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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day

A Lingering Question

The sun washes over my face; the air is cool and crisp this morning in Washington DC, as I round the corner to find a long line in front of the Holocaust memorial. Taking my place at the end of the procession, I savor the spring sun covering the city with its warm glow. Those standing around me joke and chatter like magpies as the line moves forward; but upon entry, the severe, cold grayness of the museum marks a striking contrast to the cheerful daylight outside. The laughter suddenly stops; and a deafening silence echoes through the cold steel and concrete construction. Overhead is a suspended trestle and guard towers are at every corner, sending a shiver up my spine. With uncanny familiarity, I recognize this life-size replica of a Nazi concentration camp. A death camp. The hallways of this monument reverberate with the stories of millions who needlessly died, crying out with unanswered questions. But I already know these images through another man’s eyes, a Holocaust survivor; and his agonizing story echoes from these very walls.
To me, his image is as clear as the day we met in his tailor shop. The gray headed gentleman works steadily, deep in concentration, perched high on a table with his legs crossed. Bent slightly over his work, the Tailor stitches rhythmically; thimble glistening in the lights overhead. He looks up, smiles and hops down from the table. The gray haired man, though short of stature, speaks with adamant authority and seems almost larger than life. His eyes radiate a fierce, warrior-like determination, but his smile betrays a hidden softness. With a deep Dutch brogue, he introduces himself and I become his student.
This Tailor, by trade, is a teacher at heart, and a story-teller by nature. He is a patient instructor, and meticulously inspects all his students’ work. With eyebrows raised, he peers through his bifocals and sees the slightest error. If lessons are tedious, the teacher’s quick wit lessens the monotony. He is a natural storyteller and weaves a tapestry of words in colorful detail, regaling us with interesting tales of his life.

The Tailor’s accounts are engaging, as he recalls the joys of life in a large Jewish family in Amsterdam. He laughingly recalls the antics of his mischievous young schoolmates apprenticing with him during his years in trade school. His face softens and eyes mist as he gently describes his first love; but then his tone of voice changes, becoming staccato, eyes ablaze, as he chronicles his life’s later events. Recapturing the dark days of the Holocaust, he furiously enumerates the atrocities of the cruel labor camps... the unspeakable conditions... merciless beatings...horrendous work details...freezing winters...gnawing hunger... the unrelenting stench of death. Nonetheless, as the anniversary of the death march in Poland draws near, his ardent demeanor changes from fierceness to abject pain.
Now, instead of speaking of past events, he begins to relive them as the original agony returns to ravage his very soul. That fierce warrior, his protector from past monsters, abandons the Tailor during his afternoon nap, leaving him vulnerable to former demons. While asleep, a shadow of a man shivers from nightmares and unintelligible words spill from his pale lips. Awake, he moves about absently, slowly attending his duties in hollow silence. The sorrows of the world line his furrowed brow; and during this dark anniversary, any words he utters remain as mere whimpers until the distress, like a haunting ghost, fades for a fleeting stretch of time.
There in the weighty silence, an unspoken question, like a falling feather, floats about the shop. “Why does such cruelty exist?” A sewing machine roars through the penetrating silence; and its steady moan incessantly echoes the query, “Why, why, why?” But there are no answers, just an awareness of brutal reality that gradually covers the room like a shroud. It moves over my soul like a dark shadow, forever altering my perceptions of the world.
Once in a lifetime, whether by fate or by choice, paths intersect, and you meet another whose life, whose very existence, is so profound that your notions of life and love, of mankind and even God are shaken to their very foundations. For in one man’s existence lay the contradictions of life, and this man I know. My teacher, my friend, Coenraad Rood.

Jacque Benson 1997 all rights reserved

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