Jonathon Hastings, Chief Copy Editor
“Never shall I forget that first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed…Never shall I forget the little faces of children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath the silent blue sky…Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Seven years have passed since I read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night in Mrs. Cannata’s freshman English class, and to this day, I can recite those final eight lines of chapter three from memory.
Oftentimes I wish I couldn’t, as I’ve had recurring dreams with similar imagery ever since, but I know not remembering would be a disservice to those who died in the holocaust. It’s interesting; nearly 75 years have passed since its conclusion, and yet, for me, the power behind those eight lines makes it seem far more recent. On top of that, of all the ways the Holocaust has been taught to me, nothing has stuck like Wiesel’s words.
This is how I learned the power behind storytelling.
You see, textbooks and news articles are constrained by so much: word count, target audience, censorship, you name it, but storytelling is limitless. Storytelling captures raw emotion behind something so meaningful to the individual. It exposes harsh truths too often sidelined for the sake of protecting one’s oblivion (just take textbooks describing the Trail of Tears as Native American “agreeing to move to different areas to make room for the new settlements”), and as much as I have sought out “harsh truths” since reading Night, they still find a way to surprise me.
Earlier this year, I read the transcript of a court case where Neris Gonzalez, an El Salvadoran immigrant to America, sued former El Salvadorian generals for the torture she endured in the 1970s. Before reading the transcript, I knew a bit about El Salvador’s history from previous classes; their right-winged government and military was backed by the United States to combat the rise of communism in the Americas. I also knew that those who were suspected of opposing the government were kidnapped, never to be seen again.
However, Gonzalez’s statement went much deeper. Here are a few excerpts from her testimony:
“When you see someone is put to one side, that means they are going to disappear…the next day, [the woman] showed up completely disfigured…her neck was cut, her head impaled on a stick and separate from her body…, she was spread eagle her legs wide open and a bottle rammed up her vulva. She had a sign. The sign said. this is the way Communists die”
“We had to go out, out of need to work, we had to eat, but we were always unsure as to whether we would return.”
“We couldn’t sleep anymore. We had to sleep with our little brothers and sisters close to us, just waiting for the knock on the door, the knocking in of the door and getting killed”
“Repression increased…it was now truckloads of Guardsmen. Wee had fear of going outside walking, of getting on a bus. We had to go out, out of need to work, we had to eat, but we were always unsure as to whether we would return.”
For Gonzalez, who was thought to be a communist collaborator for teaching El Salvador’s impoverished to count to 100, her description of torture was brutally graphic. Here are a few excerpts:
“When they put me in [the room], I was stunned…I began to see bits and pieces of human bodies, intestines, tongues, eyes, coagulated blood all over”
“They took everything from me. They took my merchandise, my clothes, my shoes, money everything. I was naked, I had nothing…I was tied-up, I was handcuffed, and I would urinate wherever I ws. I was in the middle of filth…when they put the blindfold over me, I knew I was about to be raped. They were such brutes. The uniforms had very hard buttons, the zippers and the belts were also very hard. They would rape me almost a dozen times a day, so badly my discharge was very bloody”
“They told me I was going to see a movie, and I was going to like it. They took the blindfold off, and in front of me was a boy, approximately 12 years old. They placed the boy in front of me. Then they stabbed his eyes with a pair of pliers. They pulled the eye out and threw it on my chest.”
“This is the way Communists die.”
“They would place me underneath the metal bed, and they would stand on top of it on the four corners. My son was being squashed, and the metal pieces of that bed would dig into my belly. I would scream, ‘my son’, but they would just reply ‘this is the way Communists die’…I never saw my son. I was told he only lived for a couple months.”
News articles, however, only go as far as to say Gonzalez was tortured and raped. Some don’t even mention this in their reporting.
THAT is the power of storytelling, for it’s stories that make severe situations tangible. The news can say an individual was tortured, but only the story can highlight what it MEANS to be tortured in all of its gory facets.
I want to leave you with a challenge: if you have the opportunity to listen to someone’s story, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how heart-wrenching, do it. Numbers and facts may make you more comfortable, but stories can turn data and figures into something meaningful.