Should I Forget that Night
I am not Jewish. I have some Irish blood in me, a touch of British heritage but no familial ties with anyone of Jewish descent. I am not a Holocaust survivor. What I know of the Holocaust is what I have been taught in school and what has been portrayed through books and movies. I cannot even begin to grasp the dark reality that the Holocaust was. It would be simple for someone like me to barely acknowledge the horror of the Holocaust. I hear no stories of a relative's suffering in Auschwitz or Terezin. I do not remember first hand the filth and misery of a concentration camp. I am barely related to the past hell of Hitler's genocide; therefore it is absolutely imperative that I surround myself and those like me with tangible images of the Holocaust. As the number of remaining Holocaust survivors wanes, it will grow increasingly more difficult for those of today's generation to say, "Never shall I forget that night." Through memoirs and narratives of Holocaust survivors, we learn how concentration camp sufferers were stripped of their individual identities. They were branded with numbers, stamped with stars and all clad in gray stripes. These victims became a homogeneous, faceless group. "Most survivors agreed that it was important to keep thinking of themselves as human beings, not as numbers or laborers in uniforms which is what the Nazis wanted" (Aver 23). Even as the concentration camps were liberated, ex-prisoners had a hard time seeing themselves as individuals. Without personal traditions and the freedom to plan one's own routine, one is not oneself. The Holocaust robbed people of their freedom and individuality thus making it absolutely necessary far especially those who are not Holocaust survivors or even Jewish to recognize the Holocaust as not only a crime against the Jews, but humanity.
During the Holocaust people were robbed of their freedom. They could not plan their day's activities, they could not exercise their religious traditions and they could not even determine their own mealtimes. They were forced to stand in long lines three times a day for some meagerly apportioned food. "We got used to standing in line at seven o'clock in the morning, at twelve noon, and again at seven o'clock in the evening. We stood in a long queue with a plate in our hand..." (Volavkova, 7). They had to follow strict schedules that told them when they could socialize, when they must work and when they must sleep. Without freedom to live as one pleases and the ability to organize one's own daily routine, one is not an individual. Concentration camp inhabitants were reduced to a lump of people who followed the same rules and lived by the same patterns. They were not seen as a group of individuals, they were seen as a herd. The herd labored every day, the herd was comprised of a certain number. People were not given jobs specific to their skills, nor was number three any more important than number four "The women go off to work every morning ...Every day we must remain standing while they count us. We report the number of the sick;..." (Kroh 21). Roll call was one of many daily activities determined for the death camp inhabitants. "The SS also used roll calls as a form of punishment. Prisoners had to practice removing their caps and slapping them against their legs in unison" (Lace 53). All these instances of stolen freedoms show how thoughtlessly the Nazis robbed prisoners of who they were.
Secular freedom was taken from prisoners of the Holocaust as was religious freedom. Respecting the sovereignty of religious holidays became nearly impossible for camp inhabitants. They did not have the means to exercise customs and traditions and when they did acquire them, camp officials would indirectly punish them. "They [prisoners] try also to respect the holidays, which is how I come to dread and to hate holidays, for on those days that are of particular significance to the Jews the Germans give us a little less to eat, forget the soup, reduce our ration of bread" (Kroh 32-33). Though it was very difficult for Jews to practice their religion, it was no less difficult for those of other faiths. "Lengyel wrote about a Roman Catholic nun who was forced to stand, nude, while SS guards stomped on her rosary beads and performed obscene dances while wearing her habit" (Lace 61). Religion was a huge part of many prisoners' lives. The ability to chart one's own day, including the sanctity of exercising religious customs, defines one as an individual. Nazi death camps saw to it that prisoners lost their own voices and became a single, anonymous herd.
