Chapter 39 – Cruelty
Treading Water 1983
My days at Wilson’s School had come to an end, but even so, I was still very connected to it. My abysmal A-level results meant returning to discuss what options were available. One involved re-doing a year, while another would merely require me re-sitting the exams a few months later. However, the thought of doing either filled me with utter dread. As it turned out, I wouldn’t ever return to study there again, but the feeling of never completely leaving remained with me, and continues to do so now, 40 years later.
What I didn’t realise at the time was so many strands of my life were coming to an end. Friends who I’d known for years were going off to college or starting on their career paths, and I too would soon be going away as well. Sure, some of us wrote letters to each other at first, but after a few months that petered out, and from then on, we were all involved in our naive new worlds and friendships. But before then, somewhere between July and September, there was a sense of treading water in the eye of a storm. Neither ready nor steady, we were waiting for go.
Mr George, the unintentional Steampunk career advisor, managed to get me a place to stay near Chelsea School of Art during term time. Ralph West Halls of Residence was situated very close to the river Thames and opposite Battersea Park, and as it was only 10 miles away, I didn’t feel as if I was going to be completely disconnected from home. Given my previous desire to get as far away as possible, this came as an unexpected relief. As for college, I was sent a list of equipment to buy, a prospectus informing me of what to expect to study over the next year and a project to paint a sneeze, which I didn’t bother doing because of my hayfever, but outside of that, there wasn’t much to ‘officially’ get on with. Still, there were a few extra-curricular activities to focus on, especially regarding karate and getting up to mischief, as we shall see.
Grant, my karate teacher, put me and a few others from the club forward to take a national grading in the summer, so karate training increased a lot, including getting up at 5 am most days, jogging to the park and training alone for an hour.
One very misty morning I was kicking a tree, which sounds a bit cruel now, but back then they didn’t have the same rights and after a few hundred kicks I realised an old man was watching me. I smiled and said hello, he nodded very slightly but looked annoyed. All I could think was he didn’t like what I was doing to the tree, so the next day I left the tree alone, and kicked the air instead, fortunately, he didn’t return. In karate, we’d been told Japanese masters cut trees down with their strikes and kicks, however, what I didn’t realise then due to the lack of YouTube, was the trees they attacked tended to be quite a bit more destructible than silver birch or limes I was practising on. Anyway, just in case you were worried, no trees were harmed in the telling of this story.
One thing I appreciated about leaving school was not experiencing the day-to-day offensiveness that had permeated my life for the last 11 years. A few days into my new ‘adult life’ I passed a kid from school in Sutton High Street who said something derogatory to me, so, I turned to him and told him if he did that again he wouldn’t be protected by our school anymore. He backed off and apologised, and I knew then, at least to some degree, things had changed. But of course, cruelty isn’t just reserved for our school days, so I shouldn’t have gotten too comfortable.
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Part 1 – Cruelty
The Blue Car – Part 1 – 25th July 2022
I’m woken by my phone ringing, it’s 8:30 in the morning, and I’ve only been asleep a few hours. I look at the screen and can see it’s a neighbour calling me, so I realise it’s probably important. I’m expecting her to say something’s fallen off my roof but, instead, she informs me my car has been covered in paint. My heart drops because I’m pretty sure this relates to something that happened a few days ago.
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Cruelty – Part 1
I’ve mentioned this before, but it won’t hurt to reiterate it. Vernon Mallinson, the secret service guy I mentioned in an earlier chapter, wrote a book called “None Can be Called Deformed” the title of which was based on the Shakespearean lines from Twelfth Night, which I’ve also mentioned previously, “In nature, there’s no blemish but the mind, none can be called deformed but the unkind.”
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The Blue Car – Part 2 – 23rd July 2022
Constant warnings about energy, food, and other prices going up brought me to the conclusion I ought to do something to help bring in more income to cover these extra costs. I decided I’d try using a part of my house for Airbnb guests. As a consequence of all the preparations, I’d bought quite a few items from Amazon, some of which I picked up from a local shop. On the eighth occasion within a 2-month period, I showed the shopkeeper my Amazon pickup code, at which point he looked at me and said, “You never buy anything from here, do you?”
