A longing to be heard and understood

Acknowledgement is the first step toward establishing a human connection.

Wally Santana/AP
Testimony: Trudy Strommer, whose mother died in the Holocaust, testified before the Senate Banking Committee about victims' assets in Swiss banks.

In the summer of 1996, I ran into an acquaintance who is a plaintiffs' attorney. Standing in a parking lot, he launched into a description of a class-action suit he was preparing on behalf of Holocaust victims against Swiss banks for their behavior during and after World War II. He explained how this suit was going to be historical, huge, and quite a story. Because I'm a writer, he offered me access to his office, his files, his conversations, and his thoughts. I could shadow him day and night. "What do you say?" he asked.

"Hineni," I answered.

Hineni, which pronounced hee-nay-nee, appears several times in the Bible. When God called out to Abraham, Isaac called out to Abraham, and God called out to Isaiah, each time the recipient answered "hineni," or "I am here." Whether a person responds spontaneously or after having quietly thought about the task at hand, when someone answers another's call with "hineni," the meaning is clear: I am ready and willing.

On Aug. 12, 1998, the case settled for $1.25 billion. Every class-action suit must hold a fairness hearing where class members can express their opinions about the settlement. Members appear in court and state to debate whether they think the settlement is fair and just. On the day of the Swiss banks' fairness hearing, the courtroom was packed. One by one people stood before the judge.

"I'm a Holocaust survivor," one man proclaimed in broken English. "For 4-1/2 years, I've been in camps, in and out, working camps as well as the concentration camps."

As they talked, the judge and lawyers listened. The survivors had come to speak about the present settlement, but kept returning to their pasts. Over and over they traveled back to those moments when their lives had been irrevocably shattered.

Hineni is also the name of a prayer a synagogue's cantor sings during the Days of Awe. One of the lines reads, "Here I stand, humbled and trembling before you to pray on behalf of my people." Humble or defiant, hineni allows us to declare ourselves. The day those Holocaust survivors appeared in court, they proclaimed hineni.

Most class members in a large class-action suit do not or cannot appear in court and thus are not heard. While the media offered a public platform for some of the survivors, most remained silent members of the class. Some were content to watch the case from afar, but many saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to communicate their personal narratives. They yearned to be heard. They were not looking for sympathy, but they did want a response. One survivor often called me sobbing. "What is happening?" she'd wail. "Why isn't anyone calling? Why no apology?"

As a single declaration, hineni can only be empowering if somebody is ready to receive it. To present ourselves to the world and have nobody acknowledge us is like clapping with one hand. Such silence can be deafening, as it was to the survivor sobbing on the other end of the phone.

As I was writing the story of the suit against the Swiss banks, I read Barbara Ehrenreich's book "Nickel and Dimed." For it, Ms. Ehrenreich attempted to live on jobs that pay minimum-wage. She explains how low-income workers are one of our most unacknowledged groups. Most of us don't pay attention to them. We discard a shirt on the floor of a department store dressing room without noticing the worker hanging piles of clothes, or we do not see the hotel maid or the construction worker's contributions.

After reading her book and talking to survivors, I found myself searching for hineni's counterpart, or one word that declares and recognizes the existence of another.

Apparently there is no solitary word in Hebrew or in English that renders someone visible in somebody else's world, that means simply and directly, "you are there." We do have ways to offer affirmation, of course. We can glance and nod and say, "Hello." Although gestures do not change anyone's lot in life or sound as beautiful as hineni, they do extend an acknowledgment of another's existence.

What the Swiss bankers failed to realize was that even something as everyday as a bank account offers testimony to another's existence. Acknowledgment is the first step toward establishing a human connection. The phrase, "You are there" is not as extraordinary as hineni, but the meaning is as essential, if not more so.

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