Jodi Picoult has an enchanting novel on the New York Times’ bestseller list called “The Storyteller.” It’s about a reclusive baker struggling to deal with the death of her mother who meets an old man at a grief support group. One day, she notices the old man at her bakery, strikes up a conversation and begins a daily ritual of talking to this guy as she’s baking the next day’s bread. It may seem refreshing to the reader to know this woman – who seems to avoid socializing at all costs – has found a friend, but it should feel suspicious. Why did this 95-year-old man seek out her – a woman in her mid-20s?
Low and behold, she is Jewish. And he is a German who was a child when his country was in shambles, read “Mein Kampf” as a teenager and was in his early 20s during World War II. It’s not difficult to figure out where this is going.
This old man was an SS Officer who spent time working at Auschwitz. The woman in the novel grew up wondering about the tattoos her grandmother kept hidden on her wrist. The old man wanted to die – and he wanted his new friend to help that happen.
I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
However, the purpose of this post is not to review this gripping novel. Have I enjoyed it thus far? Absolutely. But I’m also learning a lot from it.
“What I mean to tell you, now, is that the same truth holds,” the man says while sharing stories from his past with the woman. “This could be you, too. You think never. You think, not I. But at any given moment, we are capable of doing what we least expect from ourselves. I always knew what I was doing and to whom I was doing it. I knew, very well. Because in those terrible, wonderful moments, I was the person everyone wanted to be.”
Is this true? If not, society does very little to prove otherwise. We’ve all heard stories of spouses who kill their spouses for insurance money, religious fanatics who blow themselves up to further their beliefs and other generally heinous acts committed by everyday persons.
How about the motivation? According to this man, it was being the guy everyone admired. Isn’t that exactly the same as killing for money or religion? Doesn’t each of those acts directly or indirectly gain admiration?
“How could I explain to my own mother the things I had done? The Jews whose doors I had kicked in so that we could seize radios, appliances, valuables and anything else that might help the war effort? The elderly rabbi I had beaten for staying out to pray after curfew? The men, women and children we herded up in the middle of the night and killed?”
The man shows shame for his actions while speaking of them, but never any sincere remorse. He was brainwashed – that was his excuse – and he has different a million examples, reasons and justifications for why that happened, but not one explanation for why he didn’t resist once he knew his actions were unspeakable to his mother.
What we – the innocent bystanders and passive observers – want from him is to hear how he refused to serve a people killing another. That’s what everyone agrees someone should have done. Obviously, however, few actually did and lived to tell about it.
So would you have taken that stand?
While the man is short on explanations, he does offer this, which some could argue explains somewhat:
“I did not think about what I was doing. How could I? To be stripped naked, shouted at to move faster and faster toward the pit with your children running beside you. To look down and see your friends and relatives, dying an instant before you. To take your place between the twitching limbs of the wounded and wait for your moment. To feel the blast of the bullet, and then the heaviness of a stranger falling on top of you. To think like this was to think that we were killing other humans, and to us, they could not be humans. Because then what would that say about us?”
I read the following passage Friday night, alone in my quiet house and surrounded by photos of my daughter adorning the walls. The only thing that seemed appropriate afterward was reflection. The only activity that felt appropriate after that was crying. (Gosh, I love books!)
“One of the last groups had a mother and a child. This was not extraordinary; I had seen thousands of them. But this mother, she carried the little girl, and told her not to look, to keep her eyes closed. She placed her toddler between two fallen bodies as if she were tucking her in for the night. And then she began to sing.
“I didn’t know the words, but I knew the melody. It was a lullaby that my mother had sung to my brother and me when we were little, albeit in a different language. The little girl sang, too. ‘Nite farhaltn,’ the Jewess sang. Don’t stop.
“I gave the command and the machine guns chattered to life and shook the ground upon which I was standing. Only after the soldiers were finished did my ears stop ringing.
“That’s when I heard the little girl, still singing.
“She was slick with blood and her voice was not much more than a whisper, but the notes rose like soap bubbles. I walked through the pit and pointed my gun at her. Her face was still buried in her mother’s shoulder, but when she sensed me looming over, she looked up.
“I fired my weapon into her dead mother’s body.
“Then the crack of a pistol shot rang out and there was no more music.
“Beside me, Voelkel holstered his gun. ‘Aim better,’ he said.”
Normally, I “get into” books by putting myself in the characters’ positions. I consider what I would in each situation and how I might address each conflict. It’s relatively easy to ponder my actions as an SS Officer because I believe I never would have made it that far. (I also realize this could be me dodging the question.)
But it’s devastating to contemplate the way I’d handle that mother’s position. I cannot do it; it is too uncomfortable. Could you imagine?
What would you do once you’ve discovered self-defense is not an option? After you’ve learned you cannot protect your child from harm? At what point do you switch from trying to stay alive to trying to die in the best possible manner? How do you balance concern or fear over your coming death with alleviating whatever fears or concerns your child may have about it? How does a person do those things simultaneously?
And finally, how does God allow these things to happen?