“That’s right,” I nodded, “I just come here to pick up my Amazon parcels.”
He shook his head disapprovingly, “We only do the Amazon pick-up service, so more customers will come in and buy things. So, don’t come here again, find somewhere else to pick up your parcels.”
As he walked through his shop to get my package, I followed him and getting angrier with every step I said, “I’m going to report you to Amazon and put this on Social Media, it’s not acceptable.”
By this point he was kneeling down, so he looked up at me and shrugged. “In that case, I’m not going to give you your parcel, I will tell them you didn’t come to pick it up.”
I set my mobile phone to video and pointed it at him, “So, you’re saying that because I don’t buy anything from you, I can’t use the service.”
He stood up and pursed his lips, “That’s not what I said, all I was saying…”
I could see he was trying to change the narrative now a camera was on him, and anyway, I hate people talking when I’m interrupting, so I impolitely interjected, “No, what you said was,” but before I could finish, he grabbed my phone from me and walked off. I tried to get it back, but he was much taller than I and held it out of reach.
“Give me back my phone,” I shouted.
“No, not unless you stop filming.”
I think he realised he was out of order so passed it back to me. By this point, I’d already targeted his knees and shins and was very close to whacking my prosthetic leg across them, but instead, I said, “You’re lucky I didn’t belt you then.”
My phone was still videoing as he went back behind the counter, and still shaking with anger, I reiterated, “So you’re not going to give me my parcel because I don’t buy anything?”
He wagged his finger at me, “No”
He then appeared to head back out from behind his counter, so I warned him if he touched my phone again, I’d call the police and report him for common assault.
Once again, I asked if he was going to give me the parcel, to which he said if I stopped filming he would, so I agreed and switched off the video.
As he passed me the package I said, “You’re not welcome”, which didn’t make much sense, but I think he got the gist, and then I left the shop.
Afterwards, I reported him to the police and put the video on Facebook, but things didn’t end there.
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In the grand scheme of things, this is not that big a deal, but cruelty, as we shall see occurs on so many levels and it doesn’t take much for it to escalate exponentially.
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Cruelty Part 2
Cruelty can be manifested in many ways, both directly and indirectly, intentionally, and not so. For instance, the consequence of governmental or religious laws may be experienced as cruel even though they were originally made without malice. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
When it comes to cruelty both the intent of those acting cruelly and the perception of their victims play a big part in the dynamics involved. This is touched on in the saying, “you have to be cruel to be kind.” A theme well illustrated in the earlier chapter on betrayal when the father deliberately doesn’t catch the child jumping from the stairs. So, as we go through this chapter, I want to discuss some of the issues around cruelty because it was often a factor in my life, both as a perpetrator and object of it.
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The Blue Car – Part 2 – 23rd July 2022
After the call from my neighbour, I got dressed and went down to my vehicle, which sure enough was covered in blue paint, a very nice shade of blue I must say, but even so, given it was covering the roof, side doors, front bonnet, and windscreen, it wasn’t going to be drivable.
I went back in, made a coffee, and started wading through the CCTV footage from the night before. I’ll cut to the chase. Several of my cameras cover quite a bit of the street behind my house so when a neighbour who lives near the corner came out at around 2 am holding a can of paint he could clearly be seen throwing the paint on my car a few minutes later. He then walked around the block, dumped the can in someone’s bin, and then returned home. The reason I know what happened to the can of paint is we found it by following a trail of blue paint droplets he’d left along the road and down an alley where they stopped at a black plastic bin. Having watched too many episodes of CSI, we photographed the tin in situ, then carefully removed it and put it in a bag.
As I went through more of the CCTV, I found the paint thrower had photographed my car both before the incident and afterwards. Presumably firstly to check it was the correct vehicle, and secondly to provide evidence of what he’d done. On both occasions, he walked in the direction of the shop, then returned about 12 minutes later, just long enough to get to it, show the photos to someone and return, thus avoiding sending anything electronically. It’s possible that this attack wasn’t related to the shop incident, but I couldn’t help thinking there might be a connection. But, when it comes to the issue of cruelty, there’s more to come in relation to this story.
