I remember, May 1944: I was 15-and-a-half, and I was thrown into a haunted universe where the story of the human adventure seemed to swing irrevocably between horror and malediction. I remember, I remember because I was there with my father. I was still living with him there. We worked together. We returned to the camp together. We stayed in the same block. We slept in the same box. We shared bread and soup. Never were we so close to one another.
We talked a lot to each other, especially in the evenings, but never of death. I believed — I hoped — that I would not survive him, not even for one day. Without saying it to him, I thought I was the last of our line. With him, our past would die; with me, our future.
The moment the war ended, I believed — we all did — that anyone who survived death must bear witness. Some of us even believed that they survived in order to become witnesses. But then I knew deep down that it would be impossible to communicate the entire story. Nobody can. I personally decided to wait, to see during ten years if I would be capable to find the proper words, the proper pace, the proper melody, or maybe even the proper silence to describe the ineffable.
For in my tradition, as a Jew, I believe that whatever we receive we must share. When we endure an experience, the experience cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared. And of course I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways, disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.
Granted, our task is to inform. But information must be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into sensitivity, and sensitivity into commitment.
How can we therefore speak, unless we believe that our words have meaning, that our words will help others to prevent my past from becoming another person’s — another people’s — future. Yes, our stories are essential — essential to memory. I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.”
What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.
After all, God is God because he remembers.
“Egg Factory,” by Verlyn Klinkenborg
On Friday, most of the country’s major newspapers, including The Times, featured reports from a small town called Clarion, Iowa. Just outside Clarion are the egg operations, owned by the DeCoster family, at the heart of the salmonella outbreak. The factory — no point calling it a farm — called Wright County Egg, is the source of 380 million of the more than 500 million recalled eggs.
I grew up in Clarion. My family lived there from 1954 to 1963 during what now looks like a golden era for American farming. When I was back a couple of years ago, I noted the most evident change, a significant population of Mexican workers. I hoped that they were able to love Clarion as much as I did. It’s unlikely, because I also saw where they worked.
When I was young, I thought I grasped the immensity of the Iowa landscape. The immensity of the soybean and corn fields has only grown because so many smaller farms have vanished as a result of government farm policy, which rewards economic concentration. As I turned off Highway 3 east of town, I saw that there was a newer immensity, the egg factories — an endless row of faceless buildings, as bland as a compound of colossal storage units but with the air of a prison.
It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.
It takes only a little investigation to learn how bad things have been inside those buildings. The list of offenses for which the DeCosters and their farms have been fined in Iowa and Maine only begins with hiring children and illegal immigrants.
In 2000, Jack DeCoster, the operations’ founder, was named a “habitual violator” of Iowa’s environmental laws. His egg factories have been cited by OSHA for deplorable working conditions. In 2003, Mr. DeCoster paid more than $1.5 million to settle an employment discrimination suit charging that 11 women working in the Clarion plants had been subject to sexual harassment, including rape and threats of retaliation. There have been nearly 1,500 illnesses as a result of the salmonella outbreak. Every one of the billions of eggs produced this way has been tainted.
“Finding Prosperity by Feeding Monkeys,” by Harold Taw
I could say that I believe in America because it rewarded my family’s hard work to overcome poverty. I could say that I believe in holding on to rituals and traditions because they helped us flourish in a new country. But these concepts are more concretely expressed this way: I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday — something I’ve done without fail for 35 years.
When I was born, a blind, Buddhist monk living alone in the Burmese jungle predicted that my birth would bring great prosperity to the family. To ensure this prosperity, I was to feed monkeys on my birthday.
While this sounds superstitious, the practice makes karmic sense. On a day normally given over to narcissism, I must consider my family and give nourishment to another living creature. The monk never meant for the ritual to be a burden. In the Burmese jungle, monkeys are as common as pigeons. He probably had to shoo them away from his sticky rice and mangoes. It was only in America that feeding monkeys meant violating the rules.
As a kid, I thought that was cool. I learned English through watching bad television shows and I felt like Caine from Kung Fu, except I was the chosen warrior sent to defend my family. Dad and I would go to the zoo early in the morning, just the two of us. When the coast was clear, I would throw my contraband peanuts to the monkeys.
I never had to explain myself until my 18th birthday. It was the first year I didn’t go with my father. I went with my friends and arrived 10 minutes after the zoo gates closed.
“Please,” I beseeched the zookeeper, “I feed monkeys for my family, not for me. Can’t you make an exception?”
“Go find a pet store,” she said.
If only it were so easy. That time, I got lucky. I found out that a high school classmate trained the monkeys for the movie Out of Africa, so he allowed me to feed his monkey. I’ve had other close calls. Once a man with a pet monkey suspected that my story was a ploy — that I was an animal rights activist out to liberate his monkey. Another time, a zoo told me that outsiders could not feed their monkeys without violating the zookeepers’ collective bargaining agreement. In a pet store once, I managed to feed a marmoset being kept in a birdcage. Another time, I was asked to wear a biohazard suit to feed a laboratory monkey.
It’s rarely easy and, yet, somehow I’ve found a way to feed a monkey every year since I was born.
Our family has prospered in America. I believe that I have ensured this prosperity by observing our family ritual and feeding monkeys on my birthday. Do I believe that literally? Maybe. But I have faith in our family and I believe in honoring that faith in anyway I can.