Steve Schertzer

My friend Moishe the Beadle

Keeping silent in the dead of night


“Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.” - Elie Wiesel

"Jews, listen to me! That's all I ask of you. No money. No pity.  Just listen to me!" he kept shouting in synagogue, between the prayer at dusk and the evening prayer. (Night, p. 7.)

Those are the words of Moishe the Beadle.  In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel describes his childhood friend and teacher of the Kabbalah. 

One day, as I was about to enter the synagogue, I saw Moishe the Beadle sitting on a bench near the entrance.

He told me what had happened to him and his companions. The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo. The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge 
trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns. This took place in the Galician forest, near Kolomay. How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead…

Day after day, night after night, he went from one Jewish house to the next, telling his story and that of Malka, the young girl who lay dying for three days, and that of Tobie, the tailor who begged to die before his sons were killed.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things. Others flatly said that he had gone mad.

As for Moishe, he wept and pleaded:

"Jews, listen to me! That's all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!" he kept shouting in synagogue, between the prayer at dusk and the evening prayer.

Even I did not believe him. I often sat with him, after services, and listened to his tales, trying to understand his grief. But all I felt was pity.”  (Night, pp 6-7)

… they refused to listen; … he only wanted their pity; … he was imagining things; … he had gone mad; … all I felt was pity.

There is so much that is wrong here.  We are going to have to do a lot better than that. 

Whatever we think is going on in China right now, whether we think the numbers are accurate or falsified, there is something far more important going on here than mere numbers.  

In discussing, or attempting to discuss, the outbreak of the coronavirus with friends, I am receiving responses that seem to be amiss and awry. I wrote to a friend on January 28th and said this about a report I saw on BBC World News:

Half a million (500,000) medical personnel are being sent to Hubei?  Did I hear that right?  500,000 medical personnel to treat 4,000 infected people?  Even the BBC parrots the Communist Party line.”  

His response: “,,, more likely being sent to help deal with the millions of hypochondriacs that are overwhelming the system and hospitals simply because they coughed or sneezed...”

When I wrote to another friend on February 3rd expressing my concern and conspiracy theories about the virus, I received this response on the same day: “I really don’t want to talk so much about the coronavirus scare because I am tired of all the fuss.”  He went on to say, “… there really is nothing to do but watch it unfold.” 

When I wrote a third friend at the end of January about the virus being more serious than the Chinese government claims it to be, he writes back, “Knock it off, I have already got anxiety, I don’t need it falling into the category of shingles.” 

A day after, I send him a video of an attractive Chinese woman eating a bat with these words: “I figure once you're out of quarantine and past the incubation period, we could meet for some bat soup.  I hear it's to die for. Then we can go for some karaoke.  I feel like singing. 

And now... the end is near... and so I face... the final curtain...’ 

Take care and enjoy yourself.  You're in Thailand.”

His response: “Stuff it!  Look. I have anxiety bordering on shingles, I really don't appreciate this.”

There is so much that is wrong here.  We are going to have to do a lot better than that.

With the exception of a few personalities, I don’t watch mainstream news.  Owned by either government or corporations, or beholden to Chinese money and tourism, mainstream news outlets are useless and unreliable.  I have switched to a few people on the Internet that claim to be supported solely by their viewers through paid subscriptions.  Even that, I admit, is suspect.  

One such independent news organization, run by an American, takes great pleasure in belting out breaking news.  When Beijing releases the previous day’s figures on the coronavirus, this anchor shouts to his viewers, (and anyone within a thousand mile radius),  “BREAKING NEWS!  BREAKING NEWS!  We have the new numbers!  We have the new numbers!  Today’s new cases, 3,458 infected and 85 new deaths!  A new record!”

Joseph Stalin infamously said, “one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.”  Far too many people still can’t help getting in touch with their inner Stalin. 

There is so much that is wrong here.  We are going to have to do a lot better than that. 