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Cruelty Part 3 – Considering inconsideration
When I was about 21 a drunk driver crashed into my car, pushing it and me about 3 metres across the road. When I took it to be repaired, the service guy told me their insurance wouldn’t cover me to drive the courtesy car because I was disabled. I said to him that it wasn’t fair of them to do that as there was no statistical data to suggest disabled drivers were a higher risk category, he looked at me, shrugged and said, “Listen, life’s not fair.” I’d later write the lyrics, “Life’s not fair, goes hand in hand with I don’t care”, because of that incident. Not caring, being inconsiderate and ignorant (ignoring), are all attitudes which can result in immense indirect cruelty, and we’re all guilty of it at times.
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The Blue Car – Part 3 – 25th July 2022
“Hello caller, this is the police, what is your emergency?”
“Hi, I called earlier to report someone had poured paint on my car. I’ve now gone through my CCTV and can see it’s a neighbour and I think it relates to a previous incident I reported a few days ago. The thing is I’m concerned this person might do something again, so, I’m wondering if an officer could talk to him to warn him off doing anything else?”
“I’m sorry sir, but firstly, your case is a category C priority one, so, an officer will be allocated to you in a few days, and secondly, if an officer approaches him that may increase the chance of him doing something, there’s no guarantee it’ll help.”
“So, you’re saying you can’t do anything to help me?”
“Unless they attack you or your property again, you’ll have to wait to be contacted in due course.”
A week later the officer allocated to my case finally turned up only to inform me he wouldn’t be able to do anything for at least 5 weeks as he was just about to go on annual leave. When I asked whether, in the meantime, they’d try to get fingerprints from the paint tin we’d found, he said the incident didn’t warrant that kind of cost. So, I spoke to a couple of ex-coppers I knew, and they told me they felt ashamed about the way I’d been treated because as far as they were concerned the correct procedures were not being followed.
With this in mind, I made a complaint to the police and got in contact with the local MP. It was only then after she requested a report, an officer asked me for a statement. Normally, one should be taken as soon after an incident as possible, but this was now 5 weeks since I’d first called. Once again everything was put on hold, this time for almost 2 months, at which point I still had to push for something to be done.
During these same weeks, someone I knew who was working for the police, told me one of the station’s admin staff had had a similar, yet less serious, issue with one of their neighbours, and the culprit was not only arrested but brought up in front of the magistrate within 24 hours.
Maybe my complaint had made the officers involved angry, or maybe they were just too understaffed. Even so, it seemed some victims are more equal than others. Ironically, the police have had a very bad press recently, especially when it comes to conviction rates, so given I’d supplied a lot of CCTV evidence, I was surprised they weren’t eager to get this one in the bag.
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Cruelty – Part 4 – Life is Cruel / It’s a Cruel World
We cannot avoid the cruelty of time, the world, life, and nature, as well as all the other cruel things around us, but of course, it’s not just what’s out there, we can all be cruel occasionally too. It’s in us, and the more we focus on the cruelty around us the easier it is to forget just how susceptible we are to its temptations.
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The Blue Car – Part 4 – 25th July 2022
When the person in the video was eventually brought in for questioning, almost 3 months after the incident, he was shown the CCTV footage and immediately admitted it was him, but he explained, his mental health issues meant he couldn’t remember doing it as he must have been having a psychotic episode.
The officers seemed to take this at face value, ignoring the fact to most logically minded people, him calmly taking photos of my car before and after vandalising it, as well as walking towards the shop after both occasions indicated other factors may possibly be involved. Still, they didn’t want to pursue it further, stating they were only going to give him a caution.
I told them that was unacceptable but at first accepted a conditional caution which would involve him officially admitting what he’d done, paying some of the costs I’d incurred as a consequence of his actions, and him being assessed by the local mental health service. The police officer then told me that even if he was prosecuted, he couldn’t be forced to undergo a mental health assessment, so I checked online and found he was mistaken, a court could insist on a mental health assessment. This became more pressing after the paint thrower demonstrated some kind of fixation on me. On one occasion, he complained to the police I was shining lights in his room and on another, he pulled up in front of my car in the middle of the night with his engine running and stayed there for 8 minutes while texting someone. I deliberately took photos using a flash to let him know he was being observed, at which point he drove around the block and parked outside his house for a few minutes, then drove past my place again.
