It is very difficult to empathise with people we have never met, who lived a long time ago, in a country on the other side of the world. It is even harder to understand the pain they might have gone through in extreme circumstances, such as during a war.
A text book might teach us the facts, but it cannot help us fully comprehend the extent of the horror.
However, reading Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks brought me a little closer to understanding the heartbreak of World War II.
In particular, one scene in the book stopped me in my tracks, causing me to catch my breath at the sadness; the hopelessness.
I was reading in bed when I came across the scene. As I approached it, there were intimations of what was going to happen, but I couldn’t help feeling hope; denying the worst could happen.
Two boys held hands as they were captured by German soldiers, slept side-by-side in filth, were herded onto buses and a train and finally entered the gas chambers.
It was awful; unimaginable. And yet, it happened. The boys died together, confused, unwitting. It was the awful reality for so many, brought to life in a work of fiction.
The section about the two boys was a small storyline in the book, which is largely a love story set during the war. While the love story did not move me, I was shattered by the deaths.
It was not just the way the scene was written that caused it to touch me so deeply – in the past I would have been saddened by, rather than struck in the heart, by it. The fact that I am now a mother made the scene so harrowing for me. Now, a child’s death written in a work of fiction appalls me. In the words I see the faces of my son or daughters and feel the consequences more strongly than I ever could have.
And so it was in Charlotte Gray. It has made me rethink the holocaust through the prism of parenthood and I struggle to believe the awful truth of it.
How could they? How could we?
What makes it even more confronting is that it happened to children, to adults, to parents, not all that long ago, although we would like to think of it as a far different time. But it is not the history of ancient Greece or Rome; it was not the time of the Incas or the Pharaohs.
I’m sure that I still have no real concept of the magnitude of the pain and horror of the holocaust, but I feel like I’ve gained a better understanding of it in some small way, through Charlotte Gray. What an awful, but necessary, thing for a book – a work of fiction – to do.