The unspeakable

It happened in the mid-seventies, one summer afternoon, in the Swiss Temple at Zollikofen. I was accompanying a church member from Belgium, Brother Jozef T., then in his fifties. As was usual, because of the distance, we spent half a week in Zollikofen, to attend several temple sessions a day.

Jozef was a convert, baptized in 1969. During the Second World War, as a young man, he had lived through hell. Arrested by the Nazis for espionage at age nineteen, he had been tortured and sent to different concentration camps. For several years the witness of exterminations, disposer of corpses, he had survived, against all odds. Finally freed by the Allies, he returned to Belgium as a bitter atheist — his way to absolve God for the unspeakable.

Twenty-four years later two Mormon missionaries knocked on his door. They breached his armor. God spoke. Jozef embraced the Restored Gospel with the passion of a rebirth, the antithesis of all the blood and horror he had seen. Fervent in his faith, always smiling, enthused by anything Mormon, the former captive had made peace with his past.

The Swiss temple was a gathering place for Saints of many nationalities. Jozef and I were coming down from a session, still in our temple clothing. A German in his late thirties, who had attended the same session, exchanged a few friendly words with my compatriot.
– You speak German very well, he complimented the Belgian.
– Yes, I lived in Germany.
– When was that?
– I was a prisoner during the war, Jozef answered, smiling as usual.
– I’m so sorry, the German whispered. Where were you?
– Several camps. Auschwitz, Flossenburg, Buchenwald.
– My father was at Auschwitz.

Later, when I tried to remember every second of that exchange, I wondered what brought the man to say those five words: My father was at Auschwitz. He said it too quickly to have given it a second thought before uttering. But then again no German would ever have unlocked that dark, private closet, in front of a stranger. It dawned on me, in retrospect, that this encounter had been desired, for years, from an abyss of mental turmoil. The man grabbed the straw. I tend to believe it was meant to be in a temple of the Lord.

Innocent, ingenuous, Jozef did not grasp the aberration he faced.
– Really? Was he a Jew? What was his name?

The German paused. He lowered his eyes, his lips quivered. Jozef, abruptly, understood.

There was a long silence. The German brother murmured a name.
– I was a little boy back then, he added.

Jozef’s eyes widened. They stood there, looking at each other. The silence filled with images, raw recollections, of which I could only vaguely be part.

The German answered the question Jozef did not ask.
– The Russians caught him. He died in one of their camps.

They went to sit in a corner. The younger talked to the elder, talked, talked in earnest whispers. The unspeakable, in whatever form, from whatever angle, could be spoken here. I was not privy to his words, but I sensed, from a distance, the intensity of his needs. Jozef told me later, without revealing any details, that it was the first time the man had met an Auschwitz survivor. After three decades an anguished nazichild still needed to lift from his innocence the crushing weight. I started to understand the suffering of these hundreds of thousands of grown-up children, stigmatized as part of Evil, and ever reminded by so many sources of their history. A history they did not make, but carried in their blood.

Jozef sat still. He listened, nodded. Smiled. He and the temple imparted redemption where no expiation was required.

32 comments for “The unspeakable

  1. Have you read Maus by Art Spiegelman? Spiegelman uses the medium of a comic book to re-tell the story of his father, who survived the holocaust. Sounds strange, but it isn’t. It’s worth reading.

  2. Thanks once again, Wilfried. Your stories are powerful and you tell them beautifully.

  3. I must admit, I have often associated scriptures that talk about words which can not be spoken, or written, with the temple. I never would have thought of these kinds of “unspeakable” words being spoken in that sacred place, but your story has shown me new meaning in these verses.

    I remember as a missionary one of my companions (and a few of his friends) were obsessed with so-called deep doctrines. They memorized a quote from Bruce R. McConkie, I think, which said that any question could be asked and answered in the temple. When we were permitted to go to the temple (every six months or so), they would try to corner the temple president and ask him questions like: “How many ordinances for the living are performed inside the temple?” I think they thought that all kinds of mysteries would be revealed to them as a result, but all they ever accomplished was annoying some very kind and patient old men.

    I think that if my missionary friends could read this story, they would have understood better what kinds of “unspeakable” questions and answers can be voiced in the temple.

  4. Wow,

    What a powerful story. Well done. What a lifetime of experiences you have had my friend.

  5. Wilfried, have you read The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal? It’s also a story of forgiveness, as I recall not given, but powerful and thought provoking as well.

