Reach out, touch history through eyewitness account

Posted July 06, 2010, at 4:55 p.m.

Two years ago I stood before the pyramids in Giza and imagined what it was like to build them. Even more fascinating than the lives of the pharaoh’s are the lives of the ordinary folk that lived in their time. I stared at the ruins and imagined their workdays. With weather like we’ve had this past week it’s almost impossible to fathom what constructing those colossal structures was like.

When something looms largely in the past but there are no living people to interview, I close my eyes and picture what it must have been like and what questions I would ask. I reach over and touch a stone and imagine the hand that laid that stone in place.

I had a friend in college who called these little trips into the past my mind trips. She good-naturedly scolded me for not sending postcards. I’d tell her to set her imagination free, and she could see the past for herself.

You can mind trip in Maine by visiting really cool places like Fort Knox in Prospect or by touching the bow shield from the battleship Maine at the park on Main Street across from the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.

For instance, when I stand in the park imagining the lawn is the ocean and the hundreds of men working on the ship who missed their families and sweltered in the hot Cuban sun, I wonder what raced through their minds as the Maine exploded and they were thrown into the sea.

Sadly, we can’t access the thoughts of Egyptian pyramid builders, we can’t smell the Fort Knox cooking fires, and we can’t learn firsthand about the conditions on the battleship Maine as it sank in Havana harbor.

But today you can buy yourself a book and come face to print with the eyewitness account of history that took place, maybe not in your lifetime — but because the author still lives — in the lifetimes of others around you. And for every fleeting moment in the tens of thousands of years of known history only a few generations of peers will know exactly how another person felt and what they saw during “our” time’s most enormous events.

The book is titled “Home at Last” and it’s written by Kurt Moses, a Holocaust survivor. In his book he calls himself an Auschwitz survivor, which is true. But Auschwitz was only the last of many concentration camps Kurt was sent to before Hitler was conquered and Kurt was set free.

I studied history in college and grad school. In fact, I was so fascinated by the accounts of World War II that I studied in Amsterdam hoping to learn — in one of the places where it happened — about man’s inhumanity to man and to understand how the Holocaust ever happened.

It didn’t work.

I still can’t fathom how violence can be perpetrated by one group of people on another, by one individual on another, or by one nation on another. But I know for certain from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met that cruelty does happen. And as every Holocaust survivor reminds us, we must “never forget” that it can be and has been done.

Last week when I met Kurt and this week as I read his book, the reality of his experience explained the one thing that all the textbook studying I have done never could express: the slippery slope of hatred. Kurt witnessed his neighbors and countrymen turning against him. This living, breathing man was vilified as a child and used as a pawn to drag a world into war.

This week, as I held Kurt’s hand in my own, I finally touched history so alive that I didn’t need my imagination to feel the pain, fear or grief of humans tortured throughout history. Like a gift too precious to describe, Kurt wrote the tale of his life and gave it to us.

Go to your local bookseller and ask for Kurt’s book. Read it. Write to him, thank him, and ask him questions about his time on this Earth, before it’s too late, and lives like Kurt’s are once again found only in our imaginations.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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