Listen and Be Heard
“Jews, listen to me! That’s all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!” (Wiesel 7). But no one listened to Moishe the Beadle. His words of admonition were spoken in the stifling vacuum of apathy and ignorance. He knew the horror, he understood it at its most intimate level, and he entreated passionately, but no one heard. “Jews, look! Look at the fire! Look at the flames!” (Wiesel 28). But no one listened to Mrs. Schächter. In that asphyxiating cattle car, her premonition of the fiery altar on which her people would be sacrificed was not heeded. She knew, she understood, she shrieked vociferously, but no one heard, not until it was too late. Learning is, and always will be, an interminable dialogue between the lesson-giver and the audience. To know is not enough, to speak is not enough, one must be heard. Elie Wiesel understood this at a level too close for comfort; it was thus that he emerged from the Kingdom of Night, the realm of words unspoken, history untold, and became a champion for voice, for truth, for remembrance.
It might be surprising how an adolescent of Chinese descent could take such an interest in the European Holocaust, how someone so far removed from the atrocities that befell the Jews could even broach upon a topic that had no direct impact on him. What of that other unspeakable horror of World War II, that forgotten Holocaust, little mentioned, little remembered? What of the Rape of Nanking, the prelude to the Jewish Holocaust founded on the same unfounded principles of ethnic cleansing, and what should have been a forbidding vision of what might happen in Europe? If we could hear then the nightmarish iniquity that was possible, perhaps the Jewish Holocaust would not have been as devastating. There were stories to be told, lessons to be taught, voices to be heard, but the world stood silent, and history was allowed to repeat itself. The truth is, whatever race one may be, whatever atrocity one may stake claim to, one will always remain inextricably human, always part of the same collective race, sharing the same collective planet. If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is to discard the notion of racial superiority, to understand the fundamental dignity of humankind, and to never encroach upon this dignity. Human rights are being violated on every continent; if one simply listens, one cannot help but be sensitive to the plights of not just one’s own people but the plights of the human people as a whole. Elie Wiesel once said in his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”
Remembering the Holocaust, hearing, finally, the atrocities, is not just simply a matter of learning from the past and preventing its mistakes. It is also a window into human nature, a glimpse into the human condition, our capacity for evil and our capacity for good, for really, one cannot exist without the other. We will never understand the gamut of human existence if we do not analyze our mistakes and our triumphs. To garner a true appreciation of virtue and nobility, one must first look in the deepest, darkest chasms of sin and demagoguery. Without the Holocaust, would we have an Oskar Schindler; would we be able to appreciate his unbridled love for fellow man and his unmitigated courage? Without Nanking, would we have a John Rabe, christened the Oskar Schindler of China, who saved more than 250,000 Chinese lives, understanding that be one Chinese or German, Jewish or Buddhist, one will always remain human.
The very act of remembering, of understanding, and of listening is the greatest defense humanity has in preventing another Holocaust. To remember an atrocity is to fear it; to fear it is the first and best precautionary measure one can take. Stories must be continuously told, and they must be continuously listened to. Today there is still pain and suffering, there is still bigotry and violence. We cannot expect a world devoid of such things, but we can certainly hope for it, and work for it as well. Any one less instance of suffering is a step forward. For my generation, it is necessary that we listen to the words of our forefathers and speak them as well, making sure they are heard. We must remember the fear and fear the fear itself. That is a step towards a world of less suffering, less evil, and a greater, united understanding of our place in this world.
Let us never permit the fires of Auschwitz to smolder away in our minds, forgotten ashes in history; let us never allow the Yangtze River, red with blood, to run dry, thirsty for remembrance; let us never forget the atrocities that have stricken this planet, our only one; never for never’s sake.
Chang, Iris. The Rape of
Nanking. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.
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