Monday, October 26, 2009

A Kind of Numbness Sets In

Fellow-blogger Paul Rodriguez reminded me this morning in another context of the dim past of my life. This caused me then to pick up a family memoir which begins:
My second conscious memory is of the day when Hitler invaded Poland. It was evening; we were on a train; the day was Friday, September 1, 1939. I was three years old and had a stomach ache—the reason, I suppose, why I remember the event. I have the notion that we were travelling east to west. The impression must have arisen later when my mother…told me where we’d been and where we had been going. The details I’ve now forgotten but the direction remains.… The news of war came at one of the stops and spread like wildfire throughout the train. Children have a curious animal sense and pick up the adults’ emotions. The mood was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I was lying in one of the compartments across two seats. A narrow corridor ran past the compartments. Grownups had left their places and crowded out there—excited talk. I remember darkness and lights. The lights flashed on and off, and on and off, as we pulled out of the settlement where the news had reached us. I remember the talk and the movement in the corridor, the beat of the train’s wheel on the rails, and the pain in my stomach…
Three days after that memory of mine, the German troops reached Lodz, in Poland where Brigitte, my future life’s companion, a girl of seven-and-a-half that year, lived with her parents, a German family settled in Poland. The war caught her too and, as she recalls it, she was confined to her room—while there, as everywhere, the adult world held its breath.

This morning’s paper brings news of yet another massive bombing in Iraq, 130 or more dead, trumping the 122 who died in August in Baghdad at another bombing of ministries. The New York Times brings a picture of a huge ravaged building and, in the foreground, a man with his head bent in a state of mental anguish. Throughout our lives, from the very beginning, as it were, this sort of thing has never relented, only the forms and the locations keep changing.

Brigitte and I and most members of our family have been very fortunate in escaping the direct, sharp, and dreadful pain of losing those we loved to collective violence. And there is a limit, probably imposed by our biology, to the vicarious suffering that we can actually experience. Those deaths—wherever they happen—are as much our pain as of those directly affected, but, alas, a kind of numbness sets in and, with it, a kind of guilt because the collective agony is behind a kind of veil…

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