When I first saw it, I knew what it was, but my mind had already suspended my belief that it was possible. So it is, I believe, with many things in our lives. We see something, but we do not see it. We see the object, but we fail to, or choose to, not comprehend all of what is presented to us. When I was ten, for example, if you had asked me what an elephant was I could have told you. I loved elephants when I was younger, and to this day I feel they are amazing creatures. Back then I would have even shown you pictures I had drawn of elephants. But nothing prepares one for the first experience of seeing an elephant. The grace combined with immense size. Subtle, delicate seeming footfalls, and a massive trunk that can, with great skill and tenderness snatch a peanut from a child's hand. So it was to be on this day. I would see it, know what it is, but it would take hours, for the meaning of it, to sink into my soul.
It was Mother's day 1978. I had been at this intersection of South Home and Madison Avenue since three in the morning. The art of selling roses on Mother's day in this Chicago suburb was a very serious business. In about 45 minutes, other flower dealers would show up and demand that I leave their corner. Some florists even hired thugs, who would wave guns in my face, in order to persuade me to walk away. I would not. This is my corner, and I had the permit from the City of Chicago to prove it. Unless I left voluntarily, this corner was mine. On almost any corner in Chicago on any Mother's day, even the most inept would easily net over $1000 today. My corner, for some reason was different. On a bad Mother's day, this was easily a $5000 corner, and hence the reason for all that added interest in me, not being there.
Here, at the intersection of Home and Madison, at an unassuming traffic light, across from the Sears store, was the intersection of three great and historical neighborhoods. To my east was Cicero. A sometimes quiet, but still rambunctious area that never quite lived down its notorious Mob influenced past from the 1930s and 1940s. Still, on almost any Sunday afternoon, in this Italian, very Catholic, American enclave, the air would be filled with the smells of long simmered Ragus, Bolengenaises and freshly baked garlic bread. From open kitchen windows, decades old recipes broadcast each Grandmothers love her for family. By ten in the morning, a dozen or more immigrant Grandmothers had, in perfect broken English insisted that it was their house I was having diner in that day. It made for a really long days, but I would never have Italian food this good, this lovingly prepared ever again in my life.
North and west of me was the ever so proper neighborhood of Oak Park. This bastion of liberal Protestant bankers and lawyers was home to several homes designed by the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. I was pretty naive back then, but I never once saw any cars, befitting the required luxury of Oak Park, in the Sears parking lot.
South and west of me lie the pre-imminent Orthodox Jewish community of Forest Park. At this simple traffic light, three of Chicago's great communities came together, at least on the map. I had walked the streets of these neighborhoods many times. In Cicero, and Forest Park I would be welcomed as if family. Although my first experience in Forest Park was on a Saturday, the Sabbath, and due to my ignorance I thought it to be as snooty as that of Oak Park. I came to love this older Jewish neighborhood. In my experience Italian Americans and Jewish Americans had much in common, in a word, community.
By seven am, in my little corner of Mother's day in Chicago, it was already hot. The air was still and thick. Laden with moisture from nearby Lake Michigan. Listening to radios, through the open car windows, the weather report was not good. It would be at least 100 degrees, higher in the suburbs. By noon the asphalt was softening, and my black and white Converse were beginning to make the sticky floor sound that you hear in movie theaters from too much spilled soda and candy. I saw the first one, as the man in the Buick Regal handed me a fifty for two dozen roses. It stared at me, yelled my name, I knew what it was, but my brain was not willing to surrender. I saw another one, and another. I had to stop. Catch my breath. My mind now reeling, wanting desperately to explode, and forever not have to retain what I now knew. Two more passed by me in the hot steamy sunshine. Then three. Finally, forcing my self to look, really look.
They were all the same. Faded, by thirty plus years as living testament to an unbearable tragedy. These faded, blue-black tattoos, spoke louder now to me than any voice. Look, they cried. Do not turn away. See. Understand. I did not want to. The one inch tall square, block letters, reminiscent of third grade letter practice, were numbers. Seemingly random, but the meaning was clear. Prominently displayed on the left arms of both men and women, uncovered by rolled up sleeves, in response to the days roaring heat. These people, some of whose faces I recognized, were survivors. Holocaust survivors. Living testament to how horribly low we as human beings can become, when we choose to turn on our brothers and sisters. The heat on this day was oppressive.
By three pm, I had made $7000, and still had a good three or four hours left to sell. But I could go no further. I walked across the street to the Sears. Leaning against the decades old red-brown bricks, and there in the shade of the painted steel over-hang, I collapsed. Overcome with emotion. I sat there not moving for over four hours, until my friends picked me up.
Elie Wiesel's book brought back this moment in my life. I am glad for it. It has renewed the fires of compassion in me, in so many wonderful ways. I found it strange reading his book. On the one hand reading a book in which you know how it ends is one thing. The tragic necessity of how and where this book heads was with me from the very first word. In reading Night, I was brought back to my walks through Forest Park in Chicago. I relived my experiences in this community of kind and loving people. I was a total stranger, but in this upper middle class, orthodox community I was welcomed. First as stranger, but with not the usual coldness a stranger expects. My interest in learning the Torah and Talmud was at first laughed at. But despite many a joke, told with a kind of love, I still do not understand, I was quickly befriended and eventually became like family.
Wiesel's book, recounts this feeling of community and of daily life, in this vibrant city of his story. Yet, we watch as life unravels for Elie and his family. This story touched me, not because of my first hand experience with survivors but because of his love. We watch as an entire town, sees, but cannot not see. Despite numerous warnings, life continues, in much the same way, even in the harsh and quickly transformed ghetto. Still they do not see, until it is too late. It was hard for me to believe what I was seeing on that Sunday afternoon. Harder still, I feel for Elie and his family to believe, that such cruelty awaited them. Sometimes we must believe, before we can see.