There are reports, and videos on YouTube, that government officials are locking people infected with the virus in their homes and apartments. There are reports, and videos on YouTube, of government officials pounding on people’s doors in the middle of the night requesting to take their temperature.  

Take their temperature?  For posting the truth on WeChat?

People in China know what that means.  So do people in North Korea and Cuba and the former Soviet Union.  

Speaking of posting the truth on WeChat, there is Doctor Li Wenliang, AKA, the whistleblower.  I like to call him Moishe the Beadle, or Wenliang the Beadle.  A full month before we knew of the coronavirus, Wenliang the Beadle tried to warn his countrymen about it in a group WeChat.  The police got hold of him.  They interrogated him.  They threatened to silence him by shutting down his social media accounts. They accused him of spreading rumors and falsehoods.  Then they made him sign a document threatening severe consequences if he didn’t stop. Wenliang the Beadle did stop.  He also caught the coronavirus and died.  Doctor Li is now a hero to hundreds of millions of Chinese people.  

Doctor Li had something that Moishe the Beadle did not: social media.  Even with Chinese government censorship, many people still have WeChat, Weibo, Tik-Tok, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  We know that the New York Times downplayed the holocaust.  At the time very few people called them out on it.   It would now be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to downplay any atrocity with so many people on social media.  It’s fine to post photos of the spaghetti and meatballs you had for dinner on Facebook.  It’s okay to watch cats dance on YouTube.  But when something horrific is happening in the world, you better be prepared to speak out.  You better be willing to call a spade a spade.  

So what was amiss and awry in some of the responses I received from friends?  What is missing in the media, besides accurate information? Here is my final response to a friend. 

I have been thinking these past two days about your responses. Something seems to be missing.  I wasn't sure what until just now.  I remember reading 'Night' by Elie Wiesel.  It is his account of his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  After being freed from Buchenwald in 1945, Wiesel dedicated his life to the study of human evil and how the Germans, an intelligent industrious people who wrote great literature, poetry, and symphonies, could have shot babies and sent millions to the gas chambers.  This question consumed him until his own death.  Finally, he came up with an answer.

Ethics.

The Nazis lacked ethics.  They had no compassion, no empathy, and no decency.  They could not feel what other people felt.  So Elie Wiesel dedicated the remainder of his life going from school to school and giving talks about how important it is to teach ethics, compassion for others, and empathy.  So what is missing in your responses to me about this crisis in China?  Before answering, this response from you is striking:  

,,, more likely being sent to help deal with the millions of hypochondriacs that are overwhelming the system and hospitals simply because they coughed or sneezed...’

There is another response from you similar to that.

People in Hubei are shut up in their homes unable to get to a hospital.  It is likely that family members will watch loved ones die.  With no public transportation, many have to walk for hours, (if they can), to get to a hospital; some carried on the backs of loved ones.  

So what is missing in our conversation?  

Ethics. Morality.  Compassion.  Empathy.  And simple human decency.  

Times like these call for us to show who we can become.  Times like these call for us to become better than who we are.  Times like these call for understanding, compassion, empathy, and love.  

That is what was lacking in your response.  There are a lot of people who seem to be rising above themselves in this crisis and showing the world and themselves qualities they thought they did not possess. That happens in times of tragedy.  There are also a lot of cruel and heartless people who spend their time ridiculing and mocking those who are simply scared and frightened when they see thousands of others sick and dying around them.  

Which one will you become?  The choice is yours.  I know the kind of people that I want to be with.  Enjoy Thailand.” 

This may seem harsh, but it is absolutely necessary.  We can quibble about numbers or how this virus is defined.  We can have different opinions about why this is happening, or what should be done about it.  We can talk about r-naught factors, the incubation period, aerosol transmission, fomite transmission, the amount of sulfur dioxide currently hovering over Wuhan as a result of crematoriums blasting day and night.  We can discuss and debate government responses to situations like this, or whether the WHO dropped the ball.  We can even talk about what chemicals to use to wipe down surfaces and doorknobs.  But when it comes to the suffering of others, when it comes to serious illness and death, there is no room for mockery, scorn, apathy, or insensitivity.  Of that, we must agree.  This kind of schadenfreude must be shunned by everyone.  If we can’t agree on that, we have lost our humanity; if we ever had humanity to begin with.  

