I Choose to See
A Holocaust survivor wrote that “Everyone
tries to understand, both the one who writes and the one who reads”
(Steinberg 13). Ever since my mother first tried to explain the horror of
the Holocaust to me, I have read Holocaust literature of all kinds in an
effort to understand how such a thing could have happened. Although
reading the stories of survivors has given me a brutally vivid picture of
what a Holocaust victim’s life was like, I have discovered that to ask why
the Holocaust happened is to try to bring sense to a senseless tragedy.
However, I believe that from the proverbial ashes has risen an opportunity
to learn from the Holocaust about the importance of diversity. I can’t say
the Holocaust will never happen again; as long as there are those content
to live by the doctrine of hatred and ignorance and sheep willing to
follow such shepherds, the potential for another Holocaust will always
exist. But although it is useless to try to fight a hatred without limits
or logic, I believe it is possible and necessary that prejudice be fought
with truth. And, like the Holocaust survivors who have gone on to share
their experiences have shown, the best way to spread truth is to witness,
and then to speak.
Besides the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, there were nearly as many others murdered in a group made up of gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and other people with nothing in common but the fact that they were singled out to be hated. Those who lived through the Nazi terror and the concentration camps were equally diverse, not merely in nationality and religion but in why they, out of so many others, managed to survive. Paul Steinberg writes that “The sole common denominator of the survivors seems to me to be an inordinate appetite for life - and the flexibility of a contortionist” (48).
Hitler’s dream was a homogenized society: one in which everyone looked, behaved, and thought the same way. It makes me perversely hopeful to know that even with the use of “every possible means of state power” to eradicate the “men women, children, old, young, healthy, and infirm… as rapidly as possible” (Lipstadt 212), Hitler failed to do so. The “others” of his perfect society persevered. This should serve as a sign that mankind was not meant to be uniform and that differences between people are an asset, not a disease. Perhaps, the greatest defiance of Hitler and all that he stood for is to create a society in which diversity is a cause for celebration.
I would like to think we have learned from the Holocaust that regardless of culture or religion, we are all members of the same human race and worthy of equal respect. At least, one would think we would have ensured that citizens could feel secure in their basic human rights. However, September 11th is just one powerful example to the contrary. Even the ongoing violence between Israel and Palestine makes it evident that the Holocaust was not the last time man would be inhuman to man. However, there is something even worse than the attempt to justify violence: making the claim that it never took place.
The first time I heard of the so-called “revisionists,” those who claim the Holocaust never happened at all, I didn’t believe it. How could anyone refute an event that is historical fact, testified to by thousands of eyewitnesses? Nevertheless, “this relativistic approach to the truth has permeated popular culture, where there is an increasing fascination with, and acceptance of, the irrational” (Lipstadt 18-19). That these people could be taken seriously at all is a call-to-arms for those who believe that the fount of ignorance can be stopped by fact. However, says Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust researcher and expert on the revisionists, “debating [those who deny the Holocaust] would be like trying to nail a glob of jelly to the wall” (221). So what can be done to make sure that these “deniers” never gain enough support to cause another Holocaust to take place?
Livia Bitton-Jackson, a Holocaust survivor, dedicated her memoir I Have Lived A Thousand Years to “the children in Israel who, unsung and unacclaimed, risk their lives every day just by traveling to school… for the sake of a secure peace in Israel - the only guarantee that a Holocaust will never happen again.” Like the Americans who have refused to let the events of September 11th keep them from living, and like the survivors who clung to life and helped rebuild a post-Holocaust society that was more jaded but hopefully a great deal wiser, the best way to combat violence is not to close one’s eyes to it, but to refuse to let it stop us from building a world in which violence will be unnecessary.
Helen Waterford is a Holocaust survivor who lectures with a former Hitler Youth leader in schools across America. They speak about their respective experiences during World War II and ask listeners to understand both Holocaust victims and the children of Germany. Waterford tells in their book of a lecture attended by Jewish students who attacked her for befriending a former Nazi: “They could not see that to condemn all Germans reduced them to the same level as the Nazis, who hated every Jew, every gypsy, every Jehovah’s Witness. How long will we continue to hate, I wanted to ask them - into infinity?” (Ayer 218). Paul Steinberg, another survivor, echoes her sentiment: “I have no gift for hatred. I know what it’s like to be hated… I concluded that it would be profoundly degrading to play that same game and perpetuate the cycle” (174). If Holocaust survivors, those who have the most right to hate those who put them through such horror, are able to forgive, how can anyone else do otherwise? In fact, as Steinberg says, it seems disrespectful to those who were murdered as a result of hatred to carry it on in their name.
Therefore, the best way to fight prejudice and discrimination is through dispassionate truth. Ignorance is not bliss, and the only way to disprove people’s stereotypes is by refusing to fit them. My own avenue for this is writing. I hope to one day be a journalist (or a widely read author) so that I can share examples of truth, beauty, and enlightenment where I find them. In Parallel Journeys, Eleanor Ayer quotes the English proverb “There are none so blind as those who will not see” (171). I choose to see.
Lipstadt, Deborah. Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
Steinberg, Paul. Speak You Also: A
Survivor’s Reckoning. New York:
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