Several months ago I read Timothy Snyder’s award winning Black Earth, an important but difficult book on the horrific destruction of millions of lives in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe during the Second World War.
Despite the gravity of the book, there was a deep and eternal hope that I found in its stories of the ordinary and extraordinary Jews, Poles, Ukrainians — in other words people — coping with the unimaginable. The grandmother who hid and sheltered strangers, only to see them found out and killed; the farmer who kept three desperate sisters alive despite the risk of brutal death. The faith of saving your neighbor, standing with your neighbor, for years, sun up and sun down, despite the risk. Righteousness.
I read the book because I felt that I needed to keep awareness of the struggles that are now fading into history in mind — the people I knew who had faced that ghastly horror, breathed its stench and survived as testament have now left this realm. As I write this a mosque in Quebec has been attacked, Muslim brothers and sisters, children from Iran, survivors from Syria — people, human beings — are again being caught up in an echo of those dark times. I am, we are, all being called to account — again.
Snyder’s words are poignant:
In the darkest of times and places, a few people rescued Jews for what seems like no earthly reason. These tended to be people who in normal times might seem to take ethical and social norms a bit too literally, and whose fidelity to their expressed principles survived the end of the institutions that supported and defended them.
If these rescuers had anything in common beyond that, it was self-knowledge. When you know yourself, there is little to say.
The events of the last few months, of the last two days have been challenging. The thought of how to respond — whether to run, to shout, to cry, to detach, to pray — we are all gripped by a range of conflicting emotion and inclination.
I just try to hold the truth of those righteous souls in each moment and look for the self-knowledge to respond as a brother, a father, a friend, a fellow person.