|The Peace Palace displays a French flag in flowers after the attacks|
I recently read the somewhat mediocre novel, Sarah’s Key, and in this book an American expat living in Paris learns about French collaboration in the Jewish deportation. Her fascination with this history, and particularly the story of a particular girl becomes and obsession. At various times in the story it becomes clear that this story of this child is more important to her than her marriage, her daughter, her job, and it seems at the same time somehow noble and also unhinged. She wants to apologize, she’s sorry it happened, she’s sorry she didn’t know, she feels personally responsible somehow, if nothing else, for not knowing. This journalist character is full of feeling but none of it is productive.
To contrast with this fictional journalist’s emotional fixation, the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam tells the evocative stories of the Dutch under the Nazi occupation. One temporary exhibit was about the “hunger winter” and the children sent away from their families in city. They were sent to households in the country not because of air raids, like in London, but because The Netherlands is a small densely populated country and everyone was in such danger of starvation at the end of the war. The exhibit followed the stories of eight children, told in text and video by the now aging men and women themselves. You could watch videos of an old woman talking the time when she was just seven years old standing in line to get food and seeing someone keel over, dead of starvation right in front of her. You followed these children and their stories through the exhibit, seeing photos of their thin frightened faces, watching the elderly men and women cry at their memories, and every part of it was hard to watch. One child was sent to a part of the country where they speak not Dutch but Frisian, and when he returned to his family, could no longer remember any Dutch, another returned to find his siblings had all died, just heartbreaking stories every one of them. Then at the end of the exhibit, when I was all ready for closure and the happy ending, in the past there was a display about children dying of hunger today. Not many Dutch children starve these days, but children elsewhere do. The museum called for donations, and for activism. They wanted to transform all of the easy empathy we’d found by listening to sweet old Dutch ladies into food for hungry stomachs in Zambia or Tajikistan.
I was devastated by the end of this exhibit, but also incredibly impressed because learning to feel with another person’s hurt takes effort and determination, and it’s not any fun. They’re two distinct steps: the empathy and the action, but they’re both important, and they go hand in hand, because it is very hard to fill a need, to soothe a hurt if you do not see it. I hope that more and more I will be someone who is active in my engagement with this world. Conscientious, well informed, and especially quick to listen to those with whom I may disagree. When I pray (or cry, or empathize) I want to move my feet.