It has been a tough week, the mental stress the worst. Having to put up with pressure, gossip, self-doubt, fatigue and at the same time pushing through each day pretending nothing’s wrong was a hard trial. Tuesday was one of those rainy days when one must go out, and be splattered head to toe by a raging bus. Friday I had a flat tire, a not-so-well-done exam, and just numbness. I don’t know from whence I draw upon the strength I need to help me through each day, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I can draw strength at all, but just a mind-numbing pushing forward. By Saturday morning, I was exhausted and heart sick and craved a rest.
So I decided to give it to myself. A rest of the mind often means busy hands, and this I set to, cleaning the apartment, pulling open the curtains, letting sunlight stream in. I swept and mopped the floor until it felt good to walk on, bare foot, and stripped off the bedsheets and put on new ones. Katniss’ toys were searched and found in all sorts of nooks and crannies and deposited into the sink for a good wash. Laundry was done. The room was bright and fresh, and lunch was going to be delicious. At last, I felt content.
In the afternoon I went shopping. Food has been known to be great medicine for all sorts of sicknesses, and especially those of the mind. I went walking through the city, enjoying the afternoon sunshine of a winter day, the chilly wind, and the feeling of Philly. I passed by a Barnes and Nobles, and was drawn in. Someone was smart enough to put a coffee shop in the bookstore. The combination was irresistible. I had to go in.
Bookstores are such soothing places. I often marvel at the sea of books and how it’s possible to find within all those names and covers and pictures a book one might potentially like. It’s then that the reality of being an author hits me. How to make sure people grabbed it among so many choices? But then, I’m sure everyone has an uncanny knack for picking out their own favorites. It just works that way. Or maybe there are too many good books out there, so that when you lay your hands on one, you’re hardly ever disappointed.
A bookstore can bring up such old memories. I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lying there, among the holiday gifts, to be purchased and gifted to start some child’s Harry Potter adventure. But the children now can’t grow up with Harry Potter like we did, waiting for each new book to come out, showing up faithfully at the movies, even though in our heart of hearts we know the books are so much richer, better. I couldn’t help pick one up. The feeling of the new book, the familiarity yet strangeness of opening the cover to find the water-blue cover page took me back to fifth grade. I’d ordered the books through Scholastic, there were only four then, and they’d cost 49 dollars. They were my treasures. I handled them with such care, and read aloud a chapter each night to my teddy bear. With each re-reading though, I’d grown less careful. I’d take them onto the dining table with me and read while I ate, splashing soup or juice or smearing other things onto the clean white pages. I’d keep them in my backpack, stuck and jostled with all my schoolbooks. The binding soon fell apart. And then I’ve never had a new Harry Potter book again. I can’t describe the feeling of holding it in my hands, after all these years, and remembering the summer when I was eleven, just started on the first book, and wishing fervently for a Hogwarts letter. It was like a child gone missing. After I’ve left Tucson, it has not made it into back into my thoughts much at all.
Perhaps with thoughts like this on my mind, it wasn’t surprising I picked out a book related to remembering. Sarah’s Key. There are many high praises for it, and it was about the Jewish round up in France in 1942, one of the subjects that has intrigued me ever since I learned about the European side of WWII, and so I bought it, and again, it proved a good book.
I think in some way I regard history differently. Especially wars. I’m not even sure if WWII can be called history just yet. Because it’s still so vividly alive, within me. I have mentioned that I’ve been intrigued by the European part of the war ever since I was taught this in American schools. Truth is, I’m caught by the fate of the European Jews, I cannot stop myself from looking at old photographs of bodies and crematoriums and concentration camps, and listening to the ghost-like testimonies of survivors, even though they come to haunt me later and creep their ways into my nightmares. But I can’t stop. I can’t close my eyes and say it’s terrible, I don’t want to think about it. I have to think about it. I don’t know if it even matters, here and now, but I know that if I were one of the victims, I would want people to know what had happened, of brutalities and evils that are now hushed as children of tyrants and victims and mute passer-bys and on-watchers live in ignorance.
The Chinese-Japanese part of the war I cannot bear photographs because it feels too personal. But I read the accounts and I feel anger, sometimes even hatred. And it appalls me that politics now call for forgiving and forgetting. Forgiving, perhaps, can be done, if we’re noble enough to say the current generation isn’t responsible for the sins of the previous. But forgetting, never. It is altogether too easy to stand on moral high grounds and chant petty things, but to those victims who’ve lost families, who’ve lost hopes and lives and live on like a shell, who return each year to the sites not just for some remembrance ceremony, but to weep for what was destroyed and what could’ve been, forgetting is an insult.
Sarah’s Key is about two families trapped together by the sins committed by Nazis and Frechmen alike. A Jewish family was arrested, and Sarah, a ten-year-old girl, not knowing what was going on, hid her four-year-old brother in their secret cupboard and promised to return for him later. Their house was vacated and a French family moved in. Sarah went through hell, endured separation from her mother, and watched her parents sent away to Auschwitz. All the time, she has not forgotten about her brother, and escapes to return to him. Perhaps only a ten-year-old girl has hope in situations like these. Maybe a more practical person would’ve given up. Told her what she’d find. But she went back. She opened the cupboard. And if she was terrified and heartbroken and screaming with disbelief and anguish inside her, then words failed the author, and me.
Three generations later, the daughter-in-law of the French family that now lives in the house stumbles onto the story by accident and is determined to find Sarah, see where she is now, whether she is happy. As if a person can ever be happy, again, after finding the rotting body of their baby brother in the childhood secret hiding place. Her search was difficult, and her family discouraged her, except for her father-in-law, who was a boy himself when Sarah came rushing to release her brother and witnessed first-hand the stuff of nightmares. As she searches, she researches, and the more she learns about that fateful night, July 16th, 1942, the more she is appalled by the fact that no one was ever taught these things in schools, that the memorial places are now just derelict signs. As her angry husband demands what she is going to say to Sarah, if she ever finds her, the composed woman chokes on her words, “To say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being 45 and not knowing.”
I’m sorry for not knowing… How many more stories like Sarah’s are out there? Created by the war and the violence and brutalities of the human mind? How many more of these stories are not known because we don’t care? We think it can play no role in our peaceful lives now. For certainly, we have a right to claim that it happened before our lifetime, and if there’s anything to be ashamed of, it’s certainly not us who should shoulder it. But somewhere out there, there are people like Sarah, living among us, with stories that can never be told because it rips open a hole so big the heart can’t take it. Somewhere out there people live with altered names and identities and vivid testimonies of the war, but we consider it beneath our notice. Even as time moves on day by day, these people are dying out, haunted by their memories, tortured by their decisions, and resenting the world for not having cared more. And when the last of them goes, we can finally have true peace of mind, not to ever think about it again, for it happened so long ago. But just how big a debt we owe to our neighbors, our friends, and humanity itself, by forgetting, by moving on, can never be calculated.