Why are wars so common given that they are so destructive? When they are so rarely won? When they are so often fought for reasons that turn out to be lies? When they invariably bring out the worst in human brutality? How do individuals and societies recover from such destruction and mendacity?
It just didn’t seem right, reflecting on my father’s life and death in the midst of a city where neither of us had spent much time. There were no familiar places that stirred memories of time together, no specific places where I could go to recall the significant events surrounding his death. I was thousands of miles away from his grave.
I remember myself as an insomniac nine-year-old, lying sleepless in bed after my parents had turned out the lights. In those self-centered, introspective days of childhood, I hardly believed in the reality of the present. How could anything really happen? I wondered. Reality didn’t seem real until it was past, when I could turn it over in my memory and find the meaning of it.
“Tell me a story.” No bedtime liturgy would be complete without these four magical, sacred words, or the four magical words that follow: “Once upon a time. . . .” Story shapes us. Fantastical bedtime stories fill us with fervent hopes for lives full of high adventure and romance, through which we learn chivalry, fidelity and courage.
When my father boarded a ship to New York in 1938, he brought his trunks of family silver and linens—and his faith. Years later he returned to Germany with my mother and me and showed us the magnificent church where he was baptized, raised and confirmed, St. Mary’s in Lübeck.
In 1986, having been married to me only one year, my wife was casting about for an interesting birthday present. She wandered into a coin shop and found a case of coins from antiquity. She already knew me well enough to know that I would be fascinated by them. The owner didn’t know much about the coins, only that they were from Rome, and he was pretty sure that one of them dated from the time of Christ. That’s the one my wife bought.She was absolutely right about my reaction to this gift—I fell in love with this coin the minute I saw it. I couldn’t believe that I was holding something so old in my hands.
Lawrence Langer explains in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory that written accounts of life in the Nazi concentration camps often seek to integrate the Holocaust experience into a larger structure of meaning.