Sturm: The importance of bearing witness
May 11, 2014
There are childhood memories so penetrating they run like movie reels in the mind's eye, molding our character.
My vintage 8mm features my European-born grandmother turning tearful and tongue-tied upon mention of her family, lost in the Holocaust. Her heartbreak, and the gruesome photos I ogled in my parents' edition of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," were literally mind-boggling.
When I was 13, Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein appeared in my biopic, helping me Think Again about the unfathomable.
Like a narrator, she recounted her death-defying odyssey from an idyllic childhood through ghettos, slave-labor camps and a three-month "death march" en route to liberation by the American officer who became her husband.
Her story teaches that hope is powerful and morality is a choice — even in the face of monstrous evil. Most importantly, bearing witness to good and evil is the way moral people deliver a better world to our children because, as fellow survivor Elie Wiesel stresses, "Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future."
Without memory, there also would be no freedom, as Klein movingly reminded the star-studded audience upon winning the Oscar for her documentary "One Survivor Remembers."
Recalling that in the camps "winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day," she urged the glamorous crowd to honor the memory of "those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home" by returning home aware that those "who know the joy of freedom are winners."
Boredom was a luxury in Nazi Germany, where a door knock could herald a Gestapo arrest. That was German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's fate after promoting truth to power and trying to hold the powerful accountable to truth. Executed near war's end, his famous exhortation endures: "Silence in the face of evil is evil. … Not to act is to act."
Despite the efforts of humanitarians like Klein, Wiesel and Bonhoeffer, the obligation to speak and act out against inhumanity is not universally practiced — especially when "women's reproductive health" is at stake.
It's unimaginable that any side of the reproductive-health debate could tolerate the barbarity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his unlicensed staff who preyed on low-income and minority women.
Yet for 31 years, the public's guardians — regulators, politicians and health care providers — averted their eyes and abandoned their duties, allowing a virtual Mengele to openly and profitably operate an unsanitary, Auschwitz-like health facility in Philadelphia where countless women suffered maiming, infection or worse.
According to the grand jury report that advanced Gosnell's murder conviction, he "regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy — and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors," as did his employees.
The grand jury faulted seemingly indifferent government officials who "literally licensed Gosnell's criminally dangerous behavior" by refusing "to treat abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical facilities." Their inaction was action and a reminder that morality is a choice when otherwise ordinary people commit appalling acts, as in Nazi Germany.
Committed to telling the story both Hollywood and the media have avoided, witness-bearing journalists and filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are days away from completing the largest-ever crowd-funding campaign for a movie. From donations averaging $95, they'll have raised at least $2.1 million at http://www.gosnellmovie.com.
Like "In Cold Blood" — another true story about callous murderers — the filmmakers believe the story of Gosnell, America's most prolific serial killer, will reverberate in the nation's conscience.
Apparently the conscience of Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is stirring, after she rocketed to national stardom for filibustering legislation (later passed) designed to promote women's reproductive health by preventing other Gosnells.
Less restrictive than European laws, the Texas bill includes an abortion ban after 20 weeks, with exceptions for fetal abnormalities and a threat to the woman's life — which Davis now favors. That Davis is evolving testifies to the power of bearing witness to society's lessons.
In her famous commentary on the Adolf Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the conformist tendencies of people who don't consider the consequences of their actions or inactions. "The sad truth," Arendt wrote, "is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."
My grandmother told a parable about a precocious boy who asked his rabbi whether a bird in his hand was dead or alive. Hoping to inspire humanity, the rabbi replied, "I don't know; it's in your hands."
Think Again — isn't remembering and telling stories the best way to influence the movie reels in our children's minds, helping them make moral choices that fortify a healthy society?
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.