Why We Must Remember
By Caitlin Young
Tallahassee, Florida


 

The Holocaust is a word that every school child recognizes, but few actually know what the word represents. Students learn of the Holocaust as a side note, something that happened during World War II. We hear about historical events, the Nazi horrors committed out of hate and fear, and the numbers who died tragic deaths, but we fail to understand what really transpired. We are told that millions of people died, but we don't understand that every one of those millions was a person, a person with a life, a person with a story. It has been more than fifty years since this outrageous human tragedy, yet mankind has failed to completely understand the lessons gained from the Holocaust. We must come to understand these lessons if the senseless destruction of human life is to stop, and if we are to honor the memories of those who gave so much in order for these lessons to live on.

During the first years of Nazi political control, the operative aim was not physical annihilation of the Jews, but Jewish social and economic displacement; their removal from German soil. It wasn't until 1941, nine years after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power, that the systematic murder of Jews began (Yad). "If I am ever really in power, the destruction of the Jews will be my first and most important job," Hitler remarked in conversation with Josef Hell (Stein).

Hitler attained absolute control over Germany, and other countries, and initiated his plan of European Jewish genocide. The first death camps were under construction by the autumn of 1941, and the first extermination camp, Chelmo, was finished in Poland, on December 8, 1941. An estimated total of 320,000 people were killed there between its opening and its abandonment in 1945. The Nazis established a special task force, called the Einsatzgruppen, before they entered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the USSR. Their job was to terrorize the local population and murder anyone whom the SS deemed undesirable. It is estimated today, that of the six million people killed by the Germans, half were killed in extermination camps run by the SS, a quarter were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, and the rest died in concentration camps and ghettos (Yad).

It is horrifying to look upon the numbers murdered during the terrible years of the Third Reich, but to fully grasp the significance of this atrocity, we need to hear the personal accounts of those who survived the Holocaust. Many survivors of the concentration camp have been able to bear witness to what happened to them, and they have told others their stories. It is these stories that are so vitally important to understanding the message that the world must never forget.

Elie Wiesel was twelve in 1941 (Wiesel 1), and he was fifteen (28) when he was forced into a ghetto in his hometown of Sighet, Hungary (3). Almost immediately he was deported to Birkenau concentration camp (26) where he was separated from his mother and sisters. Every day that he survived he was forced to watch the agony that his aging father experienced (viii). Upon entering the camp, Wiesel underwent the customary terror for all prisoners. Prisoners were washed and shaved like livestock. Their pride and dignity destroyed along with their physical individuality. They were placed in formations and marched before inspectors who would determine who was fit to live (34). Aside from this physical terror the mental anguish of fear and suspense almost overcame his desire to live. He and his father were soon transported to another camp, Auschwitz. Along the way, Wiesel had wrestled with the idea of throwing himself onto the electric barbed wire which edged the camp (37). Constantly, he was tempted to end his life, to end the suffering yet his faith sustained him; Jews refused to give up. He remembers as they entered that unGodly camp, they saw the mocking sign that is engraved on the memory of so many of the prisoners who passed by it. "Arbeit macht frie." Work is Liberty (Nomberg-Przytyk 13). Elie Wiesel is a testament that patience and will is man's liberty.

Wiesel carried a pledge with him, like many others, when he was freed from incarceration. His pledge, to himself, was that he would never forget his first night in the concentration camp.

"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 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. Never" (Wiesel 32).

The long nights of torture that prisoners at Auschwitz and other camps endured should not be forgotten. They need to live on in our history books, our classrooms and in our memories. Men could have learned valuable lessons from the Holocaust. We know now how hatred can drive people in power to commit unthinkable sins. As a tribute to those who died, humiliated and alone, we should have learned from past mistakes, and we should prevent crimes, like those committed by the Reich, from ever happening again. Yet, hatred, genocide, and wars against innocent human beings still occurred after the Holocaust and are still being committed today.

In April 1975, a civil war broke out between several political factions in Cambodia. The Marxist Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, gained control of the capital city Phnom Penh. This terrorist organization imposed a Maoist style revolution on the Cambodian people and the Khmer Rouge remained in power for four years, during which an ancient and revered civilization was virtually destroyed. Over two million people were killed by various methods of torture, starvation and systematic execution. A remark documented in the book Hear Me Now, by Cambodian survivor, Sophal Leng-Stagg, rings true for both the Cambodian and the Jewish Holocausts. "...if, however, we have learned nothing in the continuing struggle of man's inhumanity to man, we can confidently state that such 'lesson' in history will be repeated as long as they are overlooked by the world community" (Leng-Stagg 1).

In 1992 Serbian and Bosnian cultures clashed when disputes between race and land surfaced. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from one another, Sarajevo became a focal point of fierce civil war as Serb militias drove thousands of Bosnian Muslims from the countryside to take refuge in the city. Sarajevo suffered considerable damage as Serb forces encircled the Bosnian capital in 1993. Apparently, man has not learned from the Holocaust, from Cambodia and from Sarajevo (Sarajevo).

Time is running out for most of the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust; time is running out for mankind. There is a generation of teenagers who must learn from the survivors, learn from their grandparents and learn from history teachers what so many refuse to discuss. If we are to survive as a decent people, we must talk with those who are able to bear witness to what happened, so that history will not repeat itself. It is the responsibility of our youth to demand that the testimonies of the Holocaust victims be remembered, their written and oral accounts studied in our schools. Without accurate textbooks and willing teachers who will concentrate on man's inhumanity to man, my generation will be as helpless as the ones before us to stop hatred and racism. It is imperative not to forget. In the words of Elkhanan Elkes, leader of the Kovno Jewish Council, "...do not forget for the rest of your lives and pass on as holy testament to the coming generations what the Germans have done" (Yad).

Reference Page

Leng-Staff, Sophal. Hear Me Now; Tragedy in Cambodia. Told by W.E. Stagg and Jack Sandlers. Florida; Mancorp Publishing, Inc., 1996.

Nomberg-Przytyk, Sara. Auschwitz; True Tales from a Grotesque Land. Trans. Roslyn Hirsch. Ed. Eli Pfefferkorn, David Hirsch. North Carolina; The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Sarajevo. Encyclopedia Britannica,

http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/0/0,5716,67419+65727,00.html 10/04/00

Stein, Stuart. "Conversation with Josef Hell, 1922." Statements by Hitler and Senior Nazis Concerning Jews and Judaism. 19/01/99. http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/statements.html 09/04/00.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Stella Rodway. New York; Bantam Books, 1986.

Yad Vashem. "About the Holocaust-Shoah."

http://www.yad-vashem.org.il/holocaust.index.html

 

 

 

 

 

 


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