As I write, two of my favorite media personalities are currently experiencing personal crises: one, an American radio talk show host battling stage four lung cancer; another, a Canadian psychologist, bestselling author, and YouTube sensation who is in rehab fighting for his life after experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medication.  He was put on higher dose of anti-anxiety medication after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. 

It is bad enough that these two men and their families are suffering. Adding insult to injury is what is what is most concerning.  In the comment section of these two news stories on YouTube and other social media, are message after message of vitriolic contempt for both of these men.  From wishing them continued suffering to a slow painful death, these people epitomize a species that is still stuck in the seventh century.  For all of our medical and technological advances, our inability to show compassion, empathy, and understanding to those we deem different from ourselves, keep all of us in the dark ages. 

There is so much that is wrong here.  We are going to have to do a lot better than that.  

Originally, Elie Wiesel’s Night was titled, And the World Remained Silent.  Far too many people in this world remained silent when the crematoriums blasted across Europe day and night in the early 1940s.  Have people today learned this lesson from the past?  That remains to be seen. It would seem that many people in China are indeed speaking out, but they are being silenced by an oppressive regime.  

If Elie Wiesel, and other holocaust writers teach us anything, it is this: when people suffer, we are compelled to speak out.  When innocent people are threatened and locked up, we are compelled to speak out.  When innocent people have their voice taken from them, we must become their voice and speak out for them.  For those who are content to stick their head in the sand, remain ignorant, or whistle pass the graveyard, human psychology provides ample theories to explain this kind of pathology. 

Three years ago, I spent a year in Wuhan teaching at a high school which sends its graduates overseas to study in Western universities.  I write to a few of them on WeChat.  One is currently in Wuhan and cannot get back to her university in Australia.  Another is in Arizona and can’t get back to Wuhan to see her family.  She goes to sleep at night frightened for her mother, father, and little sister who are not allowed to leave their home except to buy groceries.  

There are countless heartbreaking videos on YouTube and gut wrenching pictures on the Internet of the heroic efforts of doctors and nurses on the frontlines of this crisis.  They say goodbye to their spouse and children not knowing if they will catch the virus.  They sleep on cold hard hospital floors or on chairs.  A doctor in Guangzhou that I write to on WeChat sent me a photo of her holding a large portion of her hair.  Female doctors and nurses are cutting off huge portions of their hair so that their surgical caps will properly fit.  Wearing heavy protective gear, these doctors and nurses are unrecognizable and thus have one another write their names on the backs of their suits with the words “add oil”, a Chinese expression of encouragement, when encouragement from the outside world seems in short supply.   

I am sorry you are tired of all the fuss, my friend.  I am sorry about your anxiety, my friend.  Do take care.  But I think this is more important than a case of the shingles.  Priorities matter.  At what point do we not tire of all the fuss?  At what point do we start caring? 

Elie Wiesel, the same man who would not believe his friend and teacher Moishe the Beadle, was also captured by the Nazis and went through hell at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  In the preface and at the conclusion of Night, he shares with us the worst night of his life. 

I remember that night, the most horrendous of my life: ‘Eliezer, my son, come here.  I want to tell you something.  Only to you.  Come, don’t leave me alone.  Eliezer.’

I heard his voice, grasped the meaning of his words and the tragic dimension of the moment, yet I did not move.  It had been his last wish to have me next to him in his agony, at the moment when his soul was tearing itself from his lacerated body --- yet I did not let him have his wish.  I was afraid.  Afraid of the blows.     

That was why I remained deaf to his cries.  Instead of sacrificing my miserable life and rushing to his side, taking his hand, reassuring him, showing him that he was not abandoned, that I was near him, that I felt his sorrow, instead of all that, I remained flat on my back, asking God to make my father stop calling my name, to make him stop crying.  So afraid was I to incur the wrath of the SS.  

