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ARTICLE: In Pursuit of Character, Part 1

Scripting our lives by the stories we choose: what's missing from the character debate.
1995This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

I turned the page and found a photograph of a man bending over and talking to a small boy. Both are dressed in black. The man, if I remember correctly, wears a flat-brimmed hat and has side curls. He stoops to the same level as the boy and looks directly into his face. His right hand is on the boy's shoulder and his left is pointing upward toward the sky.

Lifeless bodies are lying all around them. About ten feet away stands another man, in uniform. He is holding a rifle and sighting it at the heads of the man and small boy. It is their turn to die. The squeeze of the trigger must have been almost simultaneous with the click of the shutter.

The photograph breaks my heart. But, strangely, it also encourages me. Wanting somehow to understand what I am seeing, I do what human beings have always done when confronted with something that requires an explanation. I have created a story for myself about it. The story might not be accurate, but it is an important story for me nonetheless. It makes it more possible for me to live in a world that includes the Holocaust.

This man spends his last moments on earth telling a story, or at least so it seems to me. He is a Hasid, one of those most pious and fervent of Jews. As he bends down to speak to the boy, finger pointing to the sky, perhaps he is saying something like this: "Do not be afraid, my son. This man cannot really hurt us. He is sending us to the next world, where we will join your mother and sister. God is waiting for us. Everything is going to be all right."

The man, I believe, was making use of the story he had embraced for his life in order to come to terms with his and his son's horrific death. I choose to see it as an act of defiance. Deprived of all other means of resistance, ...

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