I was terrified of the Holocaust when I was a child. I couldn’t hear about it, read about it, or watch anything related to it without suffering for days afterwards. There would be long hours of anxiety, lying in the dark, afraid to sleep. Then I would finally fall asleep only to face vivid nightmares that would leave me, suddenly awake again, shaking or weeping in fear. Thus I angled furiously to avoid the subject whenever I could though, as I grew older, this was often misunderstood and frequently embarrassing.
We all assumed I would outgrow it.
In high school, trapped at a friend’s house without a route out, I saw the film Swing Kids . . . and endured weeks of nightmares and nameless, indescribable dread of going to bed. It was still there. In college, after my freshman year, I went on a church mission trip to Israel. The group decided to go through the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I did not say a word, but that walk cost me far more in courage than anyone suspected. I can still see most of the museum, from the piles of shoes to the dark room of pin-prick lights where one just hears audio of children’s names, read one after another. I think somewhere inside I hoped that if I could just face up to it, really force myself to look it in the face, I would become more inured to it, I would be able to talk and think about it the way other people did, like something terrible that happened a long time ago. It didn’t work.
My friends were all raving about Life is Beautiful and Hotel Rwanda and similar films early in my adulthood. I could not watch them and I could not explain. During my third year as a literature teacher, my principal wanted me to teach The Diary of Anne Frank as part of the eighth grade curriculum. I suggested other works . . . in the end, the books were ordered and put in my classroom to be read with the students in the spring. When The Chosen took longer than we had expected, that was the unit I cut out. I could not bring myself to do it.
It has been blamed on my parents–that they showed us the film The Hiding Place at too tender an age (I was probably at least nine). For the record, I do not think this has much to do with it. My parents showed us the film because it is a true and inspiring story of faithfulness–for Betsy Ten Boom (for whom I am named), faithfulness unto death.
Some people have said, “Of course you don’t like to think about it, no one does, but we should all know about terrible things that happen.” Once a friend said to me, “You can’t just stick your head in the sand.” Often, from childhood onward, people have tried to encourage me with, “It’s not going to happen to you,” or “It all happened a long time ago.” Sometimes I have the same reaction to other stories, stories of atrocity or torture or violence or genocide, that I do to information about the Holocaust. I had to leave the room during the brief scene where Gollum is tortured in The Fellowship of the Ring and I couldn’t sleep for several nights. In situations like these I have also been told, “It’s not real.” I haven’t had a vivid nightmare of the old sort in nearly a decade now, but the heavy, heavy feeling–of terror and sleepless anxiety, comes still.
Because evil–sheer, calculated evil, evil without mercy or compunction–is real. It does happen. That’s the thing. I’ve finally realized it’s not only the Holocaust. The thing I can’t get over is that these things can and do happen.
Have you seen the news from Iraq?
I can’t bear to read it, but I’ve been reading every day.
Lord, have mercy.
I find the hands of my heart grasping out in reaction, looking for some hope, some reassurance that these things cannot be.
I find my heart shouting, “Make no mistake about our God, you wicked!” Make no mistake about the Good Shepherd of those sheep you slaughter in your depravity and your violence. He is God and He will act. He knows every tear and he repays every evil deed in full.
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16)
“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13)