    Wilfried, if Heaven is like you write, I might want to go there. I’m on a conditional use permit with God at the moment, on condition I like what I see I’ll go there.

    Smile (and also on condition He likes what He sees and invites me). We’re negotiating.

    I empathize with the atheism of concentration camp survivors. I’ve read over and over that they stopped believing in God. I also in my Gethsemane. stopped. Not believing that He existed, but that He cared if I existed.

  6. Wilfried, thank you as always. You corroborate my hope that the gospel can heal very old and very deep wounds.

  7. Thanks, Wilfried, for the moving post. It touches on a paradox I have entertained: man shall only be punished for his own transgression yet the sins of the father are visited on the son. Without sorting that out, I am comforted by the Atonement’s promise of universal healing—I think of an endless list of beattitutes.

  8. What an account. I am grateful that you shared it with us. I am continually changing my thoughts about this “new” medium…the internet, blogs, etc. My first thought after reading that was that you ought to submit it for publication…you know…to the Ensign or something. Then I thought…well, it is already published here.

    At any rate, I am grateful for the story…it is a story that can only be told by one with a talent for written expression and you definitely have that.

  9. Wilfried, you always make me ashamed to be a writer of anything. This makes me even more ashamed. Thank you.

    With S. P. Bailey, I especially like the resolution your story works of the paradoxes of forgiveness and atonement.

  10. Merci to all. I appreciate your responses.

    John David Payne (6), thank you for drawing attention to this peculiar aspect of the “unspeakable” when dealing with the temple. We know some things can only be voiced in the temple, but the topics may indeed be broader than we think.

    annegb (14), as always you bring into the picture the unexpected depth but also a liberating laughter. You’re right, we can empathize with atheists in certain circumstances. Sometimes, for some, it is better to take God out for a time rather than blame and fight him into absurdity. And yes, The Sunflower is an amazing collection of viewpoints on the problem of forgiveness.

    S. P. Bailey (17), like Jim F. confirmed (20), you appropriately read into this event the complexity of our relations with guilt, innocence and forgiveness. We have, probably, far from elucidated all aspects of the atonement, but, as you suggested, the spirit of healing does not need to understand all technicalities.

  11. Thank you, Wilfried, for such a wonderful, uplifting, and powerful post. I am always impressed by the stories and ideas you have to share. Thank you.

  12. The reason I brought up Maus , is because the thrust of your story seems to me to relate to the unusual character of the communication between these two men, and how the temple (in particular) and holy space (in general) played an essential role as a backdrop (or facilitator or conduit) for this discourse (an interesting variant on story where otherwise mismatched people with complicated backgrounds have profound exchanges over bread-braking or [more recently] alcohol; e.g., in the New Testament or Jones’ From Here to Eternity).

    Upon reading your story, it occurred to me that in your story the temple has an effect on the discourse that is similar to the effect that medium or genre has on writing (e.g., like your post here). Maus is an example where unspeakable/unwritable things are candidly portrayed, and the (highly unusual) medium in which they are portrayed allows for a communication that would otherwise be impossible. Thus, it’s impact struck me as analogous to the impact you describe occurring in the temple.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to threadjack. That’s just what stood out in your story more than the atonement/forgiveness angle.

  13. But David, the very same thought struck me as I read Wilfried’s post, I think your point was valid. I saw a hardcover book of Maus yesterday in the bookstore, so it may have been at the back of my mind. You are right, the use of comics and mice, etc. to portray the story made it more stark for me.

    I didn’t know the guy who wrote it was a Mormon. I thought Maus was a German word for mouse, which weren’t the Jews mice?

    Wilfried, I love what you say about taking God out of it for awhile. I think He’s totally okay with that. I think He understands that some things take time to deal with and understand. I would, if I were God.

    Q: is “if I” always subjunctive, or am I driving everybody crazy? Thus were, I mean. Not was.

  14. Oh, and Wilfried, I try to show Bill your posts so he doesn’t think I’m doing evil things on line. He is summarily impressed.

    The rest of you, my dirty little secret. :)

  15. Thanks DKL for explaining how you connected Maus to this thread. I read a review about Maus describing a scene where the son berates his father for destroying his mother’s writings that described her experiences and suffering during the Holocaust, because forgetting evil is tantamount to accepting evil and will lead to repititions of more evil. Although the reviewer was praising the book for this reason, it seemed to me a less profound theme than that of reconciliation which Wilfried has addressed so beautifully here….

