This story from the BBC about modern-day workers building near the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp … the last step for more than a million people during WWII … finding a message from the past has me contemplating the written word.
It appears that seven young men between the ages of 18 and 20 somehow managed on the 9th of September 1944 to scribble information about themselves on a scrap of paper that they stuffed into a bottle, then embedded in a wall they were reinforcing as part of their slave laboring.
We know enough now to imagine, if we could stand to, the day-to-day inside the barbed wire; the depravation, the fear, the horror. We’re familiar with the fact that dehumanization was the first step, as heads were shaved and prison suits issued to people who had never committed a serious sin in their now-likely-to-be-short lives. Even those with no personal experience of extreme hardships like starvation, beatings, separation from loved ones and such can take a minute to understand how being reduced to a desperate number might impact on any sense of self, or take it down to the most basic point where nothing matters but the crust or the drop. We know that paper wasn’t easy to come by, and that being caught writing and hiding notes would mean death.
Did these men dream that someday German construction workers would unearth their hasty effort, therefore lending some hint of the immortal? Was there a flutter of triumph when the bottle was covered, the words protected, and a hope that something of them just might survive to see the light of day?
For myself, I know that if given the opportunity I would have done the same thing these young men did.
Although mummies get attention, it’s the hieroglyphs that tell the story of dead Egyptians, and tombstones make good reading.
When mass graves full of almost identical starved corpses appear to be what’s ahead, who wouldn’t do whatever they could to leave a scratch or a scribble with a name and date behind? (Certainly not anyone who keeps a blog going … )
Because of these seven and their stab at immortality, the world once again must remember, and I applaud them now and thank them for their brave move to put something of themselves down that just might resonate so much later.
The value of the written word should never be discounted.