APRIL 13 2010 13:13h
Suffering had enriched us, beyond our wildest dreams and expectations! This, after all, is the basis of all the world´s spiritual teachings.
Sooner or later, it was bound to happen that all the former prisoners on our special tour – whether veterans of Stara Gradiska or some other place of grief and suffering - would have the idea of adding up all the years that the group had served in prison. Drazen Budisa pointed out that our smaller group of four alone had been incarcerated for over 62 years. The larger group, which had come from all over the country, had served at least 100 more. Everybody laughed as we counted the years, as though they had been spent on some amusing project or endeavor, learning an obscure Mandarin dialect, sewing clown costumes for an entire theatre troupe, or building an escape proof mousetrap. After all, weren’t we free now, hadn’t we survived?
Although some might feel that the exceptional human being is required for posterity to do more than simply survive under extreme circumstances, to rebel, defy, and ultimately transcend, it is sometimes an extraordinary accomplishment simply to remain alive, and should not be underrated, especially in view of the rigors of, say, the water cell. Although the isolation cells were dark, dank cages, devised for hairy beasts of prey instead of human beings, the water cell was envisioned as an even more sophisticated form of punishment. Why not place the “instransigent” on a hard bed of wooden planks and surround him with water? Because in the isolation cell we were now being shown, one story beneath ground level, the entire cement surface was regularly flooded from an overflowing Sava which seeped through the foundation, creating a shallow lake around the prisoner’s “bed”. We walked carefully down the cement steps leading into the water cell. It was conveniently flooded on this day as well, so that our imaginations had no need to create the conditions under which the former prisoner had had to languish, marooned on a set of wooden boards, set adrift on a sea of sorrow, yet going nowhere, nowhere at all. Budisa had been consigned to the cell on one occasion for “insubordination”. I could identify with the practice, having been inordinately insubordinate all my life, but was nonetheless grateful I hadn’t ended up in the water cell. It sounded like a highly effective cure for insubordination, though.
Upstairs, Zvonko Busic was standing in another tiny, claustrophobic cell, just thinking, one foot on the iron bed. “This cell is about twice as large as my former cell”, he tells us as we snap his photo. “I just measured it.” We try to envision living in a cell two times smaller, but it is difficult. How small a space can a man squeeze himself into without having the life squeezed out of him? “I was comfortable, though”, he tells us, and quite persuasively. Meanwhile, Budisa has had some kind of weird, intuitive flash. He goes back to his former cell, runs his hand along the upper door frame, and discovers in the process a large, iron key. “If I had only had this back then! he yells as he waves the key around. “I would have been out a lot sooner!” We all laugh again. There is so much joy and good cheer, euphoria really, that it seems somehow obscene. Shouldn’t we be weeping bitter tears at the life that was taken away from us, the joys of youth, the natural progressions that were denied us, the indignities and deprivations we had suffered? And then I was reminded of a quote I recently read by the noted historian, Carlo Ginzburg, and how it might explain our aberrant behavior: “Perhaps for the first time I felt what I would call the ‘euphoria of ignorance’: the feeling of knowing nothing and of being on the point of learning something. I have often wondered what the motives were for this unexpected enthusiasm, which in retrospect seems to me to have all the characteristics of falling in love.”
Because we were, in fact, giddy, as though we had just been introduced to the love of our lives. And it seems to me that the love had come from the revelation that suffering, in its most exalted form, leads not to a desire for revenge, but to compassion and empathy, to a deep identification with the pain and suffering of others. Suffering had enriched us, beyond our wildest dreams and expectations! This, after all, is the basis of all the world’s spiritual teachings. To the Hindis, compassion is expressed as “daya”, one of the three central virtues. And what devout Christian is not familiar with the symbolism of the Cross? Compassion is expressed by Buddha as “that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.” And each of the 114 chapters of the Quran, with one exception, begins with the verse, "In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate".
Yet as we, the Compassionate and Empathetic, walked out the gates of the prison, past the crumbling walls and cracked plaster, the garbage strewn courtyards, the flattened blue shoes and mushroom bags, I was struck by the irony that although monuments had been built, streets and squares and cities named in “honor” of those who had created, sustained, and perpetuated these dens of suffering; in other words, the perpetrators, a symbol of their crimes was being permitted to anonymously disintegrate and disappear before our eyes. And then a perfect solution occurred: in addition to all the Tito streets and squares and cities and towns already in existence, why not create an eternal monument of the prison as well, naming it, simply, “Tito’s prison” After all, isn’t it the “honor” he most richly deserves?