Carrying the Burden of Witness

“One's witness is individual.”
John Updike

Throughout life, we sling enumerable social burdens and necessities onto our backs to protect, to love, to nurture, to dissent, and to join.

Are any more isolating than our self-imposed burden to bear witness? Among the actions that renew and revitalize our social fabric, carrying the burden of bearing witness is, as Updike wrote, individual.

Carrying the burden of witness is different than witnessing.

The latter is seeing. The former is acting. Acting as continuity between what was, what is, and what will be. Acting to bring the past into the present. Acting through testimony, written or spoken, by erecting and honoring monuments and by subverting and defying lies. Etching truth where it will be seen.1

burden of witness
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Memorials play a pivotal role in collective memory, they not only honor the past, they hand that past forward to generations who have no direct memory of that past. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I cannot write about bearing witness without beginning with Night, Elie Wiesel’s ferociously honest account of his imprisonment in Auschwitz.2 Wiesel witnesses what happens when a person is reduced to a desperate, aching body. He writes of the triumph of evil “so close and yet so distant.”

Of Night’s countless lines of critical importance, this, the instance of his father’s death, is the most devastating because it is Wiesel’s own loss of self:

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears.

In 2006, Wiesel issued a new translation of Night, with an introduction speaking directly to his role as witness:

For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

The simplest burden of being a witness is that one must act, must testify. Again and again. “Responsibility is the key word,” writes Wiesel.

burden of witness
Memorials must act as both knowledge and emotional loadstones. This Memorial has been criticized for being too abstract, that it fails to deliver knowledge necessary to engender collective memory. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When we carry the burden of witness we invite judgment. Not only of what we say, but also of who we are. Are we reliable, truthful, relevant? Are we known or an Other?

Despite its universal truths, Wiesel’s story was so poorly received by publishers that it was accepted only after the tireless lobbying of Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac.

It reminds me of something Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air for more than 40 years, admitted in her published collection of interviews, All I Did Was Ask. The most frequent audience question was what she looked like. The second was whether she was gay.

Gross accepted both inquiries humorously.

Those people who swear I’m a lesbian offer two ‘clues.’ The first is my short haircut, which might be described as kind of cute or kind of butch. The second is that we’ve always featured a lot of openly gay guests on Fresh Air. In fact, this used to get us into a lot of trouble with some of the stations that carried us […].

In the minds of listeners, Gross’s life choices affected her trusted witness status. This is despite the fact that, as an interviewer, she coaxes the truth from others and is determined “to keep my focus on my guests.”

To witness, Gross must be witnessed.

As others judge us, we must also judge ourselves. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel faces the inadequacy of bearing witness:

Do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf? I do not. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.

In truth, witnesses should be scrutinized. Not their physicality or sexuality but their motivations. If they aren’t, how do we know to accept their accounts of something we have no memory of?

I have this issue with the journals of George Orwell. In the late 1920s, Orwell, already a successful writer, went to live among the poor in London and Paris. He sought to live their lives and speak their existence.

His testimony, however, was often unbelievable. Using detached, even vague language he writes of a friend raping a prostitute and then finishes the very short account with:

I describe him just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter.

Did the event really happen? And if so, why is Orwell so detached? And pithy? The novelist devoted pages and pages to opinions on hotel dishwashers (he became one for a short time in Paris) but gave only a few lines to this?

As the audience, we can choose what to accept, what to repeat, what to question.

A witness must pursue truth through judgement. Careful and deliberate judgement. Truth that echoes in emptiness and reverberates off stone backs of indifference.

Truth that connects at the emotional level and touches our empathy.

We might understand what the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ means because we have memories of those who have memories of the Holocaust. But what about in 100 years? 200 years? Does the Memorial still function as intended? Should it? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Even if we act and testify, it doesn’t mean we release the burden. In fact, the more we testify, the more we shoulder the weight. It pushes into us, becomes us. It can even destroy us.3

Consider British poet Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in World War I because he believed his purpose as a poet was to bear witness. Of this commitment, he admits: ”I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier but how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?”

Owen was highly criticized in a time when patriotism and morale influenced poetic conventions. In “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo,” he defends his poetry as witness and his choice to feel sickness – not glory – at death:

I, too saw God through the mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

Owen died in combat months before the Armistice of November 11, 1918. He saw five poems published. His body of work on the sorrow and absurdity of war-brought death, however, remains an unblemished testimony.

I conceived this post to consider what it meant to bear witness. As I dipped into it, I noticed commonalities of those who witness, what they endured. The word “burden” came to mind, but I dismissed it. “Burden” is something to associate with elderly parents and grandparents who refuse to ask for help for fear of “burdening” those they love.

But of course, it is entirely the same usage. Burden is something difficult, unrelenting certainly, but not something unwanted. It is something accepted, maybe even welcomed? It just is. (Like our abiding love for elderly parents and grandparents).

Of all the burdening aspects of bearing witness, surely the futility of the effort ranks among the heaviest.

We don’t bear witness so that minds will change. We cannot ascend into anyone’s consciousness. We cannot, as Wiesel writes, presume to speak for the dead. And we cannot make anyone know. “Would they at least understand?” Wiesel finally asks, unanswered.

The burden is to remember. To testify. With strength and compassion, we carry the burden of witness and bear the scrutiny it inevitably invites.

We do it to bolster humanity’s collective memory, to prevent injustice, and I think we do so because, ultimately, deep down, we would want someone else to do it for us.