The morning after the lights in his room allegation the police called me at 8:30 am to ask if it was me doing it and concluded the call with a warning that I should stay away from him. I asked what time this had happened as I have CCTV on both his place and in and around mine, which meant I could check and report back to them what was going on, but they never got back to me.
While the shopkeeper was cruel to tell me not to use the Amazon service in his place, and who knows maybe my disability played a part in his decision – even if it was simply because to him, I was an easy target -. And similarly, the guy who poured paint on my car deliberately set out to do something cruel, there was also something about the lack of support or protection from the police that felt just as cruel too. But of course, you know me, I wasn’t going to just leave it there.
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1988 – Streatham Ice Skating Rink
I’d gone skating with some friends, however, my feet were not built for skating, so I ended up sitting in the bar chatting. At one point one of my friend’s friends, who was a policeman, started boasting how he and his colleagues would often put mattresses against black guys they were holding in custody and then punch them through it as that way they could avoid leaving clearly defined bruises on their victims.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-police, but I’m very aware that power often creates opportunities for cruelty and cruelty tends to beget even more cruelty. The greater our power the greater our responsibility to check ourselves against being cruel.
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Cruelty – Part 5 – We like Cruelty
As much as we abhor cruelty there are times when we’ll find ourselves enjoying it, whether it’s witnessing someone’s misfortune; someone being brought down a peg or two who, in our opinion, deserves it; or satisfying our own morbid curiosity. Who can deny a fascination with car accidents, executions, and other gory spectacles, and at an even darker level there may well be times when we take pleasure in imagining the suffering of those who’ve crossed us, sometimes for the slightest of slights.
Chimpanzees bare their teeth as a show of aggression and we do the same when we laugh, cruelty is deeply intertwined with humour. In Mel Brook’s film ‘The History of The World Part One’, a group of prehistoric cave dwellers are huddled in a cave looking very dour and even though a court jester prances around them, not one of them even cracks a smile. A few seconds later, unable to bear the boredom any longer, one of them picks up a large stick and throws it towards the cave entrance, at that very moment a person walks in only to end up impaled by it. The onlookers all burst into rapturous laughter thus seeing in the first-ever weapon and joke simultaneously. Of course, we wouldn’t laugh if this were to happen for real, or would we? Well, we might, but a lot of that comes down to how we perceive the victims of cruelty.
Chapter 39 – Part 2 Other
Bettie part 1 – Clothes
The SS officer ordered them to take off all their over clothes at which point an old man amongst the group protested, “This is immoral, you cannot ask such a thing of women and children.” but the officer ignored him and repeated the order. As the group started to take their clothes off, they pulled the bundle of material close to their bodies, but within seconds the cold hit them, and shivering uncontrollably they bent double to fend off the ice-cold air and soldier’s eyes.
They were then ordered out of the hut and to walk 200 meters into the forest. As they did, they noticed the occasional flurry of gunfire and voices in the distance. They were then ordered to take another path that led to where they were told to put their clothes in the appropriate piles. Shoes on one, coats on another and so on. Even though Bettie was still wearing her underclothes, she, like all the other women put one arm across her breasts and the other hand over her pubis. However, one woman in the group who looked like she was in her seventies kept her boots on, and none of the guards told her to take them off. She stood straight-backed, chin up and smiled defiantly. This seemed to affect the others in the group too, but as they got to the top of a small incline, they were faced with a scene they could never have imagined.
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Other – Part 1
In Chapter 9, I mentioned the word Kin and kindred in relation to kindness, pointing out we’re far more likely to be kind to those we feel are similar to us. Conversely, we’re more liable not to feel so kind-hearted towards people we feel are different. Our family members and loved ones, tend to be more important to us than our neighbours, who in turn may be more important than the wider local community and so on. These rings of allegiance ripple outwards until we get to those, we barely feel any affinity with at all. Obviously to some, their love of all humankind overrides such categorisations, but for most of us some relationships are far more significant than others.
