Remembrances can't be swept away like stones

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 14, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The cleanup man saw there were stones, and so he swep them away.

The stones were scattered on the ground last week between Water and Gay streets, just off Lombard. The cleanup man thought they were litter. Those who had left them intended them as remembrances.

The stones lay on the ground by the wall at the city's Holocaust Memorial. The cleanup man was sent there early in the week to tidy up the place for today's Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust day of remembrance of those 6 million innocents murdered by the Nazis for the crime of being Jewish.

Every year at this time, the ceremonies are held not only to remember the dead but to declare such wholesale slaughter can never be allowed to happen again.

But we delude ourselves. Half a century ago, the Jews of Eastern Europe pleaded for help, and the world pretended not to hear. Now there are Kurdish refugees fleeing the murderous Saddam Hussein, whom George Bush compared to Adolf Hitler. This time the world has learned to listen and to speak words of concern, but somehow the dying is allowed to go on.

"Those people must be different from us. . ."

That's always implicit, isn't it? We think of our own comfortable lives, and then we look at the Jews of Nazi Germany, or the Kurds in Iraq, and in order to distance ourselves from the pain, we think: Who could endure such suffering? They must be different from us, somehow less sensitive than us, less human. . .

The Kurds, after all, just look at them: They have weathered, parchment skin and wear funny robes. That's not like us. And the Jews: Who else carries stones to places of death?

The cleanup man's name was Al and he swept the stones at the Holocaust Memorial earlier this week and shook his head sadly.

"I just don't understand it," he said. "This is such a pretty place, and they leave all these stones here. People don't have any respect for anything these days."

Jack Luskin, the appliance chain owner, listened for a moment and then he sat Al down to explain the misunderstanding.

"It isn't disrespect," he said. "It's a tradition."

The way many religions leave flowers at grave sites, the Jews leave stones. The tradition is ancient, and it goes back at least as far as the Talmud, which declares, "Whatever belongs to the )) dead and his grave may not be used for the benefit of the living."

Flowers bring beauty to the place of death. The Holocaust Memorial is no graveyard, but it is a place which recalls death and reminds us of those who have no known resting place.

And so there are Jews who come to this place generations after the war and place stones, as though at a cemetery, for those who have no cemetery. The stones say: Someone was here, and they remember.

This memorial has the feel of a holy place. Pause a moment and there is a vague sense that, to speak too loudly, or too profanely, is to risk waking any of the martyred spirits who might have found their way here and deserve their peace and quiet.

Today, though, the voices will rise in remembrance of a dark season, which sometimes seems to be slipping away. Nearly half a century after the fact, the list of survivors grows shorter. Time takes its inexorable toll. The world grows weary listening to the tale too many times.

What is happening to the Kurdish refugees tells us the tale can never be told too often. The magnitude of the Jewish holocaust does not guarantee it can never happen again. Instead, it offers the chilling assurance that humanity is capable of such horror. And the plight of the Kurds now confirms it.

At the Holocaust Memorial is a plaque which issues a plea that "we remember and shall not forget the genocide which the mind cannot imagine: the degradation, the starvation, the torture, the rape, the experimentation on humans, the gassings, the burnings, the mass executions. . . .

"We remember and shall not forget the world's silence and indifference which led not only to the Holocaust but to the deaths of millions of other people."

The "other people" were non-Jews put to death for their own crimes: the crime of being Gypsies, of being homosexuals, of being somehow different. The Kurds of Iraq are today's different ones.

The president of the United States, having declared a great military victory in the Middle East, now turns to empty words as the killing goes on. The United Nations, roused from a lifelong sleep for a few weeks last winter, seems to have gone back to rest. The allegedly vanquished Saddam Hussein rises from the ashes.

At the Holocaust Memorial today, there will be a memorial candle-lighting ceremony by six Holocaust survivors and their families. For a moment, everyone will remember a time of darkness long ago. Never forget, they will say.

But the darkness has returned in a slightly different form. Here is the reason the world tries to remember. But, having remembered, what will the world do to stop the newest holocaust in the making?

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