Within One, Within All
More than fifty years removed from the
Holocaust, the powerful act of remembrance continues both by a younger
generation who, like myself, are just beginning to understand the
inexplicable suffering and attempted annihilation of the entire Jewish
people as well as by innumerable Holocaust survivors who continue to
exemplify the deeper meanings behind the words of heroism, courage, and
dignity by bearing witness alone. Without the warnings of an urgent
memory, future generations, including myself beyond doubt, risk, by
neglecting to understand or even acknowledge the Shoah, being less human.
To become less of a human being, and in the most extreme but tragically
plausible and real of scenarios, to lose all traces of warm camaraderie,
human decency, and fellow-feeling - which alone makes life worth living -
this, this increasingly dulled and deadened human sensibility and
perspective is the worst of all existences, and exactly the emotional
background out of which hate was glorified, and the Holocaust was made
In understanding the totality of destruction and miracles of surviving from individual accounts, which counter the tendency towards abstraction, one can feel the necessity of looking back with simultaneous grief for the awful magnitude of sorrow and suffering along with an unflinching commitment to resist, protest, and never succumb to the many facets of violence and terror, which emerge anew within each generation, originating in the same source of blind, antagonistic prejudice and self-perpetuating hatred. This sentiment is poignantly felt upon reading a stanza of the poem "Picture Postcards," which describes one killing. The poet and Holocaust victim Miklos Radnoti, in a miraculous story, had his body exhumed from a mass grave in 1946 by his wife who found a notebook of his poems (many of which were addressed to her) in his coat pocket.
In "Picture Postcards" Radnoti writes of the death of his fellow prisoner, Miklos Lorsi. "I fell beside him; his body turned over, / already taut as a string about to snap. / Shot in the back of the neck. That's how you too will end, / I whispered to myself; just lie quietly. / Patience now flowers into death. / Der springs noch auf, a voice said above me. / On my ear, blood dried, mixed with filth"(Forche 372). One death. One out of six million.
The accounts of those who survived through the Holocaust, perhaps more than anything else, testify to the ruinous emptiness of human life when all meaning and value are discarded. Participating in the recorded memorial by Holocaust survivors years later, Sally Grubman described her remembered experience upon arriving to Aushwitz after living in the Lodz Ghetto with her mother. Prior to her description, Sally Grubman had just, unknown to her at the time, been permanently separated from her mother who was sent to the gas chamber along with the other arrivals deemed too feeble to work. "They cut our hair off, took our clothes, left us in that striped thing, without shoes. And something happened to us when we left that place ... We were like dogs caught by the dogcatcher ... I was in a place that looked to me like pictures of Dante's Inferno. They had taken all our documents, photographs, rings, everything, and we were in this tremendous place with people who didn't talk. They just walked aimlessly around, with lifeless eyes. I thought we had been put into an asylum for insane people. That's what I thought, and I never lost the impression that I was in a great big asylum with different standards than the rest of the world ... It was made very clear that our lives were absolutely worthless and nobody cared at all whether we survived or not"(Rothchild 2456). Aiming to strip the remaining Jews of all identity, dignity, and life, the Nazi captors, enchained by their own hatred, made those persecuted to feel less sane when they themselves had lost all sanity and basic human feeling. Ultimately, when human life is devalued, becomes nothing, becomes worse than nothing - is viewed with blinded, loathsome fury, human life and the human spirit, the most precious gifts of eternity, become as expendable as conscience and love to a murdering mind which, no longer human, outwardly destroys as if to make up for what has already occurred in its internal, emotional world. With hate, there is no life.
It is impossible to underscore the suffering of each individual, whether alive or not, who lived through the worst nightmare of the century, if not human history. In Jerzy Kosinski's mythical work The Painted Bird a wandering Gypsy boy witnesses acts symbolic of the Holocaust's unending cruelties. In one passage the horrifying tragedy at the root of the Holocaust's reality - the ignorant failure to recognize another as a human being just like oneself- is depicted in the elliptical, emblematic, painful story of one painted bird's death. "When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy, and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting brown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colors, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground. When we finally found the painted bird it was usually dead. Lekh keenly examined the number of blows which the bird had received. Blood seeped through its colored wings diluting the paint and soiling Lekh's hands"(Kosinski 51). In a fit of hate, the bird-catcher, Lekh, had painted this symbolic bird with the broad brush of prejudice. The birds, like any human person judging out of discrimination, see only the outward colors of a bird who is really one of their own kind. Why the act of collective murder is a question as puzzling as human racism in the face of our undeniable human similarities - known by all.
Holocaust survivor, Marika Frank Abrams expressed what it meant to live in a concentration camp, knowing one's incomprehensible fate. In the following remark she has just learned about the gas chambers. "Iran back to the tent and collapsed. I think I cried for weeks. I finally realized that everyone was killed. . . I knew it was true and I really didn't want to live then anymore. It's very easy not to live, you know, in a camp, very easy to lose that thing in you that makes you want to go on"(191). That anyone had any spark, any trace of life left in the concentration camps, forced to die, survival impossibly distant, is a miracle of the human will. Well aware of suffering's depth, somehow, accepting all pain, the human will to survive, to endure and ultimately prevail cannot remain imprisoned, just as the soul cannot remain imprisoned. Those who fell in death did not do so in vain so long as we, united in purpose, can carry forth and continue on the message of truth untarnished, embodied by the lives we live.
Above all else, one is a human being. From this truth comes the ennobling image of diversity, diversity openly honored and celebrated, found within a central unity. The unseen bonds which connect one to another in an interconnected, global world establishes our universal responsibility to act with justice, tolerance, and compassion, to act with the sobering knowledge of the vast capacity for hatred and destruction. It is a knowledge though that when armed from head to toe with conscience, dignity, and truth leads, not to despair, or even less to fear, but to the committed, unwavering determination never to yield to the malice of prejudice and discrimination. With this undefeatable lesson of courageous responsibility for all people of the world, for all individuals whose human rights are threatened with fear and death, there is one genuine lesson to be embraced, one that is revealed with undeniable clarity by the identities and memories of every single Holocaust victim, by the life of every single Holocaust survivor, and which can be glimpsed when looking into the light-filled eyes of every Holocaust survivor living today. The wordless message revealed by such awe-inspiring window souls is one I cannot come close to describing nor have the true right to do so.
The message of simplicity needed upon reflection of our recently passed century, needed now more than ever to answer the problems of human existence, is best revealed in action rather than words - for it is the active force of love and understanding, empathy and brotherhood which brings forth a not-so distant vision of humanity. A humanity which embraces the sanctity of each and every human life. The triumph of an elusive but never unreachable peace is found within the heart and soul of the human race. It is found within one.
Forche, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. Boston: Houghton, 1976.
Rothchild, Sylvia, ed. Voices from the Holocaust. New York: Meridian, 1981.
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