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My Ears

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“How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”

– Bob Dylan from song “Blowing in the Wind”

The New York Times ran a photo as part of a story that I can’t get out of my head. The story was about a priest who has been traveling around the Ukraine, documenting the deaths, the extermination, of 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews. Gathering and documenting the story in the Ukraine is more difficult than in other parts of Europe where concentration camps existed.  In Germany and Poland, Jews were rounded up and exterminated in concentration camps and the remains of the camps after WWII stood as evidence to what happened there. In the Ukraine the Jews were simply lined up and shot and then buried in mass graves, graves that were often dug by those about to be shot.

The black and white photo, which was a bit grainy, shows a man, kneeling at the edge of one of those mass graves; other just shot bodies clearly visible lying in the grave. A German solider is aiming his revolver a few inches from his head about to pull the trigger. Once shot his body will tumble into the grave piling on top of those just shot before him. Other soldiers can be seen in the photo straining to get a good view as though at a sporting event. A woman dressed in a military uniform stands behind the soldier who is about to pull the trigger, her hands sit impatiently on her hips, her posture one of bored indifference. The article describes how the soldiers were only allowed one bullet per Jew and sometimes they fell into their graves still alive, waiting for the immolation to follow as gasoline was poured over the bodies and then set on fire. Some witnesses describe how the graves sometimes remained open for days with dying people struggling for breath within the pile, the mass of bodies pulsing as people tried for one more breath.

Who was this anonymous man in the picture? What was his life like before it was so horrifically ended? Did he have a wife and children? What was his occupation? Did he have hobbies? How did he spend his leisure time? If I could magically reach back in time and talk to this man, what would we say to each other?  Both sets of my grandparents were from the Ukraine or within its immediate vicinity and this picture hit me harder than the thousands of others I have seen like it.  I blew up the picture looking at the about to be murdered man’s face. It was emaciated, shrunken down to skin and bones. His eyes looked dull, no emotion that I could detect visible in the image. It was a face that had no expectation of a future, a face of no hope. What horrors had his eyes borne witnessed to and what had this man and his family been put through?  Part of me says I need to know in order to bear witness and part of me doesn’t want to know. I continued to examine the face closely. It is very unlikely but perhaps I could be looking at a relative of mine, was there any hint of a resemblance?

The Saltzman men tend to have a trait, certainly not a trait unique to just us, but not an extremely common one either. We have a detached earlobe, which gives the ear additional length. My father and his two brothers had it, as did my grandfather. I blew up the picture some more. It turned grainy as I continued to look for a resemblance. I am not sure but as I continued to examine this man’s face I became more and more convinced of a possible link. I think I may have this anonymous man’s ears. Maybe a spurious link, maybe real, maybe not. Maybe I am hoping that if I do in fact have this man’s ears and there is some link that he might take some comfort in knowing that some of his kin, however distant, survived the horrors of the extermination.

Over the years a simple two word phrase has been used to not only bear witness to the horrors, but also to try to move forward from the horrors, that phrase is “Never Again”.  It has been the rallying cry not only for the generation that immediately followed the aftermath of the war but for succeeding generations as well. “Never Again”. How could anyone argue with that? Yet in the back of my mind, I know that humanity has not somehow evolved to a higher state in the 60 some years since the Holocaust. We are still who we were. There are people walking around today, some of whom you may pass on the street today, who are completely capably of carrying out similar atrocities against their fellow humans. And that greatly saddens me. “Never Again”. These individuals are not limited to one country, one ethnic group, one political persuasion, one religious group, one gender or some other demographic. How can we move forward?

Today, right now, as you are reading this, somewhere on this planet, a human is striking out against another human, a life is being taken. That life may be forfeit in order for another to achieve personal gain, for political or religious beliefs, for reasons of jealously, for perceived slights or humiliations, for revenge or for simple intolerance of differences. “Never Again”.

Can mankind learn to practice humanity to mankind? Can we tolerate differences among us or will we forever view differences as a source of discomfort to be stamped out? Can we tolerate different points of view, different lifestyles? Can we learn to listen, but not simply listen, can we learn to hear? Not one of us is perfect and our creations are not perfect, but unless we continually strive to improve who we are, what we are, and our creations we run the risk of falling backward into a downward spiral and run the risk of history once again repeating itself.

These are massive issues and we may legitimately look at this big picture and say “what kind of role could I possibly play in moving mankind forward, for I am just a small cog in a very big wheel”? “Never Again”.  Each of us, though, has a part to play. And while each of our parts is relatively small, each one of us is critical to the whole. Our society and our organizations are made up of an accumulation of small parts. By developing societies that have no tolerance for intolerance, by embracing and celebrating the richness of our diversity and by developing organizations where each and every individual is treated with equal respect and dignity, we can begin to do our part. It is up to us. Each of us alone can do nothing to prevent the horrific events that happen around our world, but together we can’t be stopped. Each of us alone can do nothing to improve our organizations, to make them models of performance and behavior, but together we can achieve anything we desire. “Never Again.”

The numbers are horrific. Six million in the Holocaust, 200,000 in Darfur, 800,000 in Rwanda, 1.6 million in North Korea,  800,000 in Indonesia, 1.7 million in Cambodia, more than 30,000,000 in China during the cultural revolution and 13,000,000 in the USSR during Stalin’s purges. The list of other atrocities where hundreds of thousands or millions perished goes on and on. The numbers are so large that they simply become a statistic, losing their meaning in human terms. Each and every one of those people represented by those numbers had a family, an occupation or vocation, interests, maybe a hobby, a desire to make a better life for themselves. Each one of those people represented by those numbers was not simply a number, a statistic to be totaled up; each and every one was a person with a rich life with diverse interests and desires, a life that was cut short.  “Never Again”. I looked back at the picture from the NY Times and I don’t simply see a man kneeling by edge of his about to be grave, sent there by people that I am loath to call human. I see a life, a life that as it was unfurling in it’s fullness was ended. Then I multiple that life by the numbers above and I reel.

I look at the picture again, but this time I look closely at the trigger man, the executioner, the murderer. He looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. Was he enjoying himself as he murdered person after person. Did he have a wife and child at home? Maybe children who were the same age as the children of the man he was about to kill?  Did he have an occupation prior to putting on his military uniform? Did he have hobbies? Was he ever brought to justice for his actions? If he survived the war, was he able to sleep at night? Was he able to justify his actions in his mind? Did he feel that he was just “following orders”, was that his excuse?

I have lost sleep because of this picture and the story in the paper. I have a hard time shaking these things off. For me it is not just a picture from a long ago war. For me it is personal. In another time, in another place, I could be the one being forced to kneel by the edge of that pit, waiting for a bullet to enter my skull. By potentially sharing this murdered man’s ears I feel a responsibility. I feel a responsibility to hear people when they cry out and to do what I can, my part, to help. “Never Again”.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 6, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Posted in Human Behavior

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