As a child, the most exciting part of my father’s job was that he received a plethora of free DVDs. This meant that my brother and I watched a lot of films, most of which were not meant for someone our age. When I was in third grade we got Everything Is Illuminated, and I was instantly taken with the movie’s cover, which looks like René Magritte’s The Son of Man. We watched this movie many times growing-up; it was a beautiful film, both to look at and in the stories it told. It was also unlikely educational tool and one of my earliest and most cutting exposures the Holocaust.
Several years later, I cannot remember exactly when, I read the novel it was based on, authored by Jonathan Safran Foer. For all the criticism that has been leveled at Safran Foer, it is unfair, and probably inaccurate, to claim he is not a good writer. Although it has little to do with its film adaption, I found Everything Is Illuminated to be a wonderful book, reading it was like being told a fable that “I’d never known…[but] had always been waiting for…Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life.” I owe this feeling, one of combined nostalgia and clarity, primarily to a particular scene, one about death.
The Nazis have arrived in the shtetl where one of the two stories in the novel takes place; they have asked all Jews be surrendered, threatening to shoot anyone, Jewish or otherwise who stands in the way of the surrender. A character known as “Grandfather” was there standing next to his best friend who is Jewish. Though he can say nothing, the friend, screams over and over again in his thoughts, “Please I do not want to die please do not point at me you know what is going to happen to me if you point at me do not point at me I am afraid of dying I am so afraid of dying I am soafraidofdying Iamsoafraidofdying.”
Maybe it was the repetition, maybe it was that I was reading it late at night alone under my sheets, I can’t say–All I know is that in that upon reading these words, young as I was, I was flooded with awareness, clarity about what it must feel like to be about to die; a terror like no other. And there was something else too: knowing that if I had been born a half-century earlier, if my family had never left what was always lovingly referred to as “the old country” (no mention of the pogrom or being ghettoized)–just two ifs and I wouldn’t be here writing this.
(Quotations from: Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002; 14e Arrondissement. Dir. Alexander Payne. Perf. Margo Martindale. Canal+, 2006. Image: Ensor, James. Masks Confronting Death. 1888. Museum of Modern Art, New York.)