In fact, my father was no longer conscious.  

Yet his plaintive, harrowing voice went on piercing the silence and calling me, nobody but me.

Well?’ The SS had flown into a rage and was striking my father on the head: ‘Be quiet, old man!  Be quiet!’

My father no longer felt the club’s blows; I did.  And yet I did not react.  I let the SS beat my father, I left him alone in the clutches of death.  Worse: I was angry with him for having been noisy, for having cried, for provoking the wrath of the SS.  

Eliezer! Eliezer!  Come, don’t leave me alone…’

His voice had reached me from so far away, from so close.  But I had not moved.

I shall never forgive myself.

Nor shall I ever forgive the world for having pushed me against the wall, for having turned me into a stranger, for having awakened in me the basest, most primitive instincts.

His last word had been my name.  A summons.  And I had not responded.” (Night, preface)

This voice is a Jewish voice, but it need not be.  It could be anyone in a horrible and unimaginable situation.  But we must imagine.  We must choose to see.  We must choose to listen.  Because evil is everywhere.  We Jews have suffered.  We still do.  But so do many other people.  Many looked away when we suffered.  That was cruel and inhumane.  But we cannot look away when others suffer.  That would also be cruel and inhumane.  

A summons.  It’s not just a word.  Wiesel does not use this word lightly.  It is a commandment.  An order.  A challenge.  Where does this order come from?  This challenge?  In times like these, it doesn’t matter. There will be times in life when we will all be summoned.  And we better respond appropriately.  That way, we may be able to forgive ourselves and reclaim just a little bit of our humanity. 

Like the holocaust, like any genocide, the truth about this tragedy in China will come out.  Some day the world will know.  And on that day, those who remained silent will be held to account.  They will be given a summons.  They will be given an order.  They will be challenged.  Times like these call for us to be brave.  Times like these test the human soul.  Times like these demand that we rise above our doubts, our fears, our need to be liked, and our need to fit in.  Times like these cry out for heroes. 

Behind all the numbers of infected and dead, we too often forget that these are people.  They are not numbers.  They are not cases.  They are not infections.  They are human beings with all of the emotions and complexities that go with being human.  They are frightened.  They are terrified.  They know their government is lying to them.  Many are locked in their homes painfully watching loved ones die.  Many are overseas and cannot get home to see and comfort their loved ones. In their pain, they need the rest of us to listen to them.  In their agony, they need the rest of us to believe them.  In their suffering, they need us on their side.  In their time of need, they need the rest of us to encourage them and support them.  That is the least we can do.  If we are unwilling and unable to do that, then the stain and stench of this tragedy will forever remain on us all. 

The Nazis, for all their atrocities, for all their butchery and torture and killings and inhumanity, left all of us with a gift.  The gift is this: an extremely low bar when it comes to human behavior.  You would think that after all these years, the current crop of the common dregs of humanity could easily clear that bar.  In fact, they wouldn’t have to jump.  But judging by the responses of many, showing any kind of compassion, empathy, understanding, and solidarity with our Chinese brothers and sisters seems to be a herculean task. 

We cannot and must not remain deaf to their cries.  We cannot and must not remain blind to their pain and suffering.  We cannot and must not allow the pain and suffering of others make Nazis of us all.  

The last word goes to Elie Wiesel.

For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences. 

For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living.  He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory.  To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”  (Night, preface.)




Comments

These have been my thoughts. I stop discussing numbers, but commonly, people will stop talking whenever I start talking about the sadder part of this crisis (xenophobia, alienation, malicious social post etc.). Has it been a result of conspiracy, economic manipulation or of some hidden agendas, who knows? We the ordinary citizen suffer the most. One could only stay positive and proactive in sharing encouraging thoughts, that this too, shall pass.

By Siony, Nonthaburi (15th March 2020)

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