Keep the Rebel Spirit

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By Natalie Lampert 

I cried hard reading the headlines the morning after 49 people were murdered at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. I cried for the victims and their families. I cried for our country that is bruised and sick and hurting. Almost immediately, I thought of FASPE and everything we saw and learned on our trip. We had left Poland just 10 days earlier. I reached for my phone to write to 11 of the people I shared FASPE with. I knew they were there, my fellow journalists, both in the trenches and in spirit. They too — I was sure — were struggling to sustain this obligation to look without flinching, this commitment to bear witness and present to the public the best possible version of the truth.

“Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis,” the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit said recently. “We makers and breakers of stories are tremendously powerful.”

That morning, I did not feel particularly powerful. I also did not feel like writing. I wasn’t ready.

It’s taken me weeks to write this reflection — a seemingly simple and straightforward task — because as FASPE disappeared in the rearview mirror and current events unfolded, the weight of needing to process, draw meaning and wrestle with these words became heavier every day.

What do we do when the words don’t come?

FASPE — and the Stanford rape case and Orlando and the UK/E.U. crisis and a great deal more — has forced me to confront my capabilities and limitations as a journalist in difficult and challenging ways. Beyond thick skin and offensive online comments and paralyzing politics, there are complicated ethics and systemic bias and so much at stake.

“Keep the rebel spirit,” FASPE faculty member Lonnie Isabel said to me on the flight to Berlin the day the program ended. Our 45-minute conversation that morning gave me as much to think about — if not more — than two years of journalism school did. And while I’m not sure I’ve got the rebel spirit or the courage necessary to do this important work and do it well, I do know that now more than ever and deep in my bones I feel called to action.   

***

Two tons of human hair; 80,000 shoes; the remains of 40,000 people.

On the concentration camp’s walls, a child’s drawing: v-shaped, hand-drawn scribbles, a flock of birds flying far, far away.

The couple at Gleis 17, kissing passionately against the green and gray.

At Birkenau next to the pond, FASPE fellow Ilgin running to ask the man on the tractor to stop mowing the lawn for a moment of quiet. At Auschwitz, FASPE faculty member Ari saying a prayer after we leave the gas chamber. Fellow Matt lingering behind to look at the Jewish prayer shawls in one of the rooms at Auschwitz and remembering our first conversation on the first day of the program when he expressed how he hoped FASPE would allow him to connect with and think more deeply about his Jewish heritage.

FASPE ended weeks ago, but my mind and my heart keep returning to these moments, these images I cannot shake.

In his commencement address to Stanford graduates this past May, the filmmaker Ken Burns spoke of each new generation rediscovering and reexamining “the part of its past that gives its present new meaning, new possibility and new power.” For me, the most powerful moments of FASPE were when I physically waded into the Holocaust, stepping at one moment into the shoes of the victim and at another moment into the shoes of the perpetrators. I bore witness in the most literal way one can in modern times.

FASPE gave me this opportunity, but it also unnerved me. I left most of our sessions feeling a little more frustrated and a little less certain than I felt going in. At the beginning of the program, we journalists expressed our desire for rules for a framework and instructions for how to practically apply that framework. We wanted to return to our far-flung corners of journalism armed with clear ethical guidelines and knowledge of how to properly abide by those guidelines.

We quickly learned, however, that in this self-policing profession of ours, it is up to us to find ways to continue upholding checks and balances and counter the widespread lack of editorial responsibility. As always, there are more questions than answers.

***

Our first evening in Krakow, Ari led a handful of FASPE fellows to the Galicia Jewish museum for Shabbat service. It was my first time attending a Jewish religious service; I joined in the singing and prayer as best I could.   

I do not yet have the words to describe how deeply that evening — the prayer service and the community dinner that followed — affected me. I trust they will come. 

The next day, I returned to the museum alone to explore the contemporary photography exhibition. I’d been struggling with what it means to “bear witness” and hoped returning to this space might help me find my footing. It hurt, looking at and absorbing the images of identity, memory, oppression and survival. It hurt; I let it hurt. 

In the café, I bought a candy bar and a cup of coffee and settled down on a faded blue couch to write. In the exhibition space, a youth symphony orchestra from Cologne began to warm up; they were performing a free concert that night. Evening fell and against a backdrop of twinkle lights and haunting photographs in this historic Polish town, the German teenagers played. The act of creating something beautiful and lasting amidst such pain and persecution reminded me of music’s power to celebrate, mourn and bear witness.

“And so there is no news to report about Auschwitz,” wrote A.M. Rosenthal in 1959, walking through the post-Holocaust death camp. But there are stories. There are words and images documented and relayed by photographers and journalists who knew that we — future generations — would need them. 

And so I — we — will wade in. We do the work now. We write about ignorance and hatred and fear. We confront the ugly, the lies, the seemingly hopeless. We become braver with our reporting. We listen. We ask “why” more. We answer the call of “to whom much is given, much is expected.” We dig our heels in and we report the stories that matter, really matter. And then we write. 

These are the places where the words begin. 

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