Ignorance, washed away

By

Stereotypes have never died, I'm afraid.

But there is a game which I and my family play to try and get our bearings. It goes like this: All communists are bad. All Russians are communists. All Russians are bad. All blacks are lazy. All Southerners are rednecks. All Germans have a hidden Nazi within. All liberals are wrong. True or false?

My answer is always the same: All of the above are wrong. But I am not reassured. A voice who knows my own heart counters: What if I added to the game, ''All ultraconservatives are wrong''?

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This is an old game and it continues to have great merit.

During the civil rights agonies of the sixties, it was easy to know where one stood and to proclaim that stance with assurance. Then, well-meaning friends, knowing my Greek passions and heritage, would ask, ''But what if they were Turks?'' (The they referred to the object of each current prejudice.)

It was (as the parlance of the day had it) a relevant question. It still is, because it is particular. It attacks my own upbringing, my personal prejudices.

It is this particularity I want to look at, but from a different angle.

Our Greek tradition has had many more enemies besides the Turks. In Macedonia , where I grew up, the most terrible enemy for centuries was the Bulgarian. When I was a child, there was no worse insult than to call someone a Bulgar.

During the German occupation, the garrisons that controlled and oppressed Macedonian towns were made of Bulgars, not Germans. All over Greece, the non-German garrisons were more vicious to the people than even the German soldiers. Among them, the Bulgarian oppressors were the most terrible, and the reaction to them the most bitter.

Children have to have clear-cut enemies, and I, a child in an occupied land, had no doubt that the Bulgars were the enemy. Nobody told us children that for a fact. We absorbed the enmity and fear through our bodies.

On a cold, fearful night during the occupation, Daddy told us a story from his own childhood. I have heard it many times since, but I always remember it as I heard it on that night when we sat close, touching each other for comfort, while the kerosene lamp threw eerie shadows on the wall. Like other images from those years, it imprinted itself into my being, to be called forth again and again when my soul has yearned for a particular kind of truth.

In the Balkan wars of 1912-13, our family, the Katsarkas, lived in Adrianoupolis. A Turkish city, it suffered a Bulgarian siege. The Greeks, the largest ethnic group of that ancient Roman city, were in this instance the allies of the Bulgarians. Yet, together with all the other citizens, they had to endure the terrors of bombardment and famine. The fall and winter of the siege passed, and with spring, the Bulgarian army entered victorious.

They found my grandparents' home a haven. Grandfather spoke fluent, classical Bulgarian, Grandmother was a superb cook. Officers and soldiers of the Protestant faith longed to spend their free time with this hospitable Greek family who shared their faith. My father remembers vivid details from those visits--even the peculiar ones that stay with a child. The men liked Grandmother's beets and preserves above all. But the detail that affected him and was to affect me forever after had to do with a different kind of food.

The family had the habit of nightly prayers. They read from the Scriptures and then knelt to pray. The Bulgarian Christians joined them eagerly. But something strange happened.

They wept whenever they prayed.

All of those age-long enemies of the Greeks wept like little children as they prayed with Greeks. They were tears of joy, Daddy said.

His voice comes back to me even now, full of wonder at that sight he witnessed as a child. And I see the upturned, shining faces, the tears streaming down the ruddy cheeks, exactly as I envisioned them on that war-darkened night.

In the innocence of my heart, then, the image entered and redeemed for me the Bulgarians' general barbarism. I realized much later that those known Bulgarians who wept because they loved to pray redeemed for me all the unknown Bulgarians who were ''the enemy.''

I applied that image to every generalization of the enemy. Even to the Turks. For it was my grandfather's Turkish customers who urged him to flee to the liberated part of Greece when the massacres started in Adrianoupolis, thus saving the lives of all our clan.

Again the particular redeemed the general.

As the war progressed, redeeming actions visited us in the persons of two Germans. Later, a kindness from one particular communist started me on the way to forgiveness for that group of people. Even with the cruel security battalions of the extreme right --one of their own was used to save us from terror.

I call these instances ''the Bulgarians' tears.''

I need these tears now to wash away my feelings of fear and apprehension, for the times are again troubled. Enmity and hatred are stalking the world, wearing masks for faces and carrying labels instead of names. We need the particular grace of ''the Bulgarians' tears'' to wash the masks away, to give recognizable faces to those who hurt and specific names to those we fear.

We need to be washed by the redeeming quality of the particular tears of our common humanity.

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