Statistics or People:
Helene Najman was fifteen years old when she
was deported on August 3rd, 1942, from the French transit camp Pithiviers
directly to Auschwitz. Out of the 1,034 total deportees in her convoy,
only six were surviving in 1945. She was not one of them.
I never met Helene, or found out much more about her than her name, her address, and the date of her deportation. I have, however, seen her face. Three years ago I discovered a photograph of Helene, her mother, and her three younger siblings in the book "French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial". The book contains photographs of 2,500 of the 11,000 French Jewish children deported during World War II. Helene was just a name out of many, a face out of thousands. Still, there was something about her and her family that was compelling to me. Her mother's smile was distant, her little sister's look was shy, her brother seemed proud in a smart sailor suit. I turned to the page she was on, looked down at the photograph, and recognized something. I looked at her and saw a friend.
When I wrote a story about Helene and her life, I was trying to understand what it must truly have been like for Jews living under the Nazi regime. I was trying to understand feelings that, because of the country I live in and the government that runs it, I have never had. More than that, though, I was trying to give Helene a little of her life back. I could not find any record that Helene Najman once lived, other than a photograph in a book and a short paragraph underneath. All that is left of her is a face, a convoy number, and her final destination. There is nothing concrete that remains that details her personality, her favorite book or most fervent desire. This photograph of Helene and her family stands as the only testimony that they once existed.
"The French Children of the Holocaust" epitomizes what I have been struggling to achieve personally for the five years I have been researching the Holocaust. This book turned the numbers of the Holocaust into names, into faces, into lives. Too often the Holocaust is explained solely through its numbers of victims - one and a half million, six million, eleven million. It is too easy to forget the people who made up those numbers. Only when numbers are linked to names, names are linked to faces, and faces to lives, does the Holocaust and its incredible death toll become so horrific. It is unfathomable to envision a life reduced to a mere number. Between one and eleven million: that was all so many were left with. By viewing them as numbers instead of people, in essence we are treating them the same way the Nazis did: as if they were not even human.
One of the most important lessons that can be taken from the Holocaust is the realization of what was lost. Every single person who was murdered had a name, a face, a story. These people had fears, passions, dreams. There were eleven million of them, and now, instead of being remembered as the joker, the actress, the scholar, they are reduced to simply being one of the victims.
This last summer I traveled to Dachau, Germany to take part in an International Youth Meeting focusing on the Holocaust. The Meeting regularly hosts youth from over seventeen different countries and is located directly across from the original entrance to Dachau concentration camp. Attending the Meeting was the most incredible experience of my life. As well as visiting concentration camps and other sites of Nazi atrocities, I got the chance to interview many witnesses of the Holocaust, from survivors to Nazi resistors. However, the most powerful part of my trip was getting to know other youth from all around the world.
I shared a room with girls from France, Serbia and Israel, chatted about music with people from Italy, and went on runs with a boy from Slovakia. While I was at the Meeting I discovered how much more alike people are than different. For two weeks I was surrounded by people with different accents and languages, who came from different countries and cultures than I do, and I grew to love them all. A young woman from Kazakhstan reminded me of a cousin, a friend from Poland had the same smile as my brother, one of my roommates had a laugh like an acquaintance in the United States. When youth from so many different worlds came together, stereotypes broke down and awareness and understanding took their places. In those two weeks I learned more about the world than I have in fifteen years of watching "World News" on television and reading newspaper articles about foreign countries.
So much of the intolerance that exists in the world stems from simply being ignorant and unaware of different ways of life. If more youth had the chance to meet, face-to-face, with other youth around the world, I believe that violence between countries, as well as harmful prejudices between different religions and ethnic groups, would be greatly reduced. It is only when people are dehumanized that genocide and mass murder can be carried out. By separating people into races and religions and then determining that certain ones are lower than the rest, people create opportunities for racism, prejudice and bigotry to thrive. The Holocaust is the biggest example of what can occur when discrimination goes unchecked.
From my study of the Holocaust and my visit to Germany, I have learned of the terrible repercussions such actions have, and how much can be gained when people are viewed as individuals, their distinguishing features seen as attributes, not flaws. In reality, there is no "them" or "us". It is only when people realize this that prejudice and violence can be eliminated. As Anne Frank once said: "We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same."
We must remember the Holocaust for the victims who died, the victims who lived, and for ourselves, so we become neither victims nor perpetrators. Soon, no first-person witnesses of the Holocaust will be left. It will be up to us, the youth of the world, to carry on the memory of the horrors that took place in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Millions of innocent people were murdered, their voices forever silenced, their stories destined to never be told. By taking history a step further, and personalizing the facts, recognizing the human worth of each of the victims, and realizing the value of every single being we live alongside, another Holocaust can be prevented. By speaking, the survivors and other witnesses have done their part to educate the world. Now the stories are in our hands. It is up to us to pass on the messages they carry. It is up to us to use them.
Klarsfeld, Serge. 1996. French Children of the Holocaust. New York University Press
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