The tension between the physical beauty and the terror – Rabbi David Chapman

Posted on March 28, 2024

As we drive along Route 139 from Selma to Birmingham, I am struck by the tension between the physical beauty of the landscape — rolling green hills, lush woods, quaint country churches — and the terror that I know took place here and in the surrounding areas.  

These woods may have offered refuge for men, women, and children escaping from their horrid conditions. These rural churches and farmhouses may have offered — or denied — safe passage for people seeking freedom. This fertile land may have once been tended by sharecroppers or enslaved people. The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. 

This is a place steeped in history and yet it’s not a museum. People live, work, and pray here today. What do they think of this history?  What feelings emerge when they pass occasional roadside historic markers, like the one honoring Viola Liuzzo, the white mother of 5 from Detroit who was shot and killed by Klansmen as she drove marchers back to Selma from Birmingham in March 1965? How does one live their life in the shadow of this terrible history?

It brings to mind a train journey I once took from Krakow to Auschwitz. The last stop before the camp itself is the Polish town of Oświęcim, which is the Slavic rendering of “Auschwitz.” And yet despite its infamous association, the town itself today is a relatively normal place, with a charming town square and a medieval castle like so many other Central European towns. 

The past and the present overlap one another like pages in a book. Or as the antisemitism educator and artist April Rosenblum says, “the past didn’t go anywhere.”