April 5. America loses 29 more coal miners. April 11. The world remembers the deaths of millions. Each is significant. Each is potent. Each of these is a date that should and does humble all of us because in every way humanly possible we share the impact of them. Share in the excruciating pain and inconsolable loss that now defines a community and once so indelibly engraved the world with a common cut of eternal openness. That pain from so long ago and that pain so immediately connectible is about death and in its more resilient complexity, is about complicity. Today, Sunday, April 11 is Holocaust Memorial Day. The date was chosen to follow in a chronological way, Passover, and to also recall the morning of April 19, 1943, when the Warsaw ghetto rose up in noble struggle against Nazi troops, as those entrapped fought to keep men, women and children from the ultimate and last deportation.
Today, then, we also recall those other places where the Holocaust derived its meaning. One American woman, who made her living with a camera and often with a typewriter, as well, was present in a way must precious and demanding. As a journalist. Margaret Bourke-White, the subject of my ongoing research and unpublished biography in progress, stood at the gates of Buchenwald in 1945. She was there in her official capacity as war correspondent, and accompanied Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., in command of the U.S. Third Army. She later wrote, "I saw and photographed the piles of naked, lifeless bodies, the human skeletons in furnaces, the living skeletons who would die the next day ... and tattoed skin for lampshades. Using the camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me." Many of her photographs from this moment of anguish and liberation, were published in May 1945 by "LIFE" magazine. The magazine's editorial position on publishing images from the camps was that all who perished here would have died "in vain," if men could not or would not look at the faces of these dead and remember. Bourke-White was not alone, that day, of course, but her photographs speak empathetically to the enormity of what she was seeing and of course, feeling. Today, the image she captured of on-angled feet, toes akimbo, shoes occasional, all intertwined with heads caught midway between the breath of life and skull, was once again used by many to describe this time and to bridge the memory from 2010 to 1945. Her other photographs link her eye at the viewfinder powerfully to the eyes of those standing before her camera.Tears are my medicine.
Born in 1954, just nine years later, I am connected in a generational way to those dark days.
As a journalist and teacher in 2010, I am as bound to April 5 and West Virginia.
I covered coal both as a newspaper reporter and broadcaster in Raliegh and Fayette County, W.Va., and was at the sight in Norton, Va., when miners died so tragically in the 1990s. I recall vividly how their families waited on a bus, a witness to their violent in the heart vigil, as the mass of press waited to see their reactions and to ask the mandated obvious. I never quite understood the cliche of cold being bitter until that day and that announcement, that the miners were not coming home. I cannot ever understand how those people on that bus felt. But I knew then as a journalist that the goal of my profession was always, at the very least, to TRY to understand and in the attempt, maybe, just maybe, I would be doing my job better.
My daughter was born in Beckley, W.Va., and so was my husband. His father, once a miner, a former B-17 ball turret gunner and Stalag POW, is buried there.
One of the last large coal strikes in the hollows of West Virginia, against Pittston Coal ended on Feb. 19, 1990. Miners who were striking in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia ratified a new contract. The strike was epitomized by what were described as acts of civil disobedience, reminiscent of the old days of coal barons versus the miners. In excess of 70 injuries were associated with this strike of the United Mine Workers that in 10 months held the attention of both the nation and the world.
How many mines are still union mines in West Virginia?
More to follow.