This year my English class read a very special novel called The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. The Reader is the story of a young man’s affair with an older woman in a summer of his youth, and the moral struggles he must face when he sees her on trial years later for working in a concentration camp. This novel tells the story not of one fantasized incident, not of the shortcomings of a few people, but rather the story of an entire generation, of perhaps a few generations. I must urge everyone I know to read this book, I promise you that it will make you think, it may make you cry, and it will most definitely help you to better understand the moral ambiguity of every situation.
If the dog eared and sticky note covered pages are any indication, I cherish this book dearly, and reflect upon it constantly. Upon visiting the Haus de Geschichte on Thursday, this book meant even more to me as I could better understand as Bernhard Schlink put it, “the pain an entire generation went through for loving those who had committed atrocities was in a way the fate of my generation, a German fate.” It was heartbreaking to walk through the halls dedicated to the Holocaust to see the boxes upon boxes of names of those who perished due to their Jewish heritage, or the bulletin boards full of people looking for their loved ones. It brought tears to my eyes to see the giant boards dedicated to children finding their families, most of them not remembering their last names, it being years since they last saw them. I highly recommend reading The Reader, if it touches you only a fraction of the extent it did to me, then it will have been worth reading it. I have been reading a lot about the Holocaust recently, it being one of those despairing however incredibly important topics to understand. Fugitive Pieces and All the Light We Cannot See are two of the most beautiful, emotionally impacting books I have ever read, and so also recommend them to anyone interested. Getting back to the Haus de Geschichte and also just history in general, while I have been here my uncle and I have talked extensively about history, morals and ignorance & oblivion, and how each person has a different perspective on it.
Take the Holocaust for example, the words I have heard most often in relation to it have been “never again.” At the ten year commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide the words were again said. Again when remembering the Armenian Genocide. These two words are repeated over and over again, yet do we ever really stop to hear them? George Santayana once stated that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to report it.” Is that our problem? Are we forgetting the past? Is it beyond our power to prevent these events from happening again?
Last year a speaker came in to talk to my World Issues class about genocide. His name was Brent Beardsley, and he was part of the UN Peacekeeping task force that was sent to Rwanda in 1994. He talked about what a genocide really means, how similar many cases of genocide are, and how we consistently fail to remember from our past mistakes. His closing words chilled me to the bone, and I don’t think I will ever forget them. When asked what we as youths can do to stop horrible events like this from happening again he stated that we simply must “be good.” That’s it. Just be good. Be a good person, a good human being, a good neighbour, a good friend, a good person.
Is the answer really that simple? What can we learn from past events? How is our world still faced with brutal and absolutely unethical acts everyday when we have already faced so much? These are the questions that float through my mind as I ponder this post. I sense a very lengthy and philosophical discussion is needed in for me in the near future in order to truly feel at peace (or at least closer to it) with these questions.