Remembering the Victims' Humanity
By Allison Davis
Ellicott City, MD


 

When I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., in February of 2000, the exhibit that most struck me was a collection of millions of shoes from the death camps. The sheer number and varying styles of the shoes bewildered me: there were fancy high-heeled womens' shoes, threadbare boots, and shoes from every socioeconomic level and of every size. Seeing the shoes in person made the event of the Holocaust all the more real because right before my very own eyes was physical proof of the victims: their possessions. Despite the shoes' individuality, all of them had a uniform dusty brownish appearance,which to me seemed symbolic of the identical tragic fate that all. of the victims from diverse backgrounds suffered. Moreover, the shoes had not been treated well, but had been carelessly thrown into lofty, disordered piles, illustrating the complete disrespect and hatred that the Nazis had for the Jews. This exhibit elucidated to me the impact on the Holocaust's victims and their humanity more than hearing the numbers killed or even seeing pictures of the victims. Writer A. Alvarez notes that the most critical aspect of the Holocaust is that "when suffering is mass-produced[...] nothing remains -- certainly no values, no humanity" (Alvarez 56). The eleven million people, including six million Jews, were nameless to their murderers, only identified by numbers. This is why we must remember the Holocaust: to learn the names and the personal pain that the individual victims suffered. They must not remain nameless any longer, and we must educate present and future generation about the Holocaust and its victims, honoring the victims' existence and instilling them with dignity that they fully deserve.

Emil Fackeneim said that for Jews to forget Hitler's victims would be to grant him a "posthumous victory" (qtd in Novick 281). A disturbing fact is that according to a poll on the eve of the opening of the Washington Holocaust Museum in 1993, 22% of the public doubted that the Holocaust had ever occurred (Novick 271). The fact that such a climacteric event of our history is not being taught is disconcerting, and we must honor the victims with respect by learning not only the facts of the Holocaust but also personal stories. As professor Mordecai Paldiel states, "The memory of the Holocaust will never fade or disappear. The atrocities are well documented and the documents well preserved" (Paldiel xiii). Nevertheless, the facts are not enough to do justice to the victims. Consequently, students must read survivors' accounts, which would allow them to empathize with the victims and consider the victims true people instead of a mass of indistinguishable beings. The victims had unique identities: they were artists and intellectuals, revolutionaries and conservatives, leaders and followers, they had hobbies, passions, families and friends, and each had a distinct outlook on life and future dreams and goals.

Students should also read Holocaust literature in order to learn the individual impact on the victims. Words are crucial because they describe an image but still give the reader the freedom to interpret the words as he or she desires. In contrast, movies tell the viewer how to interpret events, which may not be appropriate for the Holocaust. In response to the movie "Schindler's List," critics thought that "Spielberg had made a `feel-good entertainment about the ultimate feelbad experience of the 20th century."' (Novick 214). Hollywood has the tendency to glamorize events, which is demeaning to the Holocaust because it belittles it as a form of entertainment. In addition, the Holocaust affected each of its victims in a personal way, and it is important to learn the unique meaning that the Holocaust had for its victims and survivors. Movies tend to universalize everything, which debases the personal quality of the Holocaust. Professor Lawrence Langer agrees, "How much darkness must we acknowledge before we will be able to confess that the Holocaust story cannot be told in terms of heroic dignity, moral courage, and the triumph of the human spirit in adversity?"(Langer 158). The moral lessons characteristic of movies to not apply to the Holocaust because the Holocaust should be taught as a horrific, immoral event.

What I can do as a student to prevent such an event from reoccurring is to embrace diversity. Ignorance of people of different races or ethnic backgrounds breeds fear, and as has been illustrated repeatedly in the world's past, fear provokes violence. America is a haven for people of bountiful differences and in order to avoid strife we must celebrate these differences by learning about a variety of cultures and fusing aspects of our culture with that of other countries-in food or music, for instance. Additionally, I believe that in almost any situation, violence should be a last resort and that all disputes should be attempted to be solved peacefully first. As historian Michael Burleigh notes, "The Nazi empire was created by violence, lived by violence and was destroyed by violence" (Burleigh 481). Tyrants are typically born out of war, such as Hitler who was dissatisfied with the Treaty of Versailles after World War I and thereafter desired to unite Germany and dominate Europe and the world. Thus, if we can get at the root of violence and war, we may prevent some malicious leaders like Hitler from being thrown over the edge and therefore save the lives of millions of future victims.

Furthermore, we must teach students to always preserve their own values and not let others or disastrous events impede on their judgment. After the destruction of Germany and German morale by World War I and the impact of the Great Depression, the Germans were desperate for change and subsequently blindly accepted Hitler as their leader, endowing him with unfathomable power. We must teach students to never succumb completely to others' authority and to peacefully protest when they disagree. Hitler only had a small group of follower; at first, but thenceforth thousands of people submitted to him. If these individuals had asserted their free will, Hitler may not have been able to accomplish the extermination of eleven million individuals.

Atticus Finch, the principled father in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, comments to his children, "You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them"(Lee 279). Before I saw the shoes of the victims, I never completely understood their pain because I had thought of the Holocaust as affecting a mass of people in the same way, and did not consider the victims as individuals with unique feelings, fears, and aspirations. I believe that students should be taught the points of view of the Holocaust victims so that we may honor those inculpable individuals who endured the ultimate horror ever to occur on this earth.





Bibliography


Alvarez, A. Beyond All This Fiddle. London: Penguin, 1968.

Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.

Langer, Lawrence. Admitting the Holocaust. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner, 1960.

Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Paldeil, Mordecai. Saving the Jews. Maryland: Schreiber Publishing, 2000.


 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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