Photograph from the Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.
The date is September 29, 1941, not so long ago. The people are Jewish. The German army has recently conquered this part of the Soviet Union. Notices have gone up around the city of Kiev that all Jews are to assemble at a certain spot.
Notice our words used. Assemble seems reasonable and modern. If you were an adult Jew then you would be wondering what this means. You have been singled out as a Jew. The notice does not say that all Russians of the city are to assemble at a certain place outside of town.
No, because you are Jewish you are to assemble at the edge of the city, and you have to walk there in these long lines past people already dead. What must you be wondering? Who has given this order? How will they enforce it?
You are living somewhere in your mind and your body is doing the walking. They do not tell you what will happen to you. Just picture it yourself. You are a human being. You are one of these people in the photograph. You are born into this life. Your parents had sexual intercourse. You are born a Jew.
Now, other human beings have ordered you to go somewhere because all Jews have been ordered to go somewhere. You leave your apartment, your homes, your Russian neighbors. They say goodbye to you, in their minds thankful they are not Jews. They look at you. You look at them. Friendly greetings and goodbyes. Nobody steps forward and says to you, “You don’t have to go. Don’t go! If they want you so much make them find you!”
Yet you know enough about the war happening around you that the Germans have guns and you don’t. They live by different laws than they apply to you. You know it in your heart. You see the evidence that the Germans shoot people. You don’t want to be shot.
Your body is walking along but you are living in your mind trying to figure it all out, trying to figure this day out especially. It was not a good sleep last night. The notices had gone up only two days ago and you had talked with your family and friends. What does it all mean? you had been asked and you had asked.
Now you were walking the long walk. Now your body was doing the walking for you, automatically. Somehow your brain was telling you, walk, walk, they told you to, they said you would be punished if you didn’t, they said all Jews, and it looks like all Jews are here, people you know and people you don’t know.
You are a Jew and so on this one day you are walking into the unknown and it will not be good, you think. Yet, you don’t think the ultimate. You don’t think death by firing squad. They have told you and all Jews to assemble that day at the railroad station. Any Jews not doing this will be rounded up and shot. Jews are already being shot. You are in your mind and not your body. You don’t run. You don’t hide. You just walk the long walk.
Because? Because you are a Jew. Because? Because arrogant Germans have invaded your country with guns. Because? Because arrogant Germans have shot Jews. So now you are a true Jew, are you? And because you are a true Jew they have ordered you to do something you don’t want to do.
Notice also as you are there in this picture, this image of a true life event on this planet earth, that there are no guards in the picture. You a Jew are walking into the unknown, some of you, many of you, without suitcases even. And you walk by death, you walk by the corpse of a young man.
What was his story? you wonder, but still you march on. Before the end of the day, though you still don’t know it in your mind, your whole body, your system, that because you are somebody called a Jew you will be horribly, despicably dead, shot down by machine guns and falling into a ravine with thousands upon thousands of other bodies, some moaning, a living hell, and you are there with them, in your mind somewhere thinking your last thoughts because you are a Jew.
And because you are a Jew you are dead.
Is there any worse fate than to be killed by other human beings when you have done nothing wrong to deserve this fate?
Is there any worse fate?
Write about it, why don’t you? Think about it! Feel in your gut the horror of being a member of humanity where force rules often over right.
Think how useless they, the oppressors, have made your life, how very useless you must feel walking the long road, walking past death, walking perhaps to your death, though you don’t know yet, do you?
And simply because you are pariah, a Jew, someone being excluded from the human race because other human beings, the bigots, the Fascists, the Germans, the good soldiers, the killers, the insane bureaucrats that follow the armies in, the workers who take advantage, the Jew-haters among your neighbors, just because all these people have singled you out for destruction.
Ah, what power they must have, must feel!
And how useless you are really to fight back!
This is war, you think. This is evil.
But what can I do about it? I will hide out in my mind for as long as I can.
I have nowhere else to go . . ..
You think, anything is better than this life . . . even death.