The Personal Pronoun of Guilt

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On the night of July 19, 1941 in my family's ancestral village, 168 people were escorted to a barn. With the assistance of village leaders, each man, woman, and child was then shot in the head. Public documents stated simply that, "the Jews had been successfully emigrated to the East."

The rules of the universe and the bounds of time do not allow us to go back. These people and all their unborn progeny were extinguished on a single night and there is nothing we can now do to prevent it.

One carries on.

My Lutheran grandfather ran a small butcher shop with the help of a friend, Abram Schneider, who ran the kosher trade. After the murders, my grandmother had publicly protested, but was quickly silenced. "Would you like to talk with Abram?" people taunted her. "Perhaps we can arrange for a meeting."

Later, facing the Soviet invasion, my family fled. By then my grandmother was dead, my grandfather a widower with two orphan children. Lacking means, a neighboring farmer gave our family the wagon and the horses by which we would find escape. And if it were not for that man, and that horse and wagon, you would not be hearing this voice today.


The story in some ways is unexceptional. The history of those years was written in blood. Those 168 souls were just another drop of ink in the pen.

Except for one small personal fact. Recently, I uncovered a brief description of the events. The killing, it turns out, had occurred at the farm of the man who had afforded our escape.

Culpability may be bounded by neither space nor time. And so long as consequences prevail, then so too shall persist the guilt. Suffice it not to say, "I did not know." It is our job to know. Nor can we claim, "But it was not me." Facing the ungood, there may be no "I" in the court of ethics. Perhaps only the collective "we."

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis works with at-risk youth while working on a memoir about the emigre experience. He lives in Sebastopol.