A Father's Blessing
The Holocaust. It is nearly always spelled
with a capital "H," even though there have been other examples of
attempted genocide in world history. "Never before had a state... decided
that a specific human group, including its aged, its women, its children,
and its infants, would be killed as quickly as possible and then carried
through this regulation using every possible means of state power." That
is how German historian Eberhard Jackel described the Holocaust, and
perhaps that is why the story of the Nazi death camps serves as a
compelling lesson for future generations. More recent mass killings in
Rwanda and Cambodia remind us of the danger in thinking it could never
happen again. For me, it is the simple image of a teenaged girl being
blessed for the last time by her father that I will never forget, as the
girl was my own grandmother.
For most of my life, my impressions of the Nazi concentration camps were like faded black-and-white photographs in someone's scrapbook. I imagined frail, emaciated people in tattered clothing standing in the shadows of the gas chambers. The buildings, the ground, and the sky all seemed to exist in varying shades of gray. My view of the Holocaust became much clearer, however, when I retraced the steps of my own grandmother in the Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow, Poland, during a trip I took after my sophomore year with many other Jewish high school students. Losing their mother, father, and brother in the concentration camps, my "Oma" and her older sister were liberated by Russian soldiers just as they were being taken on a "death march" by their Nazi captors during the final stages of World War II. I had read the books, heard the stories, and had even spoken directly to the survivors within my family about the atrocities of the Nazi regime, but it was not until my trip to Europe that I was truly able to comprehend what had really happened there.
Many of my friends were in tears as we walked under the entrance sign which reads, "Arbeit Macht Frei." We saw the crematories, guard towers, and an endless array of barracks spread across the camp. The most difficult thing for me was to walk by the glass cases holding the shoes, suitcases, and even eyeglasses that are remnants of the shattered lives of the victims of Auschwitz. Author George Santayana wrote, "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." To create a world free from hatred and discrimination based on race, ethnic background or religion, we must remember and let others know about the evil that has happened before.
Just ten years ago in Rwanda, a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered within a span of one hundred days by the majority Hutus. An average of 100,000 deaths per day occurred, making the killings the fastest mass slaying in history. What is unique about this case is that most children of the country escaped, leaving hundreds of thousands of orphans throughout the country. A fascinating aspect of this tragedy is the story of two brothers from England, who had, despite not being Jewish, previously founded an internationallyrenowned Holocaust center in England following a trip to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The brothers traveled to Rwanda to assist hundreds of abandoned children there, and have also founded the Aegis Trust, an organization dedicated to genocide prevention. The generous actions of these individuals demonstrate the power of the Holocaust story, and help us to understand the impact it can have on others.
My own synagogue has also witnessed the vicious consequences of religious hatred. In June of 1999, our community was stunned by an arson attack on our synagogue by white supremacists. The fire-bombing destroyed our library, classrooms, and part of our sanctuary. The real damage was psychological, though, as this hate crime struck so close to home. When my grandmother heard about the attack she told us how important it was to maintain our faith. She has often said that her faith in Judaism was the main thing that allowed her to survive the concentration camps. In an interview about her Holocaust experience several years ago, my grandmother said that her most distinct memory of her years in the camps was when she said goodbye to her father for the last time. As they parted, her father blessed her and her sister, just as he had done on every Shabbat for so many years. With all of the horror and brutality my grandmother must have witnessed in those years, her most vivid memory was of a simple act of the Jewish faith. To remember the Holocaust is an important way to show respect for the innocent people who lost their freedom and even their lives merely for keeping their faith.
As a student, the idea of fighting prejudice and discrimination in the world seems like an overwhelming task. We hear almost daily about a terrorist's car bomb exploding in the middle of a crowded city or about a deadly military battle in a distant country. If I have learned anything from my grandmother's experiences, however, it is that we should never lose our hope or our faith. An annual "Walk for Unity" in Sacramento tries to unite people of different races and backgrounds, and I have served as a volunteer at the event as often as possible. More events like this would surely help to promote tolerance among people. In addition to faith and tolerance, though, I believe education is the key to wiping out the fear and hatred that seem to spark so many acts of discrimination. I was lucky enough to participate recently in our community's Martin Luther King, Jr., Day celebration, with the focus of the event on the 50`' anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, that struck down the idea of "separate but equal." I actually met Thurgood Marshall, Jr., who spoke of the civil rights struggles of his father's generation. It was a phenomenal learning experience for me, and gave me a much better appreciation for what African-Americans have had to endure even in a democratic society such as the United States.
What can students do to combat prejudice? We can learn and then teach others. We can inform ourselves and speak up when we encounter discrimination. We can step out of our safe cocoons and try to understand what people from other faiths and backgrounds really have to face in their lives. Mahatma Ghandi once said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." Remembering the lessons of the Holocaust and educating ourselves about others may allow future generations to bless their children free from the pain that discrimination and hatred have so often caused.
Black, Edwin. IBM and the Holocaust. Crown Publishers: New York, New York. 2001.
Gottfried, Ted. Nazi Germany: The Face of Tyranny. Twenty-First Century Books: Brookfield, Connecticut. 2000.
Mistiaen, Veronique. Offering Dignity to Rwanda Genocide Victims. San Francisco Chronicle. April 9`h, 2004.
Siegler, Ruth. Interview, www.mtnbrook.k12.al.us/mbhs/staff/leea/siegler.htm. 1999.
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