When joy and suffering converge

STEPHEN VICCHIO

June 17, 1992|By Stephen Vicchio

THERE IS something about profound joy and suffering that has a way of collapsing space and time.

I was reminded of this the other morning. I stood along with friends, family and members of a large reform congregation in Northwest Baltimore, as the 13-year-old daughter of close friends read the haf torah as part of her bat mitzvah.

The young girl's voice was clear and surprisingly strong, as she read the Hebrew of Leviticus and Ezekiel. Afterward, as part of her prayer, the girl remarked that her parents had added an "a" to her first name to honor the memory of Anne Frank. Fifty years ago, one month after her 13th birthday, Annelies Marie Frank went into hiding with her family in the back rooms of her father's food products business in Amsterdam. Three years later Anne Frank died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hanover, Germany.

If Anne Frank were alive today, she soon would be celebrating her 63rd birthday. She would be about the same age as the proud grandmothers of the bat mitzvah girl. Instead, space and time are frozen for Anne Frank. She will forever remain a girl.

I thought about Anne Frank for the rest of the sabbath service. When it came time to read the kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, I found myself standing with the members of bereaved families, clumsily reciting the Aramaic prayer in the ancient Hebrew I had tried to master in graduate school.

Later, my wife asked me why I stood at the reading of the kaddish. She knew that under normal circumstances, only Jews read the prayer, and only those who mourn. I did not know at the time why I stood.

The next morning, while reading the newspaper, I understood why I became a mourner at the service. Joy and sorrow have a way of putting effects before their causes.

In Berlin, in what may be the last Nazi trial in Germany, Josef Schwammberger, the former head of a forced labor camp, was sentenced last month to life in prison for killing 34 people and participating in the deaths of hundreds of others. (Schwammberger was believed to have participated in 3,377 deaths, but he was tried only for those killings for which there are living witnesses.)

Schwammberger, now a gaunt and bent-up 80-year-old man, had pleaded not guilty to the charges. During his brief testimony he said that he could not remember what he had done during his years as an SS officer.

Other memories were much better, much clearer. Nearly 100 witnesses cataloged a series of atrocities that caused people to call Schwammberger "the god of life and death." Among the crimes for which Schwammberger was convicted was the murder of a rabbi, identified only as Fraenkel, on Sept. 21, 1942. The rabbi had refused to work on Yom Kippur, the holiest of the Jewish holy days. Other testimony implicated Josef Schwammberger in the 1942 murder of a 13-year-old girl whose skull was crushed because the commandant did not want to waste a bullet. That girl, too, would be 63 this year had she not been frozen in space and time.

I know now that I stood at the reading of the kaddish because Anne Frank no longer has a family member to pray for her. Her mother died at Auschwitz in 1945, her sister at Bergen-Belsen in the same year. Her father was found hospitalized at Auschwitz when its horrors were revealed by Russian troops. Otto Frank died in 1980, after a life of devotion to the memory of his vanished family. I do not know if any of the other girl's family survived the holocaust. I stood in case they did not.

Anne Frank was no different from the 13-year-old who bravely stood at the podium the other Saturday and, in clear and haunting Hebrew, expressed her faith. Both those girls are no different from the unnamed 13-year-old whose precious life was bludgeoned from her because a madman in Germany thought a bullet was too good for her.

The rabbis officiating at the service the other morning were no different from their brave predecessor, Fraenkel, who refused to make a mockery of the day of atonement. Time and space had collapsed for me that morning, and I only barely understood enough to stand for the kaddish.

Today these people's faces are blurred together for me. I cannot tell where one face begins and another ends. They are all a part of being Jewish. They are all wrapped together in joy and sorrow. They were all there for the dancing and the celebration after the bat mitzvah, as surely as the two proud grandmothers were.

The combination of such profound joy at the accomplishments of my 13-year-old friend, and the deep sorrow at the mention of Anne Frank, had made me stand that morning. This afternoon, as I write this, I can't get out of my head the image of Anne Frank, of Rabbi Fraenkel, of that anonymous 13-year-old girl. I keep thinking about what the terror must have been like. I keep thinking of them frozen together forever.

Hannah Arendt once remarked that joy is something one participates in with others, while suffering more often happens alone. I think this aphorism does not fit for Jewish suffering. The Jewish people so often have had to find small currents of joy in a black sea of suffering. They have been forced to find great joy together because so often extraordinary suffering has been thrust upon them as a group. I had a glimpse of that realization the other morning on the faces of the old people in that Baltimore synagogue.

I stood the other morning because none of us should ever forget. I stood the other morning because the faces had become one. I stood because suffering was wrapped around this great moment of joy like a nut in its shell. And for that moment I understood something of what it must mean to be a Jew.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. His most recent collection of essays is "Ordinary Mysteries."

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