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By Eric Lewis
Athens, Georgia


 

Wars grind to a halt. Mercilessly they end. Over time, public awareness of the ravages and brutality of war ends as well. Likewise, caring and compassion fade away as the days drift by. Wartime movements–drafts, rationing, tanks, and troops--stop in their tracks. Events and people are soon forgotten. Major and minor they fade into history as time marches on. Yet survivors of Nazi concentration camps can never forget what happened. Their memories etched forever in their psyche continue to haunt their dreams be they awake or asleep.

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself" (Wiesel, 32).

The few survivors of these death camps are living witnesses to the atrocities committed by Adolph Hitler and his followers during the different stages of the Die Edlosung (the final solution). Even today, several decades after World War Ii ended, horrific memories continue to haunt the survivors of the Holocaust impacting their daily lives as they recall the nights and days of Hitler’s hell on Earth.

The year was 1945. With the Allies attacking Germany on two fronts, the end of World War II was in sight. War hardened Allied soldiers seized enemy territory through sweat and blood. Yet, these soldiers (who had seen the carnage of battle) were dumbfounded by the horrors they encountered at the concentration camps. Piles of unburied corpses, crematory ovens filled with the ashes of the dead, and barely living prisoners are just a few of the gruesome sights that greeted the liberating armies. Those prisoners who were saved resembled walking skeletons more than fleshy human beings, and many were so malnourished that they died when they ate the food given to them by their rescuers. These traumatizing scenes became more and more numerous as the Allies pushed deeper into the German territories and discovered many more extermination camps. In the end, more than six million Jews were killed during the years of the war. Only around two hundred thousand survived the camps, ghettos, and death marches.

For these survivors, life would never be the same as it had been in the days before the war. "We were free, but we did not know it, did not believe it, could not believe it. We had waited for this such long days and nights that now when the dream had come true it still seemed a dream" (Rogasky, 157). After being kept prisoners for such a long time most of the Jews did not know where to go or how to start over. Jewish communities no longer existed in most of Europe, and if the survivors returned to their homes, they often found them looted, inhabited by others, or destroyed. Racial prejudices against Jews still existed and numerous anti-Jewish riots continued to break out. Many of the Jews had been separated from their families and had no one to turn to for help. Some of these people ended up moving to Allied military camps for displaced persons. While living in these camps (often at the sites of former concentration camps) individuals and families waited for a chance to immigrate to other places such as Palestine, South Africa, South America, and the United States.

Yet, while they may have been physically free to do as they wished, many suffered psychological setbacks. Life in a concentration camp had affected their behavior, emotions, religious faith, values, and minds. While in the camps, the Nazis had broken down the wills of their prisoners until many had become unable to think on their own. They had digressed to the state of primitive man where a son would kill his own father for a crust of bread. The Nazis took pleasure in their ability to shackle their prisoners’ spirits and to crush all their hopes and dreams. Many of the prisoners lost their sense of hope after their belief in God was erased and their souls crushed. Many men and women found themselves questioning their faith. How could God let all of this suffering happen to his chosen people? Others were only able to make it from day to day by using their faith as a crutch to lean upon in times of trouble as they had in the past. Wasn’t the entire history of the Jews—from Egyptian enslavement by Ramses II to the Babylonian captivity of Nebuchadrezzar to the Roman burning of Jerusalem by Titus—marked by oppression? Yet, no past oppression of their forefathers equaled the degree of evil experienced in the likes of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, etc. In essence, the prisoners’ reasons to live were crushed in front of them. Their individual spirits were extinguished. Their every day encounters with death hardened their hearts to their surroundings. When they were finally liberated, they emerged not as men but as broken toys that had been cast aside. They were different people in mind and physical appearance. Could they even recognize the grant appearance that stared back from their mirrors?

Never were these men and women able to forget what happened during the nights and days of the Holocaust. These horrific memories have been permanently etched into their minds. They carry on with their lives trying to support the emotional and mental burden that has been placed on their shoulders. Their experiences haunt their dreams and some of them go through life in a permanent paranoia. While they may be free from physical constraints, they can never be free from horrors they witnessed and experienced. Never shall they forget their loved ones from which they were separated and never heard from again. Never shall they forget their God, which they believe to have abandoned them or remained beside them in their captivity. Never will they forget the smells of smoke coming from the crematories or the stench of the corpses, which had once been their friends and family. Never shall they forget the eyes of the men, doomed to die after a selection. These survivors of the Final Solution lived through the most evil time in all of Earth’s history, and bear witness to the evil nature of man and the horrors we are capable of committing. These survivors came to the brink of death and were miraculously spared. The Nazis attempted to crush them and failed, but their actions live on in the memories of the survivors who shall never forget that night. As Emil Fackenheim, a German-born rabbi, has noted, "Jews must continue to live [and remember as painful as it is] so as not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory" (Oxtoby, 139).

Works Consulted

Bachrach, Susan. Tell Them We Remember. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

 

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.

 

Oxtoby, Willard G. World Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

 

Rogasky, Barbara. Smoke and Ashes. New York: Holiday House, 1998.

 

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. By Stella Rodway. 25th edition. New York: Bantan, 1986.

 

 

 


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