Several years ago I heard Eli Wiesel speak at a writers’ conference. He told the story about the catalyst that made him write his prize-winning book, Night. After WW2, he had gone to Paris to try and find surviving members of his family. He got a job as a journalist and on one occasion had to interview Francois Mauriac, the famous writer.
Mauriac spoke about Jesus and Wiesel finally could stand it no longer. He exploded and told him to stop “talking about your Jesus.” He said that not far from where they were sitting atrocious things had happened to his people. “And we have no words,” he said. “We have no words.”
Mauriac was deeply moved and responded – “You must find the words. You must write this story.” Wiesel began to write.
He was fortunate. Some did not find the words and the result was depression, mental illness, even suicide.
My father was one of those who had no words. He talked very little about the war. I learned more about his military service from my mother than from him. But once, late one night when we were having a rare father-daughter talk about faith and religion, he told me how God met him in an old church in Germany.
He spent the first years of the war in Canada, working as a clerk in the RCAF,because he “made the mistake of telling them I could type.” We have a picture of him in uniform, brandishing a rifle, smiling proudly, the Halifax harbour behind him. Then he was moved to England where he again worked at a desk. We have another picture of him on a golf course in Ireland. Then the war was over, and somehow – he always thought it was a mistake of paper-work - my father was sent to continental Europe with the occupation forces. He found himself moving with the liberation army through France and Germany. One day he found himself at the gates of Bergen-Belsen. It was at that point, after the allies had won and the Second World War was over, that my father's war began.
He would never say what it was specifically that caused it to happen. Perhaps he looked too long into the face of one man, a man his own age, whose eyes were glazed with hunger and shadowed with pain, a man who looked a hundred years old, 'though he was only twenty. Perhaps my father looked into another face, one without any sign of emotion, of anguish or compassion, a face which, though living, was dead. Perhaps he could not stop staring at the piles of dead bodies, the bones and skulls, or perhaps he was required to record the numbers, the unfathomable numbers. Perhaps he could not bear the smiles, the smiles of survivors who welcomed their deliverers in silence. He would never say what it was, but something that day, in that place, made my father's mind stop. It stopped and could not go beyond the horror, the fear, the guilt.
I don't know how long he was in the psychiatric hospital. I know he was afraid to leave it, afraid even to go for a walk beyond the doors of the building. Until one morning when one of his nurses brought him his clothes and told him to get dressed. She walked him down the hallway, outside and to the front gate. She unlocked it, pushed him gently beyond it and closed it behind him.
My father told me he didn’t know how long he stood there, afraid to move, afraid that someone would walk by, afraid most of all, that he would hear the German language spoken. Then he said he was filled with a desire to find a church. He started walking and soon stood in the centre of a huge cathedral. He sat in one of the pews and stared at the stained glass windows all around him. Then he fell to his knees and wept. When he looked up the light was streaming through the windows above the altar. He said it was like watching a movie – the life of Christ flowed by in brilliant colour. When it was over, the fear was gone. He never returned to the hospital.
When he returned home he was not the man my mother had known six years earlier. He could not sleep and loud sounds made him shake. He had not conquered his fears but buried them in a shallow grave. Many times they were resurrected and continued to plague him. I know in some ways he remained an unreachable stranger, even to those who had been closest to him. I know my father never found the words.
And I know Francois Mauriac was right. We must find the words to express those things that are ugly and even evil. We must find them and write them down and then allow them to go out into the world. We must find the words, words that help us remember, words that help us to heal. Lest we forget.