Of course, it’s natural to want to defend yourself when you are in the right. It’s particularly hard to resist making your case in our competitive society, where it is an applauded tic to lustily plead one’s cause in a no holds barred, zero-sum game of winner take all. In fact, if you fail to make your case, you not only lose, you’re a loser. If the game is zero-sum, as this one here is, losing is a big deal. If you lose you do not survive, except as a grim cautionary tale. Yet, consider:
…if you could remain quiet, even though reason was completely on your side, even though you had every right to be be angry and nobody with a heart could fault you for being mad as hell — if you could speak softly and not argue your case, imagine the different outcome, the good will and friendship that could possibly be preserved? You’d still be seen as a loser, of course, but the quiet victory over the reflex to self-righteousness would be yours and no harm would be done by your justified venting. Good might possibly result from your kind example, for it feels very good to be forgiven. Remaining soft-spoken and forgiving means that you’ve gone past the need to prevail, be right, win, convince, justify or rationalize anything. Remaining soft-spoken and forgiving is the work of a lifetime, it would appear.
My mind leaps sideways, on this 76th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when the proverbial gloves came off in Nazi Germany and Jews were finally starting to be killed outright, and the first 30,000 rounded up and sent to prison camps, in a night of national rioting against the Jews, to the outskirts of Vishnevetz, in the Ukraine, not far from Khmelnystkyi, on a particular August day in 1943. Nazi motherfuckers, working with local Ukrainian red-neck motherfuckers, marched the Jews out of the hideous Vishnevetz ghetto in orderly fashion, to the banging of drums.
The Jews of Vishnevetz and the surrounding areas had been rounded up into the ghetto only a few months earlier. The Jews had been required to finish this work of creating the ghetto boundaries and kissing their chains in three days or else my grandmother’s brother, (or possibly her uncle or father– there’s no one left to ask) who was one of the two Jewish hostages being held by the Gestapo, would be executed. My grandfather’s father’s house had been designated as the Eastern edge of the fenced ghetto, and so it became. The work was done on time and my grandmother’s loved one presumably released, or maybe shot by the Germans just for laughs. Many Jews had already died in Vishnevetz under Nazi occupation, several summarily shot, others starved to death or dead of disease, or, one suspects, suicide. Most of the survivors, always hungry, and, if sick, soon dead, lived the half-lives of the living dead, expecting their murder at any moment.
To the edge of the ravine, then, the Ukrainians have been preparing it for you all day. All rocks and roots removed, the dirt combed nicely back from the hillside. A soft bed of dirt, freshly turned, with that fresh earth smell. Perfect. OK, clothes in neat piles, please. You can leave your underwear on, it’s OK. First group of Jews, please. Yes, right this way. OK, face to the left, that’s right, excellent, now slide down a few feet, there are a few more people here on the side who could fit in. Yes, that’s good, well-done. OK, lie down, it will all be over in a second. A line of Ukrainians steps forward and shoots each Jew once in the head. They then scramble over the bodies, straightening limbs and covering the freshly killed bodies with a fresh layer of dirt. The drumming continues, to cover the sounds of the shots, the screaming, the wailing. It’s like a parade for the Ukrainian onlookers, already starting to gather up the clothes to sell.
OK, next group! Thank you all for waiting, next group, this way please, come on, step up, please! The Jews in their underwear stumble forward into the ravine, walking sideways in the narrow row to be lined up behind the barely buried layer of dead in front of them. Thank you all for waiting. OK, here we go, lie down, please. Make yourselves comfortable, and goodbye. The Ukrainians step forward, pap-pap-PAP! and then they are nimbly dancing over the dead bodies, straightening limbs, neatening the stacks. Their wives, meanwhile, have finished tying into huge bundles the first of the murdered Jews’ best clothes, which the Jews had been urged to wear for their relocation. Relocation from life to death, OK, we lied just to get you to wear your good clothes and all remaining jewelry. We’re fucking Nazis, what do you want? Next group, please.
This is, obviously, not what I started out to write when I chose the title remain soft-spoken and forgiving. The forgotten slaughter at Vishnevetz is nothing to remain soft-spoken and forgiving about– it is about the worst example I could find, although I did not find it so much as it found me, clearly. It is only an example of something that burns the soul, presses hard against any vow to remain soft-spoken, forgiving, decent, human and kind. It cries out loud for a different response.
When someone comes to kill you, if it is within your power, do not let them kill you. Nazis, although they take care to arrange things to make resistance as difficult as possible, must be resisted (not that the persecuted Jews of the Ukraine were in any position to resist). Of course, this leads to the famous problem of specific cases, murderous laws like “Stand Your Ground” and things like that. The clear right to avoid your own murder is an extreme case of having reason on your side, soft-speaking and gentility aside.
On the other hand, an in extremis situation like the grotesque events in that Vishnevetz ravine that August 1943 day is often used by philosophers to illustrate and test their points. If a Vishevetz Jew could remain soft-spoken and forgiving… a far better universal moral principle than an unslakable thirst for vengeance. The sickening slaughter does provide a good snapshot of how difficult it is not to rage sometimes, with reason screaming on your side.
I will try this post again with a better example, a smaller scale, more personal example having nothing to do with the mass murder of my family and many other families. Right now, I’m still unaccountably lingering by the edge of that long-forgotten ravine full of the bones of my ancestors.