Saturday, June 28, 2014
I have just read the late Peter Matthiessen's final novel called In Paradise. Set in 1996 a group of more than 100 people gather at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. For a week they pray and meditate in all sorts of weather on the selection platform for some of the half million Jews and others who died there. Some are Christians, some are Jews, some are Buddhists. There are Poles who are still in denial about what happened, and others, including a persecuted gypsy, who are antagonistic to the prayerful tone but need to be there.
The story takes us through the tensions that emerge, as well as the moments of grace. There is a moment of solidarity when participants wear pink triangles, but that has its awkwardness. At one point they enter into a spontaneous dance which some find offensive and others see as holy. It is quite real --human nature, both generous and ugly. The participants struggle to comprehend the atrocities to which they supposedly bear witness in their meditation.
As I was reading the book came news that an 89-year-old man was arrested in Pennsylvania, charged as a guard at Auschwitz, responsible for the deaths of thousands. I vaguely grasp the horror of what happened in those camps and the necessity of prosecuting those who committed the crimes. I can also do the math. This guy was fourteen when the war began, and twenty when it ended. To what degree did he understand his crimes against humanity? He claims that he was never involved in killing anyone.
I'll be careful here, because this is such delicate ground. Somehow I was grateful to be reading the novel as I heard this news.