My maternal grandmother, the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, converted to Judaism in 1937 in Berlin because she was in love with my grandfather, who was Jewish. In 1938, when my grandfather was a little older than I am now, he was deported to the Warsaw ghetto. My grandmother followed him, even though she somehow had been able to acquire a visa to Peru. They escaped from Warsaw before the liquidation of the ghetto and hid in the Polish countryside. On Easter Sunday, 1944, they boarded a train to Berlin, carrying false papers. My grandfather figured that Berlin would be the last place the Nazis would be looking for Jews in 1944, and that Easter would be a good day on which to travel. He was right. Only one SS officer questioned them during the journey. For the last fourteen months of the war, my grandparents hid in the attic of a house in suburban Berlin – across the street from my grandmother’s Lutheran brother-in-law. For more than a year, they subsisted on two fifty-pound bags of food – one of peas and one of beans. Several days before the war’s end, the brother-in-law was taken to the town square and shot. Although the Nazis searched the house, my grandparents were never discovered (Baumann Interview, Segall Interview).
It is perhaps because of my grandparents’ experiences that I have always had a great interest in history. The Holocaust is a real and lasting presence in my family. What happened to my grandparents defined who they were. Their experiences made my grandparents act the way they did later in life, from hiding valuables in socks to suffering from a profound fear of the police. They were so traumatized by what happened that they rarely spoke of it until my father interviewed them when they were close to 80. Even so, some of the details, including my grandmother’s conversion, did not come out until after their deaths. They had repeatedly taken risks that miraculously worked out. But they knew that their survival was due largely to chance.
If one thing had happened differently, the series of events I described above could have been drastically altered. My grandmother could have chosen not to convert, or she could have fled alone to Peru. The SS officer could have checked their forged papers more carefully on that Easter Sunday. They could have been rounded up in Warsaw and sent to Auschwitz.
It is the combination of chance and the power of individuals to change history that has always fascinated me. The course of history has infinite turning points and infinite possibilities. To look at history as a progression of “significant events” is to miss the big picture. One bullet, one misplaced passport, one betrayal, one hour, or one individual can change the course of events.
The survival of my grandparents during the Holocaust cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the factor of chance, the “What If?” that hangs over every situation. Without the “What If?”, history would be boring and predictable. History is not a constant – it is a variable, changeable by the actions of a single person or by random chance. In other words, when chance gives us the opening, we can change our fate. I know this, because in my mother’s bedroom drawer is an unused visa to Peru.
Many Americans of my generation will recall September 11, 2001, as a day on which they first saw true evil. They will remember a day when they first saw what hatred and prejudice can lead to.
I will not be among them, for the story of my grandparents’ persecution had taught me about true evil long before September 11. The lesson that the hatred and prejudice in the world today can lead to terrorism, violence, destruction, and even mass death is not one that we should have to relearn. My parents and grandparents had the foresight and wisdom to share with me the lessons of the Holocaust. I learned about evil, and I knew its names: Dachau, Treblinka, Chelmno, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Sobibor, Ravensbruck, Majdenek, Theresienstadt. Auschwitz (Concentration Camps).
September 11 was the end of an era – an era when America was in danger of forgetting how powerful a force hate can be – a time when America was perhaps beginning to forget the lessons of the Holocaust. The new America has now tasted the bitterness of violence and mass death. We have taken a painful refresher course in what we had forgotten. We are no longer as ignorant, for we recognize the hate and prejudice that fuel so much destruction.
We must teach our children the lessons of the Holocaust. We must never forget what hatred and prejudice lead to.
I am reminded of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was incarcerated in Dachau and Sachsenhausen for seven years: “First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.” (Museum of Tolerance Online)
Some would argue that teaching children about the horrors of the past is useless. They argue that one person could never stop the inevitable. They say that there is no way one person can combat prejudice, discrimination, and violence in the world – no way we can change the course of history. Niemoller shows us that such an attitude can lead only to further horrors.
Nearly every moment in our everyday lives brings another choice – one that could, on occasion, change our lives. We can prevent hatred and prejudice from taking hold by helping our families and our community to remember the consequences of such evils – by speaking out, by writing, by teaching. We must tell our children that their every action has an effect on the world around them – that they can make a difference. I believe this when I look into my mother’s drawer and see the evidence of my grandmother’s decision.
We must teach, we must speak out, and we must write, lest our children make the wrong choices – lest the lessons of the Holocaust crumble into dust even before my grandmother’s passport does.
Lest we forget the consequences of evil.
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