  16. Thank you, Robert C (29). The antagonism between the obligation to remember (in order to avoid repetition) and the duty to forgive (and forget) is indeed at the heart of much discussion surrounding the Holocaust.

    When remembering Auschwitz in another post I found it useful to ask myself the question “Could I have been a Nazi?” As I tried to show, it is easy to imagine one could have become a Nazi, like in the early thirties in Germany, at a harmless level first, given the right circumstances and the right propaganda. But then the next level could follow, because most of us, if not all, carry the Beast in us, eager to be awakened. I felt that this consciousness of our dangerous potential helps to be on guard and to remember how the temptation of extremism looms. At the same time this consciousness helps us to understand the past and show compassion, and hopefully forgiveness, for those who fell in the trap. Indeed, I could have been one of them, now pleading for forgiveness.

  17. Robert, I highly recommend reading the book. A recurrent theme throughout the autobiographical meta-narrative portion of Maus is the conflict between Art and his father. Art’s father has mixed feelings about telling the story. For him, the holocaust is personal, and he’s not sure he wants his personal memories served up to the world as a morality tale or as a tragedy or as a spectacle for public consumption. He’s a practical man who doesn’t seem to have much patience for Art’s abstract moralizing. It’s as though a part of Art’s father wants to say, “Yes, I went through the holocaust. Now leave me alone already!” Art feels this conflict, and it seems to inform the conflict he portrays himself having over his own Jewishness; viz., is he an authentic jew, or is he just playing one to tell a story?

    annegb, just to clarify, Spiegelman isn’t Mormon.

  18. Wilfried, I think that your discussion of the development of the Nazi propaganda is too local. To paraphrase what Bushman said about Joseph Smith at the Library of Congress conference, localizing the development of Nazism and the holocaust to early twentieth-century Germany diminishes it. The holocaust was the culmination of centuries of European anti-semitism.

  19. DKL, thank you for your remark. But this thread was not meant to be about the history and causes of the Holocaust. Of course I can understand that readers focus their comments on it because the Shoah is so horribly visual and my story tied in with that reality. I recognize threads can go in various directions if one element allows it.

    My post, however, is to highlight the function of the temple in finding peace, whatever the torment we carry in us. My post attempts to better understand the atonement, redemption, expiation, and the healing that comes from reconciliation with oneself and through others. It also tries to open our hearts for those who suffer from their past without us realizing it, because of our own insensivity or ignorance. It tries to convey the message that the unspeakable in us can be spoken if needed for our salvation.

    Still, to briefly answer your comment: of course the evil in Nazism and the Holocaust were, in their essence, not a limited phenomenon. In my post on Auschwitz, this is precisely what I stressed once the facts of the period had been reminded. I quoted Schroeder: “The evil of Nazi ideology did not come from a void. The brutalization of thought and the demise of moral inhibitions had a history…” Indeed, antisemitism, or any form of racism, comes from far. But my aim was not to go into that long and complex history, but to broaden to the present and the future, apply it to us, and to illlustrate how close the Beast, in various forms, is still with us. It could be helpful to reread the last part of that post.

  20. Wilfried, thanks for the link to your Auschwitz post, it articulated several similar thoughts I’ve had about ways we remember the Holocaust. I think any great literature necessarily rises above the tendency in baser forms of art and entertainment to demonize “the enemy.” (I’m a big fan of Dostoevsky’s writing for this reason, he makes you think like Raskolnikov in C&P, he puts you inside the thoughts of Ivan in the Brothers K, showing how each character’s thoughts and actions are related to each other, and how all of humanity is similar, with certain characters only having a bit more of one trait than others….) Indeed, I think the manner of remembering that you prescribe is in itself a step toward reconciling the antagonism between remembering and forgiving.

    But I’m still left wondering about the forgetting part of forgiving and forgetting. When I took a tour of Liberty Jail one in our group asked about the blood stain that used to be on the floor. The tour guide told us that when Pres. Kimball was visiting there and looked at the blood stain, he said it was time to wash it away in a symbolic, bury-the-hatchet type of act (I’d love to know if there’s a more veritable version of this story somewhere; I’d be esp. curious if Pres. Kimball said “it’s time…” or simply “we should…”). I think this is also related to the the reason that church members traditionally don’t where crosses. I know it’s like comparing fields of watermelons to one or two peas in mentioning one or two deaths/martyrdoms in a discussion about the Holocaust, I’m just trying to give Mormon examples that suggest forgiving means forgetting in some sense to think more carefully about the tension here….

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