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“Auggh, such a sissy,” taunted my brother as his hard ball ricocheted off my catcher’s mitt, slammed into the swing seat across the yard, and rolled to a standstill on the ground. “You’ll never learn—No matter how hard I try to teach you!” Tears smarted my brown eyes. I wanted so hard to please him, even though any ball hurled in my direction caused me to hold out my hands, shut my eyes, and pray.

That experience still surfaces, but within different packaging. Instead of hard balls whistling through the air, word-projectiles sting, catch me off guard: They hurt, bad.

One example is the language wrapped around infanticide in our country. Last week legislators in the Vermont House voted 106 to 36 to legalize late-term abortions. H0057 states that women have the right to elective abortions up until birth and strips away rights of unborn babies. “A fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law,” so the law blithely states.

So what has happened to words, enervated of substance, homogenized for the unthinking? As long as words conform to the script of the image-makers, they pass for truth.

To return to the Vermont legislators and their heinous bill—I shudder. Every sentence evidences their jaundiced spiritual faculties, their woeful lack of imagination. Visualize their gall in spearheading this nascent effort to influence other state legislatures to do similarly.

Happily, I no longer shut my eyes and pray when nasty word-projectiles sting. They keep me fully awake and I must respond.

 

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Memorable writers dig deep for the next precise word to construct their narratives—a spiritual process that engages readers.

Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) was such a writer, but unlike others, his eleven months spent in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald eviscerated Yiddish words learned in childhood. For ten years, silence stood guardian over his shocked psyche and sustained his sanity while mastering French in the Normandy home for orphans where he was placed after the liberation. But his heart wound was never staunched—The heinous Evil of the camps defied words. Still, he must try.

And he did. In 1954, he began the task, scrounging for words that shivered before the enormity of his experience. What was to become Night ballooned into 842 pages that underwent several published revisions: in 1956, the Yiddish Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), reduced to 245 pages; in 1958, the French Nuit, reduced to 178 pages; in 1960, the English Night, reduced to 117 pages; and in 2006, a re-translation of the French Nuit, reduced to 115 pages. Decades of revision finally distilled Wiesel’s wound into its essence.

Although words of thirty other languages approximate this account, what actually occurred in the camps remains obscure. Those who plumb the mystery of Evil get scorched; it remains an unfathomable mystery.

So what to make of this world classic, Night? It still speaks to us, but how?

A clue to this dilemma lies in the Talmud’s designation of God as speaking through the white spaces between printed words. Within such silence emerges Wiesel’s deposition for those with courage to listen.

 

Tikkun olam, a centuries-old Hebrew mandate to repair the world through practices of truth and loving kindness, breathes on every page of David R. Gillham’s historical novel, Annelies (January 2019). Such motivates Anne Frank, also called Annelies, and her family living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and its aftermath. Their moral rectitude is rife with lessons for us.

For six years Gillham researched three versions of Anne’s diary, numerous biographies of her, transcripts of those who knew the Franks, and Holocaust histories. Twice, he visited Amsterdam and walked in her footsteps, even to Westerbork, their first internment camp in the north. Thus equipped, he plunges us into the crassness, the betrayals, the smells, the heartbreak, and the staggering hardships blistering the Netherlands. The chapters burn with unrelenting tension.

Instead of Anne perishing in Bergen Belsen, however, Gillham has her return to family friends on Jekerstraat 65 where she meets her father Pim who also survived the camps. What follow is an admixture of historical fact and the author’s imaginative rendering of this spirited young woman; her adolescence torn asunder, she rages against Pim and his decision to move on with his life, rather deal with the brutality both had experienced. Her fury even entrains the emaciated ghost of her sister Margot who spars with her as she did when living. Only Anne’s diary and notes from her twenty-five months spent in the Annex finally restore her identity as a writer, her way of practicing Tikkun olam into adulthood.

Through Annelies, Gillham also honors the young who perished in the camps, thereby impoverishing generations of their talents.

There’s much to learn here.

 

 

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