The Shoah, the journalist and the Jews

Jean Marie Montali (*)

In my job I have seen and heard, like many other journalists, a lot of crap. Many of us have seen more dead people than we would have liked to see: Destroyed, shot, hanged, burned… There are many ways to kill people. And all these ways of killing and dying, it makes piles of corpses of all colours, religions and ages, men and women, all over the world, and piles of survivors howling rivers of tears.

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t remember the faces of these dead people, or anything else about them. They were dead, that’s all. I didn’t cry for them. I forgot them, that’ s all. I could invent myself soul tremors, moral concussions and sadness to avoid looking like a bully. I’ll come and wring all this out at your feet with the eyes of a beaten dog, just to look like a sensitive guy and all. And I could tell you that all these deaths haunt me. But no, no, no. I forgot them. No one, you understand, wants to live with the dead.

I forgot that kid from Los Angeles, shot in the head with a bullet that wasn’t even meant for him. Those overdose deaths in Johannesburg. This woman beaten to death by her bastard fiancé. This Bosnian father, mad with grief after the death of his two sons at Brčko. He killed himself.

I forgot these bodies in Somalia, rotting where they had fallen, by the tens and hundreds, in dust and indifference. Those in Kabul, those in Sarajevo, those in Mogadishu. The others, in Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines and Elsewhere.

I forgot the body of that old man on whom I stumbled in the semi-darkness of a Baidoa morgue, before spreading myself over other bodies thrown there, on the floor, because we didn’t know where to put them. There were so many of them. So much. I threw up on the bodies. An employee hosed down. I went out. Outside, other bodies were piled up against the walls, one on top of the other, and it went up, up, up, death in bricks, I had never seen that before.

I forgot the little fruit delivery boy from the Panjshir Valley. He jumped on a mine. His name was Haroun. I mean, I think his name was Haroun. I forgot about that other father in Pakistan, an Afghan refugee who spent all his nights lying on his children’s graves so that scavengers would not come and dig them up and eat them. He would put three tulips on the grave, one for each of his children.

I forgot about that little girl killed by cancer at the Institut Curie. Her mother caressed her hair very gently and we, the photographer and I, blubbered like calves.

I forgot them all. Buried deep in my memory, with a lid on it so it doesn’t overflow.

Anyway, I’m saying all this so that you understand that, in the long run, you learn to measure your sensitivity.

And then I’ve been in Israel for 10 days. I am preparing a book – and perhaps a film – on Holocaust survivors. For 10 days, from morning to evening, I have been meeting several of them for hours on end, one-on-one. These fragile little old ladies, these little old men who can more or less stand up and waver seriously on their bases, were born in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Germany, France and elsewhere. The degree of enthusiasm put into the killing had, in a way, local peculiarities: people did not kill in the same way in Romania as in Poland or Latvia. It also depended on the degree of anti-Semitism and collaboration of the countries concerned.

Today, these few survivors are afraid that these things will be forgotten. That they may be reproducing. They want to tell, to testify. Otherwise, who will remember those who were exterminated when they are no longer there? So they talk and talk and talk again. Sometimes they hesitate a little. Not that they stumble over their memories, but they hesitate in the choice of words: which ones to choose to describe a horror that humanity had never known before? Which ones to choose to be credible? Because they live with that too: the fear of not being believed. Who could believe the incredible? And which ones to choose to make the inaudible audible without shocking the interlocutors? How to talk about the unspeakable, how to make the Shoah understood?

They dream of the Shoah and wake up at night with the cries of others or with their own, with the faces of the disappeared. A mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a neighbour… They remember that. Of course they remember it. Everything: the raid, the screams, the fear, the dogs, the train, the selection, the shower, the shearing, the nudity, the cold, the hunger, the slave labour, the bodies crammed into the barracks, the cries of the kapos, the lice, the Mengele experiences… And death. Death, everywhere, all the time. The gallows. The shots. The gas. The smoke from the crematoria. Ashes, snow from hell. And then again, always, the face of a mother, father, sister or brother. The faces of thousands, millions of others exterminated in the camps. So yes, they remember and live every day and every hour with their memories and the ghosts of the innocent.

They remember the months spent in the ghettos, the yellow star, the humiliation, the months hidden in the forest, the hunting of Jews, the hunger, the hunger they talk about all the time and which still obsesses them today. They talk about the shootings on the edge of mass graves, all over Eastern Europe, at the bottom of a forest, on the banks of the Danube, on the banks of the Baltic Sea, above a ravine, in a park in the middle of a city…

They are still talking and talking. They talk and protect me. There are things they don’t dare to tell me, because they are worse than worse and they don’t want to shock me, seeing that I’m already in apnoea. And I would like to take them in my arms and I know that I will never forget these faces. And never in the more than thirty years I have been in this business have I been so moved.

* Journalist and essayist, former executive director of Le Figaro Magazine