The Little Soldier
June 15, 2009
“How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world!”
–Anne Frank, 1942
Last year, I read about a Sudanese folk tale which teaches that God created man with something in him that allows him to commit evil. This thing is intangible, ineffable, even undefinable, and thus the Sudanese simply refer to it as the “what.” Jews might call it the yetzer harah or the “evil inclination,” but the Sudanese don’t attempt to impose a name on it, just as we call God Hashem, “the name.”
I spent a lot of time thinking about what the “what” could be. Maybe it is a particular quality that people possess, some twisted chemical reaction that triggers in man’s brain at key points and allows him to do something to cause irredeemable suffering or harm. Or maybe it is rather something people lack – some shining quality that people who tend more toward good do possess, that just doesn’t register for people who can perform what is heinous or malevolent.
Eventually I concluded that not only would I never understand why people committed evil, but that even if I did, there would be no way to eradicate this tendency from humanity. There will always be people who do evil things. The important thing is that there also always be people to fight it. And that, I vowed, is who I would be.
It seemed a simple enough philosophy, and I went to Poland with my class last month confident that it adequately acknowledged the grotesque reality of the Holocaust. I had been before – twice – so I thought my newfound sense of purpose would not be shaken by what I would see there. But confronted again with the death camps, the walls lined with mounds of shorn human hair and barracks filled with overflowing crates of shoes, I found myself struggling with the same thoughts again. I was surprised at myself, and annoyed. I thought I had settled this issue. I thought I could move on. Especially on my third trip to Poland, I thought I would be able to make more sense of things. Yet I was turning over the same old worn questions in my mind, without variation and yet without satisfaction, going through exactly the same thought process as before. What makes people commit evil? Or what allows them to? What do we have or not have that determines our goodness?
I had been before – twice – so I thought my newfound sense of purpose would not be shaken by what I would see there. But confronted again with the death camps, the walls lined with mounds of shorn human hair and barracks filled with overflowing crates of shoes, I found myself struggling with the same thoughts again.
The logic I had brought with me to Poland didn’t seem to make sense anymore. And it made me so tired. I thought of the genocide in Darfur and I was tired. I thought of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I was tired. I thought of all the people in the world who needed help, care, attention, and how I had vowed and always wanted to be someone who could provide it, and I was so tired. I thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. It was too tiring; it was too fruitless; when I thought of humanity’s plights I could only think of the way I wanted to vomit when I saw the piles of hair, dreadlocked, all faded into the same dull grey except for an occasional strawberry-blond lock weaving through the mass, and I did not want to bother helping anybody anymore.
Strangely, it was a moment at another death camp that inspired me again. Belzec contains nothing original now except the trees, and has been transformed into a large artistic memorial that had the entire group break down within minutes. We stood in a circle, talking through tears, then shuffled away to different corners of the memorial, clutching each other in pairs and practically collapsing in sobs. For a moment I stood alone, feeling the familiar heat pressing up against my eyes, preparing to cry.
Then I caught sight of one of my friends standing a few feet away, shrinking into a corner, shaking in tears. She looked utterly miserable. It only took an instant. Something in me, something intangible, ineffable, undefinable even, straightened up, snatched the tears from the back of my eyes, saluted and said briskly, “Be a good soldier.” I stopped crying. I went to my friend and placed my hand on her back and stroked her hair and let her cry and talk or not talk when she wanted. I thought, someone needs my help. My entire mindset had changed. I physically couldn’t have cried now if I wanted to. It was not because of a logical conclusion or a great philosophical epiphany. In fact, what this moment made me realize was that there was never a question to begin with. What could the question be? To help or not to help? No; when it came down to it, it was the abstractions that were empty and meaningless. When right in front of you, not helping a person in sorrow is simply unthinkable. I thought I had found the what or another sort of what and that I should thank God that I had it in me. This little soldier. She had disappeared when I was only thinking about myself, but she hadn’t abandoned me and she sprang to duty when I finally returned to her mission – someone who needed me.
Ater our visit to Belzec I can’t say that I didn’t cry anymore. Only, I found that I couldn’t cry if anyone was crying around me. The soldier woke up and, bleary-eyed, leapt into action. And I was glad every time; it gave me hope.
I don’t think it’s because I’m a particularly selfless individual. I think it’s much easier to register the pain of someone in front of your face than the pain of the person hiding behind your eyes. It’s very easy to lose track of yourself and what you need, to forget that you need a soldier, too. I still have to work on that–I still have much to figure out. But I’m so grateful, I’m so glad, so blessed that I can still find the strength to care about other people. Even though you can never stop evil from being done to others. Even though maybe you can never truly end the pain of even one person. There always have to be people who try.
I’m so grateful, I’m so glad, so blessed that I can still find the strength to care about other people. Even though you can never stop evil from being done to others.
A few days later was my birthday, and we were already in Israel. We spent the morning volunteering in a soup kitchen. I worked alone, separate from the rest of the group, making up trays of salad and pasta and serving them to meandering lines of people. The crowd was elderly and ragged, some belligerent, some meek, and I couldn’t have been happier to hand them their trays. I don’t know what it is. But I have faith in some sort of “what,” all the more so because I found it in myself, and thus I know it is possible, it is attainable, it is real. We all have these little soldiers, crouching somewhere in our consciences, on alert for the signal. We all have a little what. And no matter how great the evil around us is, I do believe the battle is always worthwhile.