May 22, 1997
Our Trials of Faith
Recently, I watched a documentary about Adolf Eichmann, whose trial I had originally watched on television years ago. The only vivid memory I had from the courtroom drama was that of the protective glass booth the Israelis built for him.
Now, I watched with eyes that were 30 years older -- eyes that had seen just about every piece of Holocaust film -- and there was Eichmann, the self-proclaimed subordinate who was only following orders, refusing to take an oath on the New Testament, instead raising his hand and swearing to tell his truth to his own god. Surely, not to my God.
I felt no human connection, no hatred, not even repulsion. I no longer felt compelled, as I did when I was younger, to seek the logic in his evil. He was a subspecies.
And, then, one of the assistant prosecutors questioned a survivor of Auschwitz, who told of how he and his 11-year-old son were separated from his wife and little girl. A camp guard had asked the man how old his son was, and the man testified: "I couldn't lie and told him, '11,' which was under the cutoff age, and my boy was told to go find his mother." The long line of women and children stretched so far that the man could no longer see his wife, but he could still see the small red dot of his little girl's coat; he told his boy to run in the direction of the red coat.
The now-middle-aged prosecutor, commenting about the trial for this documentary, remembered that, only three days before, he had dressed his own 2-year-old daughter in her new red coat. He told the filmmaker that when the survivor of Auschwitz spoke, he shut down with emotion and couldn't continue with the questioning. The prosecutor described how the courtroom was hushed while he tried to regain himself.
Stilled by the terror of how his little girl was interchangeable with the little girl the survivor father never saw again, the prosecutor struggled for his composure.
The judges, unable to fathom what was happening, looked at each other, the witness waited, and Eichmann's face twitched. For me, this was the consummate moment of the trial -- the moment when we realize that all Jewish life was in jeopardy, the moment when we are all one.
I told Al about...
how things like this
always seem to happen to me.
He said that it didn't
happen to me; it happened
in my presence,
and that my clear eyes
would record what
I saw, and, one day,
things will connect.
I also remembered when I visited Israel for the first time, in the early 1960s. My friend Al Loewenthal, a unionist from New York who resisted testifying before the McCarthy hearings and required two guards to bring him into the hearing room, advised me to visit Yad Vashem and not weep. "Keep your eyes clear," he said.
I walked into the last room with my clear eyes. On the wall were pictures of charred children, heaps of cinder, hardly recognizable as humans. The other pictures showed Orthodox children. For a few seconds, I was alone in the room. And then the room became noisy. Two groups entered: a group of Orthodox schoolchildren and a German tour guide with tourists. Here I was, looking at pictures of murdered Orthodox children and, at the same time, standing next to their living images. In the background was a group of middle-aged Germans, laughing -- not at the pictures; they hadn't seen them yet. And I was overcome.
I told Al about the incident and how things like this always seem to happen to me. He said that it didn't happen to me; it happened in my presence, and that my clear eyes would record what I saw, and, one day, things will connect.
Recently, I attended a Service of Hope at Temple Beth El to commemorate Yom HaShoah. Sitting next to me was a Catholic nun, Sister Elisa, of Portuguese descent. Around her neck was a Star of David and a crucifix. She asked me if I was Jewish and told me that she was too. Her family was converted during the Inquisition but remained secret Jews. She had come that night, as she does on many occasions, to "be with my people."
And I heard Rabbi Rick say:
"In every crisis of our life, in the very presence of death, we Jews have affirmed our faith in the One and Only God. This was our armor against the fury and suffering of the centuries, and by this have we risen to a sublime ministry. So do we take up the ancient witness of our ancestors which binds generation to generation of everlasting covenant.
Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is the co-author of "Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life's Wisdom," due out this fall from Simon & Schuster.
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