After I gave a presentation about my mother’s Holocaust history at a senior residence in Chicago a few years ago, a man in his late 80s came up to me and whispered, “I want to tell you something.”
He grabbed my elbow and ushered me into a private corner of the room. “I’ve never told anyone this before.”
Tears streaked his face, and he bit his lip as he worked up the courage to confide in me. I wondered, what terrible act has he kept to himself for decades? What crime did he commit? Why is he telling me?
“I…I…” He wiped his nose and eyes with a handkerchief he held in his large, age-speckled hand. I stared at him, waiting for him to find his words. His hands were shaking.
“I…I was a liberator,” he said. Then, he studied my face to see how his statement had landed.
Stunned and confused, I wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, I asked, “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.”
His comment reminded me of a quote from Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II: “First they kill. Then they kill the memory of killing.” Chang’s book documents the Sino-Japanese War atrocities perpetrated by the invading Japanese army in Nanking in December 1937.
Those on all sides of horrifying crimes — perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and even liberators — often become unknowingly complicit in “killing the memory.” Too traumatized by what they’ve witnessed, they compartmentalize the experience and avoid any discussion of the topic.
On our first trip to her small town in Germany in 1990, my mother finally began to describe the trauma of leaving her parents when she was only 12 years old — 52 years after the devastating event that haunted all her days.
Those who have kept silent sometimes begin to talk as they sense their own mortality. Often, they don’t tell their own children; they tell their grandchildren.
“Why did you tell me?” I asked the man after his emotional confession. “Someone you only just met?”
“I had to tell someone before I die,” he sobbed.
“Now that you’ve told me,” I said, “I hope you’ll find the courage to tell your family. They need to know so they can better understand you.”
Photo credit: Wally Gobetz/Flickr Pro
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