Wars between groups of people over race, religion, and beliefs have been fought throughout human history. Millions of people have been killed simply because of what they look like, whom they worship, how they live, and what they believe in general. However, it was not until after Hitler’s Holocaust that the terms "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" – the systematic destruction of entire groups of people for petty and irrational reasons – came into use. Hitler’s holocaust was different than all of the wars fought for cultural reasons that came before the Holocaust. The Nazis did not wish to simply subdue the Jews, oppress them, and try to force their beliefs upon them. Instead, Hitler and the Nazis wanted nothing less than the complete annihilation of the Jews, and everything related to Judaism. Hitler’s campaign against the Jews was hardly a war. Rarely did the killers encounter large, armed and organized bodies of Jewish soldiers. Rather, the Nazis encountered largely defenseless ordinary people: women, businessmen, farmers, and the elderly. Most vulnerable of all the victims were the children. On the weakest members of society, the Nazis showed perhaps the least mercy.
Children are always less suited for physical hardship than all but the frailest of adults. Children can not travel on foot long distances, go without food, or resist disease as well as adults. Clearly, this made them extremely vulnerable to the will of the Nazis during World War II. They could not endure the long death marches, starvation, and disease inflicted upon them by the Nazis as well as adults could. As a result, in a purely physical sense, the Holocaust must have been far more torturous to children than to adults.
Often, the Nazis specifically targeted children. Upon his arrival at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel was told to lie about his age by a Jew already imprisoned there. If he had given his real age, fifteen, he would have likely been immediately sent to the gas chambers. Instead, by saying he was eighteen, he was spared immediate death in order to be put to work (Wiesel 28). Shortly thereafter, Wiesel witnessed "a lorry ...at the pit and [delivering] it’s load – little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it – saw it with my own eyes ...those children in the flames" (Wiesel 30). Clearly, the Nazis valued Jews over the age of eighteen because they could work and endure physical hardship more easily than younger children. Not only did physical frailty plague the young, but also the Nazis used the mere fact that they were young against them. Alicia Appleman-Jurman, another child of the holocaust, begins her book with these words: "First they killed my brother Moshe ....Then they killed my father ....Then they killed my brother Zachary ....Then they killed my last brother, Herzl. Only my mother and I were left" (Appleman–Jurman 1). Alicia was only eight years old when the Nazis and Soviets invaded Poland. When the Nazis shot her mother in 1944, she was left without family at the age of fourteen. She had suffered enormously at the hands of the Nazis. She had been imprisoned, beaten, attacked by dogs, and given water poisoned with typhoid. She had been shot at, buried alive, and thrown from a speeding train by family friends trying to save her from the concentration camps. After nearly five years of oppression by the Nazis, she still had to endure another year of the war before she was finally free from the Nazism, only to be stranded in Eastern Europe with nowhere to go. Surely, her experiences were not entirely unique. Thousands of children in the Holocaust must have had similar experiences, making the horror of the Holocaust that much more terrifying.
There are many ways that the children of the holocaust can teach us to value all children everywhere. By relating the terror of the Holocaust, survivors can have a dramatic impact on the beliefs of people in regard to children. The sheer horror related by survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Alicia Appleman–Jurman can create such moral outrage at the past that people will be very compelled to make sure nothing like the Holocaust is allowed to happen again. The more people learn about the darkest parts of the Holocaust – long–time neighbors turning against Jews for a small profit, horrible methods of torture, and especially the atrocities commited against children – the more people will be determined to stop it. Inevitably, people who did not experience the Holocaust firsthand and think long and hard about the events that took place picture themselves in terrible situations. What would they have done if they were given the opportunity to collaborate with the Nazis for a profit? How would they feel if they saw their families brutally killed off one by one? These are questions that lead people to appreciate life in general and children in particular. People who truly appreciate children will teach their children tolerance of others, thus perpetuating the desire for peaceful harmony, and diminishing any threat of another Holocaust.
Another way the children of the Holocaust can teach us to appreciate children is to tell the stories of heroic children during the Holocaust. In her novel, Alicia Appleman–Jurman writes at length about her fiend Milek, another teenager. Milek does many things to help her family. He scavenges food for them, and he also helps to nurse Alicia’s mother and brother back to help when the Nazis infect them with typhoid. In a climactic scene in which a large group of Jews is being machine gunned into an open pit, Milek saves Alicia and many other Jews when he grabs a gun from one of the Germans and begins shooting at other Germans (Appleman–Jurman 116). Milek risked his life to save people, who by most logic were doomed to die whether or not they managed to escape. When people learn of great acts of heroism and resistance from children, they gain greater respect, admiration, and appreciation for them. Similar to telling stories of horror, stories of heroism can help to foster more appreciation for children. These stories can teach adults and children alike not to accept their fates in bad situations. If enough people who heard the stories of the heroism of children during the Holocaust began to find themselves in a similar situation, they may be less likely to accept it. If children can fight back against oppression, adults can do so as well. People who are determined not to let something horrible like the Holocaust happen again will not allow it to happen to themselves or their neighbors.
After she spoke at my school in March of 1999, Alicia Appleman–Jurman wrote this message in my copy of her novel: "A Tragic page was in history was written for my generation. God willing, you will write your page with happiness, love, Shalom, and a celebration of human dignity." Her novel and her words taught me the value of human dignity, especially that of children. Alicia’s description of both the horror and the heroism of the Holocaust had an enormous impact on my life, and the words of countless survivors can truly affect the entire world.
Appleman–Jurman, Alicia. Alicia: My Story. New York: Bantam, 1998
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam, 1960
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