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In Defense of Guenter Grass

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Guenter Grass“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”. -Haile Selassie-

“Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden.” -Bishop Desmond Tutu-

These two cautionary admonitions capture the thrust of Guenter Grass’ electrifying poem, “What Must Be Said,” that has brought an avalanche of invective – some scurrilous, some vituperative, some even personal vilification – against the man who warns the people of the world as well as the Jewish people of the dangers inherent in the actions of the Zionist controlled government of the State of Israel. Such condemnations avoid direct rebuttal of Grass’ pointed cries of despair as he contemplates continued indifference to the slow yet calculated genocide that exists in Israel’s occupation of Palestine reverting instead to derogatory innuendo, ignorance of conditions prevalent in the occupied territories, ignorance of those determined to destroy Israel, and personal guilt as a German. There is no reflection on the worst sin human kind can inflict on their fellow human beings, the silence of indifference to the plight of the Palestinians or to the potential danger facing the people of the mid-east should Israel preemptively strike Iran.

The title of his poem, “What Must Be Said,” echoes the prophets of old, cries of those weeping in the wilderness to heed the obvious, to hear the hypocrisy that masks the reality of a nation that cries for peace as it stealthily steals more land, that demands dismantling of Iran’s nuclear plants as it declares its right to Demona and untold weapons of mass destruction, that denounces with all brazen duplicity, indeed silences those who criticize the state of Israel while they are free to attack them as anti-Semitic.

“Why silence so long,” Grass asks of himself and answers, as must we all, that we are “slaves to an oppressive lie,” what cannot be said without condemnation because Israel has the “right” to demand and defend what it will. Is it wrong to criticize the obvious? Is it wrong to bare truth when silence once before begot a holocaust? Is it wrong for the German people to mark what they have learned through decades of reflection and reparation and not reveal what they have lived and learned? Is it wrong to speak when devastation threatens, when arrogance buries truth, when the weak have no voice, when the unknown consequence of brutal, raw, preemptive poweris imminent?

I would have Guenter Grass speak for me, my children and grandchildren, and all others who could suffer yet another World War, by noting the obvious that has been silenced so long:

  • a state provided with the fourth greatest military machine in the world to defend less than 6 million people,
  • a nation, the only nation in the mid-east with weapons of mass destruction,
  • a nation that refuses to sign the mid-east nuclear non-proliferation agreement,
  • a nation that has demonstrated its willingness to invade its neighbors in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and drools to bomb Iran,
  • a nation that occupies a land provided for it by the same United Nations that gave Israel license to declare itself a nation,
  • a nation that damns Iran for proclaiming that it will “wipe Israel off the map,” when in fact it never made such a declaration yet innocently hides its own declaration in the Likud Party Platform that the state it professes to want peace with, Palestine, shall never have a state west of the Jordan,
  • a nation that is of such demonstrable threat to world peace that if it is not condemned would be a blot on all who remain silenced and thereby complicit in its crimes,
  • and for such inaction, such indifference we must accept responsibility and condemnation; let the indignant ring their bells of anger and hatred, truth will prevail.                                   

Who better to speak than a citizen of a country that supplies Israel with nuclear submarines capable of terrorizing its neighbors if not the world, submarines provided as reparation to a people destroyed so they can become the destroyer. “Why silence so long?”because “this must be said” with strength, conviction, integrity and honesty, and without personal fear or trepidation because the silence has been broken by a voice that resounds throughout the world in righteous thunder against the greatest danger the world now knows, an Israel that can act with impunity to crush whomever they determine to be their enemy.

Let me close this defense of Guenter Grass with a story told by Professor Michael Klein years after he had escaped death at Auschwitz. Klein’s brief narrative is titled “Breaking Silence.” It captures what I believe is the real essence of Guenter Grass’ plea, both in time and shame. The story reflects on Klein’s close friend, Salamon Abshalom, who had attempted escape and was to suffer death as a consequence. The story is a parable that parallels our time; what if voices had told of the Jewish plight before the trains took them to the death camps; maybe Salamon Abshalom would still be alive. 

“My friend Salamon Abshalom was let out. He was barely able to walk; his hands were tied behind his back. An SS guard took him to the back of the camp yard. … He was led to the gallows and made to climb onto what looked like a stepladder. The noose was tied around his neck.

We stood paralyzed, in bewildered despair. How could the Heavens allow this to happen on this holy Yom Kippur evening? Did the Germans set up the execution specifically for Yom Kippur to humiliate the God of Israel and His people? The silence of the Heavens screamed out in our hearts and in our souls. The desecration of the God of Israel, of the people of Israel, of Yom Kippur, and the humiliation of man created in the image of God preceded in silence as the German hangman, the Camp's SS commander, stood over Salamon Abshalom.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a powerful, high pitched voice rang out over the camp yard. It sent chills down our spines, as we heard the cry of "Sh'maYisrael...", Hear O Israel", as Salamon Abshalom declaimed the eternal proclamation of the Jewish people's belief in one God….

With his prayer of Sh'maYisrael arising from his last breath, he raised all of us standing Zaehlappell to the highest spiritual level. Even as his life was extinguished by the brutal murderer to whom nothing was holy, he still proclaimed the eternity of the Jewish People, in defiance of evil, in defiance of the Germans, in defiance of the silence of humanity, and in defiance of the silence of the Heavens. Salamon Abshalom proclaimed the Godliness of the Jewish People even at a time when God seemed to be totally absent.

I slowly calmed my emotions and tried to analyze my thoughts. The Germans murdered Salamon Abshalom, but I was guilty having been silent in spite of the promise we made to each other in the camps that we will tell the world of what happened. I had kept Salamon Abshalom's memory a secret for all these years.”

Silence sacrifices the innocent because it allows continuation of slaughter; silence rests in the soul as it acidifies into self-shame; silence speaks no language, offers no aid, but ensures that  time will extinguish both hope and guilt. Silence is the voice of the coward and the accomplice. Silence must be extinguished.


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