Sometimes I wonder if we have lost a chunk of our capacity to feel. Every day there is such a media-driven tsunami of bad news about people dying from natural disasters, murders, abuse, terrorists, crashes, bashes, plagues, epidemics, spills, pills, overdosing, starvation, and other assorted miseries, that even if one’s desire is to help relieve suffering in the world, or to have deep empathy, the onslaught is so overwhelming that we protect ourselves by shutting off feelings and our ability to feel. We murmur something like, “that is horrible,” we send money, donate clothes or supplies, and then we go on with our lives, braced for the next disaster. And when that comes, we say, “that is awful,” and our nervous systems brace, consciously or unconsciously, before another ingredient is added to the stew of horrors.
Recently, while traveling, I had a realization about what we feel, and how we feel it, when faced with human misery. It happened in Slovakia, which used to be part of Czechoslovakia, and has been an independent republic for more than 20 years.
My husband Paul and I were driving to Kremnica, in the center of the country. Our guide told us that gold had been exploited in Kremnica since the l0th century, and, in the Middle Ages, whole families worked together in the mines. She said that it was one of the richest towns in the Austro Hungarian empire.
The mine, no longer operational, has been open for visits since 2008. Each guest dons a miner’s cap, coat, lamp, and, with a guide, heads into the maw of the mine. It is dark inside. Very dark. Claustrophobic, actually. And as you get farther and farther from the entrance, you may feel a gnawing anxiety like—what happens if I get trapped in here?
I knew, intellectually, how dangerous the work of miners is. I had certainly read about collapsing mines, miners trapped underground, greedy mine operators who skimped on safety for miners. I had seen interviews with miners who, covered in coal, dirt, and soot, had been rescued after mining disasters. It was another of the horrors in the world that I tried not to dwell on too much, because I didn’t want to get swallowed up by feelings I could do nothing about.
My ruminations were interrupted by the guide. “Entire families worked in here,” she explained, as we walked deeper into the mine. “Mother, fathers, and children. They only got paid for the gold they found. And they had to pay for their own lighting oil, so they lived in darkness a lot to save money.”
“What?” I thought. No salaries? They had to pay for their own lighting oil? That’s repulsive.”
At that moment, a group of school children appeared behind us in the mine. They were lively and funny, clowning around, enjoying their school outing.
“The young male miners were runners, and they pulled carts at up to 9 kilometers an hour,” the guide continued. “They ran in almost total darkness except for oil lamps they lit at strategic spots.”
I began to feel the pressure of the miners. Bring back gold or you don’t get paid. You don’t get paid, you don’t eat. Save oil. Only use when necessary. Run fast with those carts. Time is money.
“Sometimes,” our guide resumed, “parents told their kids to run around inside the mine to create air.”
I looked at the school children. I heard the words of the guide. I could feel the airlessness of the mine. And I shuddered with the awfulness of children having to run around in their dark, underground working hole, to create air so that the family could breathe.
With all the world disasters, something about the intimacy of the story got to me. I felt such deep compassion for those families, and those children, and it was exacerbated by the healthy, robust, well-dressed and well-fed school kids.
“Miners died of exhaustion and carbon monoxide and rocks by the age of 40,” said our guide.
I wanted to cry. Those child miners grew up to be adult miners. They died before they had a chance to really live. I wanted to do something to help alleviate the suffering, but, of course, the families of miners were all gone.
Compared to other horrors in the world, the relentlessly difficult lives of the miners in Kremnica in the past was not high on the list of huge, dramatic events. Yet it was, perhaps, the fact that the awfulness of the reality was something I could wrap my mind and heart around that made it so potent. I was standing in the place where it happened. I could actually feel every word our guide was saying. There was no barrier between those miners and me. We shared a common humanity, but I had drawn the long straw and they got the short one.
By the time we sat down at the nook in the mine where the miners ate, and we tasted bread with lard and onions and slivovitz, I was silently weeping. The school kids peered into the nook. I turned my head away, so they wouldn’t see the tears.
Another incident happened in Slovakia in the capital city of Bratislava, at the Jewish cemetery. Our guide, a Gentile man named Josef, was quite knowledgeable. He explained that we were visiting the Chatam Sofer memorial, and that the Chatam Sofer was one of the most important and influential Orthodox rabbis in Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.
“There used to be an extensive Jewish cemetery here,” Josef told us. “In 1942, a tunnel was made under the Bratislava castle, and they cut into the cemetery to make a broad street. There were protests at the time about moving graves. The Chevra Kadisha (an organization of Jewish men and women who prepare bodies for burial and ensure their protection from desecration) gathered bones of the dead and put them into small coffins under the supervision of a rabbi. They buried them in a new cemetery that was built in l847 when this cemetery was full.”
I sighed about the displacement of bones to broaden a street, and thought it was insensitive to the dead and their loved ones. But what followed next was what got me.
We were walking across a cement bridge that led to a structure where the tombs of the Chatam Sofer and other notables are housed. “In 1999, this Kohen bridge was built,” Josef said. “You see that it is made of concrete and doesn’t touch the ground. So Orthodox Jews can visit the tombs which are preserved, and not risk walking over any bodies.”
What was it about these words that made me feel compassion for the Orthodox Jews? They had such respect for the deceased that it was impossible for them to think of unknowingly walking on their graves. They orchestrated the construction of a cement bridge that would protect the dead from the intrusion of living feet.
I was silent as I walked into the monument and down the stairs into the room where the important tombs were preserved. Somehow, the walkway had made it even more significant for me.
I am not a miner. I am not an Orthodox Jew. But I think with gratitude about experiences in Slovakia that returned me to the core of my feelings as a human being. And, once in touch with those feelings, I can perhaps find more ways to help relieve suffering in the world.
For more information about visiting Slovakia: http://slovakia.travel/en
X x x x x x
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel writer, author, speaker, workshop leader. She and her husband Paul Ross sometimes take people with them on immersive, experiential, exotic trips. For more information: http://www.GlobalAdventure.us