Monday, April 9, 2007

Alex in the Warsaw ghetto

"Alex’s childhood provided him with models of altruism: his mother and grandmother often sheltered and fed wandering Gypsies. His grandparents’ religious faith did not make much of an impression on him, nor does he consider either his mother or himself particularly religious...

The Warsaw ghetto was only two blocks from Alex’s home. He was moved, mostly by simple curiosity, to see the ghetto in spite of the strict injunction against civilian visitors. One of his brothers, a member of the Polish underground, sneaked him in.

Alex was overcome with horror by what he witnessed. It was early in the morning, before the cart came to pick up the dead bodies of children lying on the street. The parents of these young unfortunates, he was told, had long since died or been deported. Corpses of toddlers and teenagers alike swarmed with flies. Alex remembers the flies, vividly.

Alex gave some bread to the desperate children who came pleadingly toward him, but he was overwhelmed by the futility of the act. He came back to the ghetto several times, to engrave the images of dying children on his psyche and to reinspire himself with a fee that something had to be done. At last he told an old friend from Retniki, a chauffeur who had worked for a Jewish family now living in the ghetto, that he would take in a Jewish child.

Alex characterizes the liquidation of the ghetto as the most difficult period of time for him during the war. “You can’t eat,” he says. “You can’t sleep. If you see things like that, you can get sick.” Yet he was only a bystander at the time of the mass deportations, not a rescuer. From an objective point of view, his rescuing experience was infinitely more stressful—because of the intimate losses he suffered while living with the constant fear of his own and his family’s danger.

He was able to block out the terror and sorrow of his rescuing experience by focusing on his empathic feelings for the dying children in the ghetto, and all his repressed grief and fear have heightened the indelibility of those images in his mind."

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