This is the story I was told – I’ve omitted
the details which might identify
and narrow down the nation,
the place, the family, the man…
It was in his teens, at school,
when the national leader arose
to bring the nation to its future,
its fulfilment, its destiny; so, like
his fellows, he joined the youth corps,
their eyes shining with ideals.
When the war inevitably came,
the time to show the world,
he was conscripted as a soldier.
He was not easy with this; killing for any noble cause
was not in his beliefs; he sought advice
in every holy book of every faith,
and knew within himself that he was right:
life is in the gift of the gods, and not of men.
One against the many, what could he do?
Should he commit suicide, there and then,
or its equivalent, disobey until he was shot,
unrecorded, unpublicised? That too,
he felt was wrong, life denied.
He decided to do just what he was told;
but at night, alone, to lay all this in prayer
at the feet of God; to sleep then and awake
with a conscience washed by that same God
who, it seemed, allowed wars just and unjust
for reasons which few men may unravel.
As war continued, this model soldier
rose within the ranks; and by an irony of fate
was chosen to be on the staff
of the death camps now being secretly set up.
How intense his prayer now became;
how testing was this time.
The details of this now are all known
(more than even those involved then knew) :
after the war, when the trials of war criminals
attempted human justice, some leaders
felt that suicide was the honourable death;
some lived in hope, were tried and hanged;
some committed to life imprisonment
to repent their life; or not.
For him (and some camp victims who survived
even spoke for him; ‘unyielding,
but never wantonly cruel’ said one)
and truth to tell, at that sorry time,
those not involved
sneered at ‘I was only obeying orders’, and
to his fellow countrymen, he was an uneasy figure
to represent their national conscience
-for him, the ten year sentence
was much the same as a (conscript's) monastic cell;
adequate sustenance, housing, humble clothes,
Here the story told to me
breaks off; I cannot say
whether as a model prisoner
he won the admiration of his guards,
even the love; whether he wrote this down
and it was lost, or may one day make a book;
whether, if you met him, he would shine out
with love and truth and wisdom,
even saintliness; so that
you'd be proud to have met him; some say
that when he came out of prison, aged around 38,
he became a schoolteacher; some say, a priest;
others say, a doctor in a hospital..
I can only say, here was a good man;
and wonder how I would have behaved
had I been in his place; and whether,
as his life drew to a close,
he was even grateful in his soul
to have been so tested; and
to have known life whole.