It not surprising the word “strange” carries a negative connotation. The etymology of the word “Stranger” gives further insight into its meaning as it is derived from both the Old French word, “Estrangier”, and the Latin “Extraneus”, both of which mean foreigner, or unknown person or unconnected.
There has been a lot of discussion in the political arena over the last few decades about our reaction to people we consider as the “other”. The main tenet of these views sees such reactions as a sign of stupidity and immaturity, however, for all the pressure bearing down upon the masses, people haven’t automatically come around to such notions, and instead many have dismissed them.
When it comes to who we feel more connected with or not, it has been shown we take just micro-seconds to assess who we believe is kindred or other. What’s particularly interesting about this is the values involved behind these judgements. For instance, some might think ethnic group identification would be an overriding component, but in tests, subtle logos representing class, political affiliations, sports teams, or educational level often have a far greater effect. The point is this happens on both conscious and subconscious levels and at such speeds using so many complicated processes that we can’t stop ourselves from doing it, no matter how wrong we believe doing so to be. We cannot avoid stereotypical assumptions, but we can be aware of, and temper them.
Ironically, it’s also possible to create the “other” from those we’d previously perceived as “kindred”. Simply by shining a light on a section of society in a certain way it suddenly appears strange and threatening. Likewise, the same can be applied to the upper echelons of society, after all, it only takes portraying those in authority as our cruel oppressors and an unkind revolution suddenly seems very reasonable indeed.
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Bettie Part 2
What the group had not been aware of was throughout the night 8000 Jews had been forced to walk 10 kilometres from the city. The Nazis were well aware of the importance of blinkering their prey, so, the truck they travelled in had been kept covered thus preventing them from seeing the bodies of those who’d straggled or been disobedient, including Latvian officers who didn’t submit to their orders, strewn along the roadside. But once the group were marched out of the hut, past the piles of clothes and to the top of the incline, the scale of what was happening dawned on them.
In front of them, a ramp made of wooden boards went down a steep escarpment about 3 metres deep to the bottom of a 6-metre-wide by 30 meters long trench. As their eyes lowered the finality of their situation hit them. Hundreds of bodies, some still twitching, some still slowly moving as small fountains of blood pumped out of bullet holes at an ever-decreasing regularity. Molecules of blood carried through the air touched Bettie’s mouth and then the stench of excreta, as strong as smelling salts, forced her to wake from her panic-induced faintness. There was a crack of gunfire. Bettie looked up towards the other end of the trench where a group of people dropped to the ground. Then in the distance, she saw 5 others marched down a ramp where they were made to lay upon the dead bodies. A few held hands, and a couple of others wrapped their heads in their arms while some soldiers on the ridge took aim and shot them. The 5 of them tensed for a second then relaxed.
As Bettie looked at the group of soldiers near her, presumably the ones who would be executing them in the next few minutes she recognised one of the officers. It was Herbert Cukurs, the Latvian Aviator who she’d so admired. To see him become a part of this killing machine was beyond comprehension to her. How could someone who exuded such strength be turned against people he had previously seen as friends? She wanted to scream “This is Hell” but her mouth and teeth were spasming from the cold and fear.
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Other Part 2 – Group Dynamics of the Psychopaths
When we identify with others, we recognise the similarities between us which in turn helps us to empathise with them. For those we don’t identify with, no matter how similar in some ways we are, we’ll turn a blind eye to their suffering.
While of course, there are lots of dynamics that result in cruelty, there are some people whose psyches are orientated to hurting others without any external encouragement, whether it be caused by nature or nurture. Still, when it comes to group think, it doesn’t take much to bring out sadistic, psychopathic behaviour in those who’d previously never wanted to hurt a fly.
Cukurs had courted stardom, so, it’s probably fair to presume he was likely more narcissistic than most, and given his eagerness to kill, he was definitely psychopathic too, but the soldiers pulling the triggers along the trails and into the mass graves, it’s doubtful they’d all been psychopathic before the war.
