My grandmother, Yetta, a dramatic, creative woman, was fond of the phrase “screaming bloody murder”. Her husband, my grandfather Sam, who we always called Pop, was more subdued. He referred to the same thing as “belly aching”. Both phrases are evocative, but ‘screaming bloody murder’ resonates more at the moment, the moment when so many are inclined to belly ache, and often for very compelling reasons. There is ample reason to scream bloody murder at this moment in time, when the habitable earth is being destroyed so that the profits of the insanely greedy can remain undisturbed.
I’ve been over the slaughter of my extended family several times in these pages the last few years, the six siblings of my maternal grandmother, the six siblings of my maternal grandfather, the three siblings of my paternal grandmother, probably all of my paternal grandfather’s, and I get why, on a subconscious level, my grandmother was so drawn to the phrase ‘screaming bloody murder.’ That was the reason for the banging of the drums that airless August night in 1943, and the dented, out of tune brass instruments, the drunken songs sung full-throatedly, to drown out the cries of those screaming bloody murder.
The mostly Christian town of Vishnevitz knew it was bad for the Jews when the SS arrived in the area, when the Jews were forced to construct a ghetto barrier around the small Jewish area, when the bodies of starved and diseased Jews, the occasional dead by shooting, started to pile up. The ghetto, behind barbed wire and crude fences and walls, stunk of death, but there was probably more crying and moaning, more belly aching, than screams of bloody murder.
History teaches us that where there is systematic starvation, rampant disease, filth, despair, violent intimidation, occasional murder, a dominant group turning a blind eye to the organized suffering of a despised minority, it is only a matter of time until the screams of bloody murder begin. That was the reason for the marching band, the drums, the singing and yelling — to cover the screams of bloody murder of the surviving wretches being marched to the ravine to be bloodily murdered that humid summer night. Nobody in Vishnevitz wanted to hear those screams.
“Not so bloody,” says a 95 year-old SS man dismissively. “First of all, most died from a single gunshot to the back of the head. They went quickly and there is not much bleeding from this kind of wound, nothing to compare to a decapitation or disemboweling. In any case, they were quickly covered with a layer of dirt and lime that absorbed whatever blood there was. Also, Jews were more likely to wail and keen when lined up to be shot, than to actually scream bloody murder. Don’t forget, these Jews had also been demoralized, starved and occasionally murdered at random, for quite some time before we marched them out to be done with it and move east to deal with the more serious numbers we were up against. They were weak and had lost all will to resist. I think ‘screaming bloody murder’ is more a myth than a reality for these people.”
Still, I thought of my grandmother saying “he was screaming bloody murder” the other night, maybe in a dream, and it struck me. They had every right to scream bloody murder, those who had grimly survived only to be marched to a hillside scooped out to serve as a mass grave.
The bones of my great aunts and uncles, their spouses, children and everyone else they ever loved, are still in that ravine. There is a plaque there now, I understand. I read a piece in the New York Times written by a woman who traveled to Vishnevitz years after this mass murder. She visited the ravine. It was during a dry season. As the wind blew, sandy top soil blew off the side of the ravine, tiny fragments of bone skittered by.
We are helping out with this kind of thing in Yemen right now, where mass death from cholera and increasing starvation of innocent civilians are the ongoing result of massive bombing and a Saudi-led blockade of food and medical supplies. The Saudis, our allies, need our help, there are rebels in the country of their poorest neighbors. Freedom for the Saudis is at stake, we do not hesitate. We sell them powerful weapons and refuel their warships in the air. What are friends for? Besides, here in America, we do not hear the victims screaming bloody murder.
As the wind blows in that arid land, sandy top soil blows off the side of a ravine near a bombed out hospital, tiny fragments of bone skitter by.