No One Would Listen

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Elie Wiesel speaking at NYU, April 2011
If you haven't read the powerful book, Night, by Elie Wiesel, you really should. It is his account of what happened to him during WWII. He was a young teen living in a small village in Hungary when, in 1942, the Hungarian police arrived to announce that all foreign Jews had to leave. The police loaded them all into trains and took them away.

The people in the town were disturbed, of course. It was a sad day. But after a few months, the memory began to fade, and life eventually returned to normal. They felt they were far enough removed from the war that it would end before it ever came to their remote village.

Then one day, one of those foreign Jews found his way back to the village. His name was Moishe. He was an old man, but the young Elie Wiesel had known him fairly well. Moishe had an extraordinary story to tell. He said when the trainload of Jews crossed the border into Polish territory, the Gestapo loaded them into trucks and took all the Jews into a forest where they were forced to dig huge trenches, and then they were all shot! Moishe himself was shot in the leg and left for dead. But he escaped and had been struggling to get back to the little village so he could warn people of what happened. He was urging everyone to flee; to get away before the Germans came.

He went "from one Jewish house to the next," wrote Elie Wiesel, "telling his story..." And he repeatedly and urgently told his story at the synagogue.

But nobody believed him.

They thought he must have lost his mind. Why would the Germans just kill Jews like that? Germany was a modern, industrialized, enlightened country. They wouldn't simply murder people so heartlessly and for no reason. Moishe must have lost his mind.

Moishe was insistent. He begged people to listen to him. He cried. He pleaded. But not one person believed him. They didn't want to believe him, and that's a formidable barrier to communication.

Our message — that what is written in Islamic texts is dangerous to non-Muslims — is also something many people do not want to believe. The implications are too heavy. The people of Elie's village didn't want to contemplate what it would mean if Moishe's story was true. It would mean tragedy and heartache and a loss of faith in humanity. It would mean a drastically different future for everyone. If they believed Moishe, the wise course of action would be to immediately pack up or sell everything they own and move somewhere they'd never been before. They'd have to start over. The journey would be fraught with uncertainty and danger. Most of them had lived their whole lives in that little village.

But they had another option, didn't they? They could explain away Moishe's terrifying story. They could decide there must be some other explanation.

That's what we run into also, isn't it? People are desperately trying to explain it away. If it's true that the doctrines of Islam are dangerous to non-Muslims, we should all drop what we're doing and address it. What's the point of going on about our lives, as they did in Elie's village, if it will all go terribly wrong in a few years? No, there would be no return to normal. If someone truly and fully grasps the real situation, they're in a whole new world, and the "important goals" they were busy trying to accomplish up until now would be abruptly abandoned in order to handle this new (and far more pressing) reality.

But they have another option, don't they? They can decide there must be some other explanation. You must not understand it correctly. You must be taking the Koranic passages out of context. Muslims who believe in Islamic doctrines must be a very small minority. There must be some other explanation.

I invite you to read Night and think about this: What would you have done if you were in Moishe's situation? Do you think you could have gotten someone to believe you? How would you get through to people? Or would you have given up, as Moishe did, and leave them all to their fate?

In 1944, the German Army arrived at Elie's village and immediately initiated new policies to limit freedoms for Jews. The noose closed in tighter and tighter, one policy at a time, until one day all the Jews of the village were imprisoned in a ghetto and ordered to board the transport trains. People were terrified. What did this mean? They were busy in Elie's house frantically packing up food for the trip when Moishe came up to the front door and shouted, "I warned you!" Then he turned and left without waiting for anyone to respond.

It was too late to do anything about it. They were transported to Auschwitz, and all of them suffered terrible, unbelievable physical and psychological torment. Most of them ended up dead.

If Moishe had been able to make people believe him, everyone in the village would have had plenty of time to flee.

Let's not repeat the same mistake. Let's get through. Not with force. Not with crying or pleading or intensity. Let's find out what allows our message to penetrate, and let's use it with ever-growing skill. If you need help, it is available here: Tools.

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