It happened in the mid-seventies, one summer afternoon, in the Swiss Temple at Zollikofen. I was accompanying a church member from Belgium, Brother Jozef Troffaes, then in his fifties. As was usual, because of the distance, we spent half a week in Zollikofen, to attend several temple sessions a day.
Jozef was a convert, baptized in 1969. During the Second World War, as a young man, he had lived through hell. Arrested by the Nazis for espionage at age nineteen, he had been tortured and sent to different concentration camps. For several years the witness of exterminations, beaten, starved, disposer of corpses, shadow of a human rag himself, he had survived, against all odds. Finally freed by the Allies, he returned to Belgium as a bitter atheist — his way to absolve God for the unspeakable.
Twenty-four years later two Mormon missionaries knocked on his door. They breached his armor. God spoke. Jozef embraced the Restored Gospel with the passion of a rebirth, the antithesis of all the blood and horror he had seen. Fervent in his faith, always smiling, enthused by anything Mormon, the former captive had made peace with his past.
The Swiss temple was a gathering place for Saints of many nationalities. Jozef and I were coming down from a session, still in our temple clothing. A German in his late thirties, who had attended the same session, exchanged a few friendly words with my compatriot.
– You speak German very well, he complimented the Belgian.
– Yes, I lived in Germany.
– When was that?
– I was a prisoner during the war, Jozef answered, smiling as usual.
– I’m so sorry, the German whispered. Where were you?
– Several camps. Auschwitz, Flossenburg, Buchenwald.
– My father was at Auschwitz.
Later, when I tried to remember every second of that exchange, I wondered what brought the man to say those five words: My father was at Auschwitz. He said it too quickly to have given it a second thought before uttering. But then again no German would ever have unlocked that dark, private closet, in front of a stranger. It dawned on me, in retrospect, that this encounter had been desired, for years, from an abyss of mental turmoil. The man grabbed the straw. I tend to believe it was meant to be in a temple of the Lord.
Innocent, ingenuous, Jozef did not grasp the aberration he faced.
– Really? Was he a Jew? What was his name?
The German paused. He lowered his eyes, his lips quivered. Jozef, abruptly, understood.
There was a long silence. The German brother murmured a name.
– I was a little boy back then, he added.
Jozef’s eyes widened. They stood there, looking at each other. The silence filled with images, raw recollections, of which I could only vaguely be part.
The German answered the question Jozef did not ask.
– The Russians caught him. He died in one of their camps.
They went to sit in a corner. The younger talked to the elder, talked, talked in earnest whispers. The unspeakable, in whatever form, from whatever angle, could be spoken here. I was not privy to his words, but I sensed, from a distance, the intensity of his needs. Jozef told me later, without revealing any details, that it was the first time the man had met an Auschwitz survivor. After three decades an anguished nazichild still needed to lift from his innocence the crushing weight. I started to understand the suffering of these hundreds of thousands of grown-up children, stigmatized as part of Evil, and ever reminded by so many sources of their history. A history they did not make, but carried in their blood.
Jozef sat still. He listened, nodded. Smiled. He and the temple imparted redemption where no expiation was required.
Later I saw them standing next to each other at the small counter where the paper slips for the prayer roll are filled out. Jozef had his left arm around the man. They were writing on the same slip.