Here’s a story from Timothy Snyder’s recent book Black Earth. During World War II, a young Lithuanian woman tumbled into a pit of corpses during a mass execution. When the killing was finished, earth was thrown over the grave. Somehow, buried beneath the dead, she managed to survive. Naked, shot in the hand, covered in her own blood and the blood of others, she managed to claw herself free of the pestilent trench. Terrified beyond what is imaginable, she sought help at a cottage. She was turned away. She found a second cottage, and was turned away again. At a third cottage, she again pleaded for help and was refused. At the fourth cottage, she was given succor, and she survived.
Who lives in the fourth cottage?…. When the outside world offered threats but no promises, the few people who acted to rescue Jews often did so because they could imagine how their own lives might be different. The risk to self was compensated by a vision of love, of marriage, of children, of enduring the war into peace and into some more tranquil time.
As a writer, I keep thinking of that fourth cottage, its habitants long-lost in the horrifically bloodied past. And yet: whose hand opened the door in the fourth cottage? And who dwelled in cottages one, two, and three?