The Meaning of B1317
Sol had always
been simply "Grandpa", a kindly, helpful man who would make me omelets
when I visited and play ping-pong with me by the pool. I had always been
aware that my grandfather was different from those of my friends, his
halting accent, the numbers tattooed on his arm for example. But it wasn't
until I was 13, when he thought I was ready, that I truly understood his
I thought I knew about the Holocaust. I knew the numbers of those killed: six million Jews; 200,000 Gypsies; hundreds of thousands who were disabled, homosexual, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on.' I tried to comprehend the enormity by comparisons: three-quarters the population of New York, 260 times the population of my hometown, 266,666 times my 6' grade class. But they remained statistics. It wasn't until my grandfather's talks that these cold, neat, ledgers and columns grew faces, families, and lives.
Sol spoke of his home in Sokoly, Poland, and of his brothers, sister, mother, father, aunts, and uncles; one a carpenter to whom Sol was apprenticed. He talked of hopping freight trains with friends in the Spring to go to soccer games, of the new ice-skates his parents gave him, and of leaving his family and village on a Tuesday morning when his brother was shot and their home razed, to widen the street for a Panzer column. It was as much the clarity with which I saw peace interrupted and lives cut short as the sheer horror of what was to follow that shocked me; the personal connection to my grandfather only made it all the more poignant.
Sol told me of his family's capture, his flight from Sokoly, the liquidation of the Bialystock Ghetto, smuggling, capture, escape, recapture, sickness, claustrophobic trains to Treblinka, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Saxenhausen, Bergan-Belsen, bombings, loss, close-calls, slavery, abuse, starvation and finally liberation on April 15, 1945 by British troops. He described matter-of-factly, a world too hellish to imagine, things that made me cringe and shudder. Yet throughout the story, Sol was never bitter, never hateful, and spoke more with a sort of detached wonder at his own survival than anything else. His attitude towards the horror of his experience left me with the feeling that something good, some lesson has to surely come from this.
What lessons to take from the Holocaust has been the subject of books, speeches, poems, and movies. The consensus seems to be that it was a lesson in the capacity for cruelty in human nature, but more importantly, why it is our duty to never stand idly by when faced with cruelty and injustice. This is the lesson I take. My grandfather spoke of many betrayals. Not just active, malicious betrayal, but betrayal by apathy, of the complicity of looking the other way when the SS comes for your neighbor. Sol described watching the Allied planes fly over the camps to bomb fuel depots and how he wished that they would bomb the camps, or the crematoria, or the rail lines feeding them. He believed that with just a few bombs thousands of lives would have been saved, or at least showed the Nazis that the world cared. That the Allies knew about the genocide, yet did nothing, shocked me at first. I then remembered how those death counts had appeared to me earlier: stunning in size but still only numbers. That's how it must have looked to the Allied commanders directing the planes and to President Roosevelt whose policies denied safe harbor to passengers on the S.S. St. Louis. I realized how perilously easy it was to become numb to humanity and separate yourself from others of different race, religion or nationality. The primary lesson is to be ever vigilant against this lapse into insensibility to humanity. It is important to not merely remember that the Holocaust happened, but the lapse of individual responsibility that allowed it to happen.
When my father was my age he remembers my grandfather obsessing over whether there was such a thing as fate or if everything is just dumb luck. I think I understand now what he was asking. He was trying to figure out why he survived, while others more religious, smarter, or more talented, had died. During our conversation I felt that he had come to an understanding. The event took place when he was 16.
"On the train from Bialystock, two times I jumped, the first time there was a rabbi from my town. We knew we were going to Treblinka, which is a death camp, so we decided to jump out the window slit in the roof. The rabbi says tome, `Where are you going Shleme? You know we are going to heaven'. You know, many people believed they weren't going to die, they were going to heaven. So I said, `You go to heaven, I'm going to jump!"'"
Sol's story was wrought with instances, like this, when he survived only because of his tenacious desire to live. But there was also humanitarian acts of strangers, the unexpected compassion of an SS officer who caught him stealing his cigarettes but let him go, and just sheer luck. The Holocaust exposes the moral imperative to choose life unconditionally, whether that choice is as straightforward as taking the chance to jump from a train window, or as complex as reevaluating the foreign policy of a nation. Whether they are Tutus in Rwanda or Moslems in Bosnia - heads of state, humanitarian groups, voters, volunteers, and individuals, must make the choice to see beyond superficial differences to the fundamental dignity of life.
Unfortunately, the Holocaust was not the first, nor last time, a people fell victim to prejudice, hate, and bigotry. It stands out because of the sheer magnitude and organization with which it was committed, and that it took place in a modem western society with others looking on. The question remains, what can we do to ensure that our own society never lapses into hate, bigotry, and violence? I think the answer is empathy, never to allow other people's superficial differences blind you to their humanity. Remembering Sol's intensity and love, I think he was not just telling me his story, he was also seeking to pass the lessons of the Holocaust to a new generation. On one level I could see it brought him satisfaction and peace to speak to a grandson who would never had been born if the Third Reich had succeeded. On another level, he was giving me a task to continue to work against hatred and bigotry with the weapons of empathy and activism. The Old Testament says, "Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation".'" As the members of that first generation of witnesses pass on, it is my duty to tell my grandfather's story, in the hope that it will not only educate but also inspire others to see past differences and recognize the sanctity of all life.
'Frequently Asked Questions. United
States Holocaust Memorial Museum. April 23, 2004, www.ushmm.org/research/library/index.utp?content=bibliography/handicapped/right.htm
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