“Opinions founded on
prejudice are always sustained
with the greatest of violence.”
The sky was dark and clear as Harriet
Sherber crossed the open field. The world was silent, but her mind was
screaming. In her small hands she bore her father’s saber. She reached the
center of the field, her heart, a frightened bird desperate to break free
of her rib cage. She stopped and glanced about, and then she let the saber
fall from her fingertips. The blade struck the ground with a sharp
metallic ring. Harriet stifled a scream as she fled from the field. I
listened with baited breath as Harriet paused, the silence on the other
end of the phone line was deafening. She had just explained to me how her
father had entrusted her with the task of getting rid of his saber before
the Nazis found it. No weapons were allowed to be in a Jewish person’s
possession. I asked her what the penalty would be if she had been caught.
Her voice finally came back across the phone. Slicing through the years of
pain and with a strange coldness she said, “That was the end. You wound up
in a concentration camp” (Sherber).
This had been my first encounter with a Holocaust survivor. Harriet
Sherber, a petite Austrian woman in her early eighties, had gladly agreed
to an interview with me. I was nervous at first. Would she break down and
cry? Would I be able to stand hearing the agony in her voice as she spoke
of the terrors she had endured? I listened for an hour and a half as she
poured out her life story. A collection of memories, carved into the stone
of her mind, which she had hoped the years would wear away, but now I had
asked her to re-carve them solely for me. She displayed these hidden
stones of pain to me and I will never forget her courage. She began her
tale from the annexation of Austria in 1938 to one month after
Kristallnact when she and her family had obtained visas to the United
States. She had been very young when the Holocaust had taken place and the
trauma of it had caused her to forget some of the more horrific events,
until just recently. On the “Night of Broken Glass” her family had been
warned by a soldier to stay inside with the lights off. They heard
commotion outside, and then banging on the door.
Their housekeeper answered the door; they recognized the harsh tones of an
SS officer as he entered the house. She remembers it clearly, “we waited
for his footsteps on the stairs.” But they never came; Harriet later found
out the sacrifice the housekeeper had made to save her Jewish employers.
“She bedded him, to save us. Nothing can ever compare to that sacrifice” (Sherber).
I wondered what Harriet felt as she looked back upon the Nazis and their
regime of terror. She replied solemnly, “Although I was extremely lucky, I
still suffered from the horrors. We lost all of our civil rights. You were
considered subhuman. When people are encouraged to discriminate and to
commit unspeakable crimes against minorities, it brings out the worst in
them. It’s like with wild animals, you just don’t look them in the eyes,
or they’ll attack you” (Sherber). She left me with thoughts of how she
fought the Nazis. Harriet told me that “What I am doing today and everyday
is my best revenge” (Sherber). She clearly sees that her survival and the
continuation of a good life is revenge in purest form. We must never
forget the truth of the Holocaust or we are doomed to repeat its horror.
We must value every life and the rights owed to those lives.
I recently watched the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” and I remember sitting in the
theater a long time after the credits had ended (George). My mind had long
been tormented by the idea of the Holocaust and mass genocide, but this
movie brought back a fresh wave of nausea and confusion. How could the
world have turned its back on the Rwandan atrocities? Simply ignored the
massacre of thousands, especially after what happened to the Jews?
Questions filled my mind like a flooding river. Has man ever gained
anything from the enmity of others? Our deep seeded bitterness at subtle
differences, are they born of jealousy or ignorance? Surely, mankind does
not think that murder, violence, and hatred can truly be beneficial. What
could drive a child to shove another down on a playground, or a salesclerk
to refuse to sell a soda to an African American? Does no one feel the
blissful jubilation in the heart by helping someone, by understanding
their views, or by treating them with kindness?
After I got off the phone with Harriet,
my eyes strayed to the window where I saw my mother planting some
different colored tulips that she was mixing freely. I opened the window
and asked her why she was putting the reds next to the blues and whites.
With a knowing smile she called back, “Each color complements the other
colors, the loss of one color would tarnish the true beauty the colors
would make when all together.” The epiphany came then, along the gentle
breeze of the springtime. God is the gardener of the world, and he chose
to plant us just as my mother planted the tulips, mixed freely together,
our cultural and racial differences accenting each other. If the Germans
had succeeded, the garden of the world would be short one color. The world
would be less beautiful without red tulips.
Knowledge is the first step to prevention and ignorance is not bliss under
any circumstances. If we know the differences in other people then we can
then understand why they are important. After we understand their
importance, then we can find a way to use our differences to help others.
The fact that others are different from us should be viewed as an
adventure, a chance to safely enter the unknown and return a wiser person.
Mankind needs to learn to step out of its comfort zone and experience life
as God intended. Racism and prejudice only inhibit us from succeeding in a
worldwide understanding and acceptance that might shape our future for the
better. If we ever plan to live our lives to the best of our abilities, we
must end the hatred, end the ignorance and open our hearts. Only then, can
we be the people we are destined to be.
Sherber, Harriet. Personal Interview.
February 17, 2005.
Smith, Julie. Personal Interview. February 17, 2005.
Hotel Rwanda. Dir. Terry George. Perf. Don Cheadle. MGM, United