Those who endured the Holocaust were robbed of their freedom much as they were robbed of their individuality. They became "sub-humans." No longer could they possess the individual flavor that defined them. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were confiscated, they were not allowed names. All these elements help make-up one's identity. Prisoners all appeared to be the same. They were bald, branded shadows of humans clad in forlorn gray/blue stripes. "In the early days of the camps, before special rooms for undressing were built, prisoners were made to strip and leave their clothes on the ground" (Lace 23). This symbolic shedding of one's clothes parallels the shedding of one's identity upon arriving at a death camp. The camp overseers did not want a trace of individuality remaining. "It [the clothes] would be washed- bloodstains were especially hard to remove- and any identifying name tags and labels would be cut out,..." (Lace 28-29). The clothing described here is that of exterminated prisoners. The Nazi's would employ still living prisoners to sort through the clothing and remove any fragments of past originality. The Germans wanted the prisoners to be one, collective issue, not many separate voices.
Not only were prisoners stripped of their present individuality, they were also flung from their pasts. Any item or object of intrinsic value that prisoners dared to keep was wrenched from them upon entering the concentration camps. Letters, jewelry, pictures and toys were confiscated by the SS. "At Drancy we had succeeded in keeping a few precious items- jewels, watches, brooches, souvenirs; for some we had found hiding places. At Bergen-Belsen that is over with" (Kroh 20). The word "precious" shows how much prisoners did value their possessions and how much it hurt to have them wrenched away from their desperate grasps. Nothing could remain that led people to believe that prisoners had separate pasts. "Personal items- birth certificates, diaries, diplomas, family photographs- were burned" (Lace 29). "Soldiers entered the cars and robbed us and even cut off fingers with rings. They claimed we didn't need them anymore" (Lace 20). Little mirrors of the past like the objects previously mentioned, proved to be impediments to the Nazi's. Their ultimate goal was to erase the Holocaust prisoners, to declare them a lost generation. Evidence of the past only hindered Hitler's "process", so prisoners were not allowed to remain individual. They were forced to shed who they had been to join the conglomeration of who they now were.
Those who existed in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust were not human. They may have entered the camps as humans, but they slowly degenerated into numbers and statistics. They were forced to simply go through life's motions. They did not have the freedom to pray or sing. They could not decide to wear red or grow out their hair. Prisoners could not even choose their own mealtimes or take care of their personal belongings. Those who did not survive the Holocaust and those who have no Jewish heritage must remember precisely and understand completely the hell prisoners endured. Survivors do have hope for the future generations, and we must not let them down. Survivor Ella Weissberger comments on a children's opera, Brundibar, that was performed in concentration camps as a part of Nazi propaganda film, "The memory is vivid, but I always thought that with the opera and the children dying, the opera would die, but it didn't. It is performed today all over the world in different languages" (Weissberger). Ella sees the memory of the Holocaust thriving through music, and today's generation must continue to immerse those who are distantly related to the Holocaust in testimonies of those closely related. A common goal for generation Y and the millennial generation should be to prevent another massive loss of identity. I am positive that if we strain our ears and open our eyes we can still hear the voices and see the faces of Hitler's lost generation. An anonymous prisoner writes "...go to the woods someday and weave a wreath of memory there. Then if the tears obscure your way, you'll know how wonderful it is to be alive" (Volavkova 81). The Holocaust squelched prisoners' freedom and destroyed their individuality, thus making it extremely important for those who are not survivors or Jews to remember the Holocaust's grim reality. I can't imagine what it would be like to bear a death-camp tattoo or to have lost a grandfather to Hitler's destruction, but I do know what it feels like to live freely and fully. Simply because of that cherished freedom, I can truthfully say, "Never Shall I Forget that Night" and never should anyone else.
Ayer, Eleanor. The Survivors. San Diego: Lucent Books Inc., 1998.
Kroh, Aleksandra. Lucien's Story. Evanston: The Malboro Press/Northwestern, 1996.
Lace, William. The Death Campus. San Diego: Lucent Books Inc., 1998.
Volavkova, Hana, ed . ...I Never Saw Another Butterfly. New York: Schocken Books, 1993.
Weissberger, Ella Stein. "Brundibar." Sarasota: Sarasota Opera Association, 1998.
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