found ability to share information at the speed of light, the sharing of compassion remains very important. No, it is not as simple as changing a profile picture, but that has a place. What’s more important is understanding that suffering also happens to people who don’t look like you, and tragedies remain tragedies even when they happen in places you’ve never visited.

They can also spoil a good lunch.

 

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