50 years later: 'I want to tell you something…'

  • January 12, 2010
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The late Iris Chang wrote in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, “First they kill. Then they kill the memory of killing.” Her book documents the Sino-Japanese War atrocities perpetrated by the invading Japanese army in Nanking in December 1937.

Many involved in horrifying crimes — victims, perpetrators, bystanders — often become unknowingly complicit in “killing the memory.”

They don’t talk for decades.

At a senior center in Chicago, a man in his 80s came up to me after a speech recently and whispered, “I want to tell you something. I’ve never told anyone this before.” Tears streaked his face. I wondered, what terrible act would he keep to himself for 50 years? What crime did he commit?

“I…I…” He held a handkerchief in his large, age-speckled hand. He was shaking. “I was a liberator.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“What I saw…it was too horrible. I just couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t say anything.”

“Then why did you tell me?” I asked. “Someone you only just met?”

“I had to tell someone before I die.”

His emotional confession came decades after the event. My mother opened up on our first trip to Germany in 1990, 52 years after the trauma of leaving her parents in 1938. Those who have kept silent their entire lives sometimes begin to talk as they gain a sense of their mortality. Often, they don’t tell their own children; they tell their grandchildren. They don’t want to take their untold stories to their graves.

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