Meeting the Shadow Head-on: Stories to Live By

13/07/2016 12:33 | Updated 13 July 2016

My grandmother tells this story from the years before the Nazi invasion of Hungary. It takes place in the small Hungarian town in which she and her family (all Jews) lived. In that town stood a Yeshiva (a study school for religious Jewish boys). As antisemitism rose up in the atmosphere, the boys who attended the school (overtly Jewish: earlocked, skullcapped) became evermore vulnerable.

My grandmother, then a teenager, was walking through town one day, and she happened upon this scene: a Jewish boy being beaten by two men in their twenties, non-Jews, older and larger than him. Seeing that, she ran at the attackers, and with her umbrella she smashed the nose of one of the assailants. The attackers fled. "Perhaps I broke his nose," she muses, many years on. "There was a lot of blood."

Later, the attackers contacted my great grandfather, a then wealthy shop owner. He spoke to my grandmother; told her she shouldn't have done what she did. "But I did what was right," she protested. My great grandfather sighed deeply: "Right no longer comes into it."

As Jews born into the wrong country at the wrong point in time, the country in which they lived was not on their side. The attackers blackmailed my great grandfather for money. It was that, or they threatened they'd go to the police. The police also were not on the side of the Jews, not then. My great grandfather paid.

There is no happy ending to this story. Concentration Camps loomed in my grandmother's future, though she'd come out alive. My great grandfather was to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. He did not survive the Holocaust.

Right then, though, they knew nothing of those things. Just that it was not a good point in time; not good at all. As for the young Jewish boy who was attacked? Who knows what later became of him?


Why am I telling you this story?

I could tell you about the petsits I've done in recent months; about the places I've been, the animals I've met. I could show you cute photos. Give you a glimpse into my life, which would be both true and table dressing. Tell you I'm regularly both refreshed and exhausted by my life as is. That I recognise my freedom, my privilege within this.

I can't quite escape the feeling, though, that the world is in chaos. That the world is always in chaos, but this is the year where all that lurks in Shadow, just below the surface, is rising the hell up and can no longer be glanced away from or denied. I can't quite bring myself to tell you puppy stories right now.

This year, I'm frequently heavy with world sadness, world grief; feelings for which I lack a perfect word. Weltschmerz comes closest. 2016 seems marked by grief on a planetary scale. Look away and whose suffering are you denying, negating? Where are you complicit?

I've spent this year weaving through chaos. My own (the double dose of poisoning: carbon monoxide and toxic mold with which my year began). The toxic mold poisoning I can't quite entirely shake off. Learning to take my life day by day. Fewer certainties or expectations.

Then, also, the world pain, world chaos. How to be with that? I believe as people our place is right in the chaos, doing the best we can. Where there's grief in the future I'll work with the dead and dying where I am able. I begin my training in the Autumn.

As for that story of my grandmother's. I tell you it so you won't forget it; so it won't be forgotten. I tell you it because stories repeat themselves. I tell you it because I believe there's a message in it.

In a world aching with inequality, xenophobia, racism, hatred, pain, I believe our work as human beings is not to look away. To speak out where we can. To try not to add to suffering; to not allow ourselves to become silent accomplices to it.

I have a voice and I can choose to use it. And stories, that are sometimes for telling. Plus a deep need - in my soul, in my bones, to not look away.