Compelled to Remember
By Christa Carpenter
Clearwater, 
Florida


 

Only Holocaust survivors know what it was like to have been dehumanized, stripped of rights, family, and possessions. As the number of living survivors gradually dwindles, it is essential to record their experiences in order to gain insight into this tragedy. Today many Holocaust survivors are willing to share their biographies, to explain the horrific incident, the "Night," that forever altered their lives. Imparting their memories to others gives purpose to their sufferings, for by doing so they help to ensure that future generations will never experience a similar fate.

The Nazis needed the complicity of society in order to purge the Jews, as well as millions of other minorities, from the face of Europe. A Holocaust survivor summarizes: "It is easier to kill a nothing than a somebody." This statement epitomizes the mentality that facilitated and allowed the deaths of millions of victims of Hitler's terrorist regime. The Nazis had to mask their atrocities, and conceal their agenda cleverly with the use of semantics. Through the use of verbal dehumanization, they conditioned society to accept the Holocaust "Jews" became "the Plague" and "Germany's Misfortune"; "Pure" Germans became the "Superior Race"; murder became "racial cleansing." Simultaneously, the Nazis utilized every means of governmental authority to achieve the Final Solution. Nazi fanatics authored the anti-Semitic laws that dominated the political scene in Germany from 1933-1939. The culmination of this legislation rendered the Jews powerless, unable to receive an education, own property, hold a job, or vote. In a mere six years, the societal perception of Jews leapt from those who had nothing to those who were nothing.

Few survived the Holocaust; none came away unscathed. They carry a tragic memory that will accompany them throughout their lives. Emotionally, some survivors find it almost impossible to recount their experiences. Those survivors who dare to explain the memory are forced to reflect on the most horrible period in their lives. However, they are willing to make that sacrifice. At 74 years old, Garmaine Pitchon is such a survivor. She is a human who experienced dehumanization; a person once considered "a nothing."

Upon entering Mrs. Pitchon's home, one is struck by the hundreds of family photos adorning the walls. Neatly stored in a cabinet are numerous family albums, which she is ever-willing to share and display. Indeed, Mrs. Pitchon's life revolves around her family. They are precious to her because, had not a miracle occurred more than fifty years ago, they would not be alive today.

Garmaine was born in Salonika, Greece, into a loving Jewish family and closelyknit community. She first experienced Nazism when her family was loaded onto cattle cars in 1943 with the "promise" of a new residence in an agricultural area. She was sixteen at the time, uprooted from her hometown and transported to the most infamous of all Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz. As was the routine, she was separated from her family, stripped, shaved, and given a man's pajama. Garmaine was sent to the notorious Block Ten, where "sinister gynecological experiments" were performed on young women. Typically, the women were led to a downstairs "laboratory," strapped to a table, and injected with formaldehyde. Often, the Nazis injected this poison into the woman's ovaries and womb, to test the woman's ability to endure different methods of sterilization. However, in Garmaine's case, the Nazis planned to sterilize all the women of Block Ten by surgically removing their reproductive organs without the use of anesthesia. Of the three hundred girls in her group chosen for "experimentation," she was the first to undergo the diabolical butchery. Some died immediately following the excruciating operation. The doctor who was forced to perform the operations was a fellow prisoner, who showed compassion to Garmaine, and devised a plan to save her. She recalls his whisper: "I am going to cut you open, but I will not take anything out. If they [the Nazis]find out, they will kill me." The doctor fulfilled his promise, and was later hanged for aiding similar victims. Because of his heroic assistance, Garmaine is one of two of the three hundred Block Ten inmates to ever have children.

Garmaine's miraculous escape from "surgery" was only the beginning of her concentration-camp existence. Prompted to recall the overall atmosphere of the camp, she explains: "In everything we were forced to do, they tried to make us feel like animals." They were forced to labor for hours on end, working at the most menial and degrading tasks. Garmaine was given no extra blankets for winter, no extra water for summer, and was rarely fed. Garmaine states emphatically: "Why should they feed us? They wanted us to die." To the Nazis, lives were expendable, for they could readily be replaced by other "specimens." Garmaine and her fellow victims had to live with the constant knowledge that, through arbitrary selection, the Nazi "doctors" could kill them by "medical" torture or by the gas chambers.

Some survivors determined to defy the dehumanization tactics that assailed them on all sides. Garmaine is one of them. After the Nazis had stripped her of everything that belonged to her-her family, friends, property, and even identity-she endured. Her philosophy was one of hope: "You could not live everyday being afraid to die. You had to resolve to live. You had to have courage, and faith."

At one time during her imprisonment at Auschwitz, she was visibly rewarded for this optimistic faith. Trapped in a room with fellow inmates, she had not eaten for days; "I was almost dead." Defying all rules, she reached up to a window, broke it, and screamed for help. "Then, a loaf of bread dropped into my hands. I shared it with the others." When asked who might have come to her aid, saving her life, she states: "I always think it was God."

Garmaine survived the depravity of the Holocaust. She entered Auschwitz as a young, happy sister and daughter; she left without family and with the utmost personal knowledge of man's inhumanity to man. Like other Holocaust survivors, she has used her experience to enrich society. One is compelled to ask why, for this is the same society that remained silent while anti-Semitism raged. It is the same "civilized" society that accepted the dehumanization of the Jews, and condoned Hitler's insane bigotry. Surely, Garmaine has just grounds for resentment and bitterness. She, however, does not blame society for her misfortunes. Neither does she blame any religion, stating that Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses were also murdered in the Holocaust. "I do not feel hate towards anyone. It was a small, powerful group of people who were crazy with hate that caused the Holocaust."

Then, why not just suppress the memory? Indeed, doing so for her own comfort would be much more convenient than attempting to reform the world. The answer lay in the common desire of all Holocaust survivors to prevent others from experiencing a similar tragedy. It would be irresponsible to remain silent. Her compulsion to speak echoes the message of survivor Elie Wiesel: "I do not want my past to become their future." Though the absolute horror of the Holocaust is unprecedented, there exists no guarantee that it will not happen again. Other minority groups are constantly in peril of systematic dehumanization and death. As history has demonstrated, "From words to deeds, the distance is not great."

What must we do, we, the new generation of the twenty-first century? Though we have not witnessed the hateful and senseless murder of our families, it is our responsibility to ensure that similar atrocities never recur. To do this, we must be perceptive and sensitive to the world around us, intolerant of bigotry and steadfast in our resolution to fight prejudice. We must never fall to apathy, for, as Elie Wiesel warns, "apathy only helps the victimizer." We are compelled to remember the victims, lest we forget the lessons of their sufferings. Empowered by their memory, we must exert an indefatigable effort to counferact the mistakes of the past that are resurfacing in our world today. Following the example of the survivors, we must imprint the memory of the Holocaust on our souls, so that hate and prejudice may never destroy another human life

 

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The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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