Hints that tiny shafts of light can pierce the seemingly unending night
I took the photo above in 1994 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. To get from floor to floor, I and my family had to walk through this cattle wagon.
As World War II erupted, the Nazis deported millions of victims to ghettos, concentration and extermination camps, and gas chambers in railroad cars like these – beginning their state-sponsored program of the genocide of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), gay men, Soviet prisoners of war, the disabled, and religious opponents. Nearly the whole Jewish population of Poland was forced into these cattle cars and later died in these camps.
Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, described his experience when he was liberated from Buchenwald as a sixteen-year-old. His mother and his youngest sister had already been sent to the gas chambers, and Wiesel became his father’s caregiver at the concentration camp and watched him die, just weeks before the Allies liberated the camp.
The cattle car was so crowded there was no room to sit or lie down, room was made for the living by throwing the dead onto the tracks. Out of 100 Jews in Wiesel’s cattle car, only twelve survived
In his book, Wiesel wrote about the cattle car:
The doors were closed. We were caught in a trap, right up to our necks. The doors were nailed up; the way back was finally cut off. The world was a cattle wagon hermetically sealed. With every groan of the wheels on the rail, we felt that an abyss was about to open beneath our bodies.
Robert AcAfee Brown writing in the preface to Night, talks about breathing life into that corpse. “Most will want to continue with Wiesel on his painful journey through the darkness, through false days, until there are hints that tiny shafts of light can pierce the seemingly unending night that Auschwitz has imposed upon the earth.”
My family and I were able to exit the cattle car, but the emotion of walking where others like Elie Wiesel had been, was burned into my subconscious by that blinding shaft of light that day.
And now, as still more families are on the painful journey through a hateful darkness… might we see that we are all on this cattle car together. And, even though we must squint to see even the tiniest shaft of light – can we show each other where it is at?
– David Miller is Publisher of Loveland Magazine