Deep down, the witness knew then, as he does now, that his testimony would not be received. After all, it deals with an event that sprang from the darkest zone of man. Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know.
But would they at least understand?
Could men and women who consider it normal to assist the weak, to heal the sick, to protect small children, and to respect the wisdom of their elders understand what happened there? Would they be able to comprehend how, within that cursed universe, the masters tortured the weak and massacred the children, the sick, and the old?
And yet, having lived through this experience, one could not keep silent no matter how difficult, if not impossible, it was to speak.
And so I persevered. And trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words. Knowing all the while that any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau. For, despite all my attempts to articulate the unspeakable, it is still not right.
Is that why my manuscriptwritten in Yiddish as And the World Remained Silent and translated first into French, then into Englishwas rejected by every major publisher, French and American, despite the tireless efforts of the great Catholic French writer and Nobel laureate François Mauriac? After months and months of personal visits, letters, and telephone calls, he finally succeeded in getting it into print.
Though I made numerous cuts, the original Yiddish version still was long. Jérôme Lindon, the legendary head of the small but prestigious Éditions de Minuit, edited and further cut the French version. I accepted his decision because I worried that some things might be superfluous. Substance alone mattered. I was more afraid of having said too much than too little.
Example: in the Yiddish version, the narrative opens with these cynical musings:
In the beginning there was faithwhich is
childish; trustwhich is vain; and illusionwhich is dangerous.
We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinahs flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of Gods image.
That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.
Other passages from the original Yiddish text had
more on the death of my father and on the Liberation. Why not include
those in this new translation? Too personal, too private, perhaps; they
need to remain between the lines. And yet . . .
I remember that night, the most horrendous of
. . . Eliezer, my son, come here . . . I want to tell you something . . . Only to you . . . Come, dont leave me alone . . . Eliezer . . .
I heard his voice, grasped the meaning of his words and the tragic dimension of the moment, yet I did not move.
It had been his last wish to have me next to him in his agony, at the moment when his soul was tearing itself from his lacerated bodyyet I did not let him have his wish.
I was afraid.
Afraid of the blows.
That was why I remained deaf to his cries.
Instead of sacrificing my miserable life and rushing to his side, taking his hand, reassuring him, showing him that he was not abandoned, that I was near him, that I felt his sorrow, instead of all that, I remained flat on my back, asking God to make my father stop calling my name, to make him stop crying. So afraid was I to incur the wrath of the SS.
Copyright © 2006 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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