The sacrifices still matter

If you visit the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, you will see six 54-foot-high glass columns, each one symbolizing one million of the Jewish citizens of Europe who perished in the Holocaust. Six million numbers are etched into the glass, as well as personal statements by survivors who experienced firsthand the systematic slaughter and institutionalized barbarity that marked Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

One of the passages is by Gerda Weissmann Klein, author of “All But My Life,” her extraordinary 1957 memoir of her ordeal in slave labor camps and on the nightmarish forced marches that occurred in the final months of World War II.

The passage is brief but profound, chronicling a moment when another prisoner shares with Gerda a single, bruised raspberry: “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night in a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to a friend.”

It is one of those stories that is meaningful because of how simply but precisely it conveys the absolute degradation of a Nazi prisoner, yet still illuminates the resiliency of the human spirit. A single raspberry is a spectacular bounty, and Ilse selflessly offers it to her friend.

Last month I was speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Austin, Texas, on the very same day that Gerda was speaking at the Hillel on the University of Texas campus. My event was at 11 in the morning and Gerda’s was at 7 at night, and so I was able to hear her speech. And I wanted to hear Gerda for many reasons, including the reality that a character in my novel, “Skeletons at the Feast,” owes much to her.

Gerda is indeed an extraordinary speaker, eloquent and moving and very funny. She is 85 years old.

But what made her remarks even more powerful was something that had occurred that day in Texas while we both were visiting Austin. Little more than an hour away at Fort Hood, 13 innocent people would be shot, allegedly by deranged U.S. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. The incident has disturbed all of us in this country, but it was especially troubling for Gerda. She had been liberated by the U.S. Army at the end of the Second World War and would marry Kurt Klein, an American G.I. who was among her rescuers. Klein saw in the emaciated 68-pound skeleton the vibrant, intelligent, charismatic young woman Gerda had once been and would become again.

Consequently, Gerda was particularly shaken by the violence.

Listening to her speak about what she endured in World War II and the tragedy that had occurred at Fort Hood reminded me that it is easy for us to lose sight of two things. First of all, it is easy to take for granted the freedoms and privileges that come with being an American. Certainly our nation is far from perfect: Homelessness and hunger continue to stalk far too many of our neighbors and we remain far too oblivious to the environmental perils we have created. But the core principles on which the country was founded are capable of inspiring us even now.

Second, it is easy for those of us who are not in the military to forget the sacrifices that those women and men have made on our behalf over the years — and continue to make daily around the world today. Like the nation it serves, that military might be imperfect. But were it not for the heavy lifting of the American military between 1941 and 1945, today there might be even more than the six pillars at the memorial in Boston — and there might not be that tragic and revealing tale of one girl and one raspberry among the stories.

Nearly 1,500 Vermont National Guard soldiers soon will be heading to Afghanistan, the largest deployment of Green Mountain volunteers since World War II. As they leave us this holiday season, I doff my cap to them and to their families. May they all return soon.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 6, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.