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Sirens, Water, Land

A inquisitive sketch relating to certain historical incidences and their current cultural manifestations, ending with news of a bountiful resource in our mental landscape.

Yesterday 15 peace activists were arrested at protests outside Bidiya and Maskha, Palestinian villages. The protesters were Israeli, Palestinian, Italian, French, Swedish, Canadian, and American. Some of their cell phone numbers are listed in the article; journalists can call them in jail. At lunch, a new employee of the company where I work, who co-develops the site linked above, said “one can make a difference here, in a country of 6 million. I'll take you to a protest if you want to go.”

Of course I don't. I am fattened like a caged rabbit and scared of everything. I said, “yes, I will go if I can, while I'm here.” We'll see.

Before I came here I felt little about Palestinian or Israeli deaths, all strangers, outsiders to my economic, genetic, and social bounds. Now, geographically closer, I'm still don't know what to feel.

To American Whites, collectively, a Black kid shot by cops is a shrug, a shake of the head. To Blacks it can lead to uncompressed fury, as in the recent Cincinnati riots. When Whites are shot by Blacks the roles reverse, but instead of rioting the Whites use other means of response, administering collective punishment slowly, almost accidentally via the police, the mayor's office, TV cameras, and printing presses. Whites' car windows are rolled up driving through a Black part of town, doors locked, kachunk. Property values lower. Police stop listening. Ambulances and fire engines come slowly.

You may see America as a brash and arrogant country, but we are subtle and patient about race; there's little about American racial pressure that moves fast enough for cameras to capture, only the occasional march after a shooting, a few seconds of shouting rabble on TV. We do not block off towns and insist travelers show their papers. We rarely put tanks on the streets, and only a few times have we bombed from the air.

Most American cities are slow centrifuges, splitting out the colors over dozens, or hundreds of years, sending the middle class to the suburbs, among the banks and schools, and leaving the poor in the cities with the dollar stores. There is more blending now, and sometimes Blacks go to the suburbs; sometimes Whites stay in the city, and Asians and Latinos make the equations more complex. But the centrifuge is always spinning, moving, changing even though it has slowed in the last 40 years. Perhaps it will some day slow entirely. Hah.

.  .  .  .  .  

.  .  .  .  .  

In Israel it is Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom Ha'Shoah. This morning a siren sounded; last night, local Israeli television aired films and documentaries about the Holocaust. I promised myself I would leave it alone, keep working, but I ended up in the bunker watching a biography of Simon Weisenthal; when that was over I switched to the news in Hebrew, watching a ceremony with a single leaping flame and a chorus singing low and gentle to a throng of silent thousands. All local Israeli TV was related to the Shoah. Some stations showed the static image of a burning candle. I flipped the remote and saw emaciated bodies in ovens, wooden guard towers, a BBC interview with Dolly Parton with Hebrew subtitles, long concrete barracks, a Jennifer Lopez video on MTV, old photos of young women in polka-dot dresses, new footage of the same women 55 years later, lipstick carefully applied.

I would have gone along with it had I been raised a certain way. Joined the Wehrmacht, or even the SS, blamed the Jews for my troubles. I'd have been an excellent propagandist, morally flexible and with a smooth writing line.

I would have gone on the trains with my family to Auschwitz, and watched my wife or sister go into the gas chamber.

What the Holocaust teaches me is that it could have been you on either side of the whip or rifle, and it can always be worse. The Holocaust is a pure example of worse in the age of technology.

For love of their cause, the Nazis became pioneers of vileness. They sorted death with Hollerith punchcards. They chased Jews into trees and shot them. They chopped off the fingers of Jewish children to better understand pain, marking the screams on ruled paper. Their reports on these events were neatly typed. Jews spoke Kaddish over half-living in mass graves, and the victims became vicious to survive.

Many people have faith in human progress, but Wall Street, Gaza, and Red Hook are proof that things don't tend to the better. We feed ignorance by producing moral whitewash like Life is Beautiful, with its bumbling Nazis and plucky hero, and Schindler's List, which Ray Carney described as Indiana Schindler versus the Gestapo of Doom, the clever individual outsmarting the system. We graft simple stories onto impossible ones and then, when the simple stories end, we think that we've solved the big problem.

There is a long debate over who owns the Holocaust. Is it only Jews? What about Gypsies? Homosexuals? Poles? I've witnessed debates between American Blacks and American Jews, where each side claimed to have suffered more and longer. Which Holocaust was worse? What of those who suffered Stalinist purges, or the millions of dead soldiers, or the current genocides world-round? Suffering, it seems, is a commodity that people want for themselves.

I understand the feeling. Had it been my family I would not want anyone to claim that they shared my loss. I would be angry that anyone could be said to suffer as much as me. How could they understand? How could they share? Who could claim that the Holocaust against the Jews was not the worst? But there really is no such thing as “worse” and “better” when we get to this level of evil.

And I have good news! I present an incredible bounty: there is enough Holocaust for everyone, and enough slavery, purges, and other acts of subjugation. Jews can own as much of the Holocaust as they wish, and still it is not diminished in quantity. For Germans and Jews and Blacks and Whites, for American Indians and Rwandans, and you, and me. It is the one thing we can all share, with no danger in running out, the fruit of the treaty of Versailles, rabid German ethnocentrism, and human nature. It is not fresh water or oil, and we need not conserve this inexhaustible reservoir of stories and suffering, for despite the best effort of revisionists it will spill and spill for at least the rest of our lives, and beyond. This is hard to fathom in our world of land rights, credit cards, and square footage, but it is true. Like God's love and wisdom, the Holocaust is endless, bottomless, and as eternal as lust and rage.

This is proof: as a Gentile with a dab of German blood, I can give you 1000 words of Holocaust and there are billions of other words still waiting, patiently, swirling like atoms of gas. In the Holocaust 1/3 of all Jews died. 1/3 of the world is land; 2/3 of the world is water. It took away all that was solid and left us swimming. There will always be more swimming to do.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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