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Other Part 2 – Us and Them
When people say, “We are all alike deep down,” it’s true to a large extent, however, it’s also a trope that ignores so many other levels of difference between us too. For instance, most people would be happy to live in peace, get on with their lives, love their loved ones, and follow their spiritual, philosophical, material and social pursuits, yet, history shows we are also very similar when it comes to committing genocides, whether it’s the Nazis, The Soviets, The Pakistani Bangladesh, the Chinese Maoists, the Arab or British Colonialists, the African Slave Traders, The Barbary Coast Pirates, The Cambodians, Settlers in both the North and South Americas, The Ottoman Empire, The Rwandan Hutu led government forces, The Turks with the Kurds, the Maori killing and enslavement of the Moriori people and, of course so many more.
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We are all aware that one day we shall die and for many of us there’s a lot of time spent thinking about what our last moments will be like. When it comes to us, there’s a high chance we won’t be conscious so will not be aware of it and if we are our last thoughts may well be centred around these not being our last moments. Those waiting to be executed listen out for a reprieve right up to the very last moment. Once the moment of death is imminent, it’s then we really accept we are mortal, and this is it. The amount of time we have to consider this issue will have a profound effect on the process we’ll then go through. At one extreme it may come on us so quickly that we won’t get time to consider it at all, or at the very least we’ll think “I’m going to die,” and that’ll be it. At the other, we may be given an approximate time of days, weeks, months, or years, during which we may come to terms with what is going to happen.
A few years ago, one of my students texted me from hospital in the middle of the night to tell me she’d just been informed by a doctor she was going to die within a week. She told me she was scared, so, I said she could call if she wanted to have a chat. She didn’t, but I spoke to her son a few weeks later who was at her side as she passed away, and he said within that week she’d come to terms with what was happening and was ready to die in peace. But if you are given just a 5-minute warning, then, even if this is something you have prepared for, you are still most likely to react on a biological level. Adrenalin is going to kick in so your fight, flight or freeze responses may take over which can result in faster breathing, heart rate, heightened senses, tense or trembling muscles, loss of bladder or bowel control, waves of nausea, weakness, faintness, an inability to walk, vomiting and becoming mentally dislocated where the outside world becomes distant while your inner one becomes your main focus.
The Nazis used hope and the promises of a future right up to the last moment in order to avoid any resistance from their victims, which in turn resulted in less psychological trauma for their executioners. Even so, in time they moved away from firing squads to gassing people because again there were far fewer repercussions when it came to the executioners’ long-term mental health.
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OTHER Part 3 – The Unknown
Just as the word strange relates to the unknown, so too does the word abysmal. The Unknown is a very significant part of our psyche, striking at the deepest parts of how we deal with the world. We see the Unknown in danger, darkness, death, the abyss, the future, and all that isn’t familiar. Again, as with kin and kind, the words familiar and family are linked, hence what is unfamiliar should be approached cautiously if it can’t be avoided.
Paradoxically, we are drawn to the Unknown too. Without confronting it how could we ever have moved so far into the world? That doesn’t mean we went headlong into the darkness, those who did were probably wiped out very early on. As the saying goes, “There are old people and there are bold people but there aren’t many old bold people.” However, those who approached it cautiously with sticks, light sources, and a quick escape route if needed, were far more likely to survive and find unimagined treasures within the Unknown.
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Bettie – Part 3 – The River
Bettie knew she only had seconds left and became acutely aware of everything going on around her. The directions the SS officer was giving to them, where they should stand and which way they should look. The coldness of the wind hitting her. The words of the old lady as she’d passed the soldiers, “How can you kill these beautiful children?” The comforting words of parents to their children, the intense farewell hugs. The laughter of a young boy as his mother tickled him so that he’d be laughing as he died.
The old lady put her hand on Bettie’s shoulder. “You are not alone”.
The group were told to look out towards the river, and as if following their orders there might be some escape, she did, but as she did, she wasn’t sure if she could really see it. There were glints of light in the distance between the trees, but either way, she knew it wasn’t far. Somewhere, Chanan would be near the river too and she knew she would be in every part of his mind. The river connected her to the love in this world while the sky above it connected her to God. Taking in a breath as deeply as she could, she felt the cold air pass through her nose and down to her lungs. She looked at the snow-covered ground, the morning sunlight upon the tops of the trees, and quietly said “Chanan, I love you.” She heard the order to take aim.
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For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
From “The Prophet” (Chapter 92), by Kahlil Gibran
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