For his 80th birthday, we took my father-in-law, John, to an Italian restaurant since he loves all things Italian. Although we’ve always got along, there has been a gap that I couldn’t simply attribute to culture or generation.
He was born in Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, non-Jewish Poles constituted the majority of inmates at Auschwitz and other camps until March 1942.
John bitterly recounts the betrayal of France and the United Kingdom, doing nothing more than dropping leaflets to stop the invasion despite the pact of support in case of German aggression. His father had already gone off to fight in the Polish army when John was born. When he was three years old, everyone in his town was rounded up by German soldiers, shipped off on a cargo train to be assigned to random German families as slaves. The German families were able to file complaints if the Poles weren’t working hard enough to their satisfaction. On one occasion, a Nazi soldier came to beat his mother, in front of John and his sister, because she couldn’t work properly due to a severe injury sustained in a farming accident. The soldier lunged and screamed at them when they began crying.
We might cry from watching a Hollywood movie depicting such a story, but we do not realize how simulated those tears are until we see someone who tells it to us as his own experience. The horror overtakes the sorrow, the story ceases to be a story and becomes the speechless real.
I’m not sure how such a gap can be bridged. I don’t know what he sees in the abundance of Italian food in front of us. I get a sense that he has given up on anyone understanding what he has gone through. Years after the war, he met a priest whose bones were repeatedly broken as medical experiments to study the healing process. He said we would never suspect that this priest has lived through such hell from looking at his calm demeanor. Even if they understand each other, what is there to say in words?
Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” is cruel but true. For John, it is for his own inner peace that he has to accept the inexplicable.
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