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Promises Kept

By Ianthe Brautigan

I MADE A PROMISE to the author Primo Levi a couple of years ago. Levi spent his life writing about the unspeakable horror and evil that he had experienced in Auschwitz. I told him after finishing his Survival in Auschwitz that I would never forget. (Levi died in 1987--I'm a bit odd because I speak to the dead.)

I was reading about the Holocaust because I wanted to try to understand how the murder of millions of Jews could have happened in the midst of the modern world as I knew it. This promise I made is why I ended up driving to Sonoma State University a couple of Sundays ago with a friend of mine, who is a minister, to attend a Yom Hashoah Observance.

It was a spectacularly beautiful spring day, and the last thing I wanted to do was go into a dark auditorium and remember the Holocaust. The sky was a robin's-egg blue, and everything was so fresh and bright that I was almost tempted to believe that such a thing as the Holocaust could never happen again.

My friend jolted me back into reality when she mentioned that last summer there had been acts of arson on Jewish synagogues in Sacramento.

The auditorium was filled with lots of people, young and old. One by one, six survivors of different concentration camps slowly stood and walked up to a small altar and lit a candle. Although people spoke, music was played, and prayers were given, the service was introspective. Everyone seemed to be deep inside his or her own thoughts, yet there was tremendous comfort in being part of this gathering of people. Nobody in this room needed to have anything explained about the realities of racism. Nor did anyone who participated in the service try to come up with any easy answers.

"You'd like to shout for help--but from whom? With what voice? With what words?" Mihail Sebastian wrote those words during World War II. As a Jewish writer living in Bucharest, he knew all about the German government's insane goal of exterminating an entire race of people, yet he was trapped. America was turning away Jewish refugees, and European countries were falling like dominoes.

There was no refuge.

As I left the auditorium, I realized that I couldn't leave the memory of the Holocaust behind me, so I brought my remembrance out into the light.


Santa Rosa writer Ianthe Brautigan is the author of 'You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir.'

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From the May 10-16, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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