Remembering the Holocaust:
Finding Hope in the Horror

By Carlyn Mcallister
Franklin, NC


 

I ran my hand over the black-and-white photograph, willing myself to enter the scene. The faded barracks in the distance, the famished prisoners that lined the barbed-wire fence, their searching eyes piercing through the camera lens to stare at me. Several soldiers stood near the starving people, handing cigarettes and cans of food through the sharp wire. The caption underneath the photograph read, "Hope arrives with the Allied forces."

Liberation. Freedom. Hope. What did those words mean to Jews imprisoned in a concentration camp in World War II? When the iron gates of Ravensbruck swung open and they walked out into broad daylight; when they were no longer a number but had a name again. What did it feel like to leave the barracks of Auschwitz, turning away from mass graves of thousands? Leaving behind fellow countrymen, neighbors, and children whose eyes had been closed for the last time.
I could almost see the cold sky, and feel the hateful sunlight. The horrid smell of burning flesh and the sickening sight of merciless torture. Feeling alone, yet surrounded by thousands. Pronounced guilty, yet never having committed a crime. Experts in killing not just the body but also the soul, the Nazi regime indoctrinated thousands and held their minds hostage in totalitarian rule. They imprisoned the heart. And they killed the will.
I abruptly closed the book, sealing out the photographs and all the images that flooded my mind. I try to convince myself that this was in the past. Just a part of war—only dates, places and names for me to memorize to pass my next history quiz.

And yet I knew there was something more.

It intrigues me that World War II is included as a section of our history books and a piece of our heritage, but is quickly fading from being a part of our lives. Those who were involved in the war, from military resistance to survivors of the concentration camps, are getting older, and the number of those still alive has greatly diminished in the past few years alone. So many stories are being left untold, forgotten and silenced by the deaths of their witnesses. By learning the stories we have been given, we can dramatically increase our understanding of the war, and more specifically, our knowledge of the Holocaust.

We know that Jewish persecution under the Nazi regime was not a result of rash decisions made by a few German soldiers, but rather was a carefully conceived plan by the brilliant and yet shrewd leader, Adolph Hitler. He spurred German followers to create such a culture of hateful animosity that they followed his brutal orders of murder and annihilation without question. Carefully concealing their deeds from the rest of the world, Hitler indoctrinated Germany with beliefs of supremacy and acrimony. Nazi victories against countries of the free world were astonishing, and were continuing to heighten around 1941, when the German army decided to launch their first attack against the US, choosing Pearl Harbor as their target. After suffering personal casualties, The United States struck back with force and determination, becoming heavily involved in the war that was now affecting the entire world. But it was not until the Allied forces finally broke through enemy lines in 1944-45, that the world discovered the extent of horror that had taken place and the humanitarian crimes that were committed under Nazi rule.

As an American-born teenager who has lived in the States my entire life, I am so far removed from what took place during the time of the Holocaust. But my heart still grieves to think of the number of lives snuffed out by the forces of cruelty. Though the Germans tried desperately to destroy the evidence of their crimes, they left many pieces for us to find and reflect upon. After the liberation of the Jews, various photographs and news pieces were produced in the coming weeks and months that attempted to expose the truth to the public eye. But it is the heart-rending accounts of those who were first upon the scenes of the concentration camps that make lasting impressions on my mind. Many of them were only common soldiers in the Allied army. Men with wives and families and a home to go back to after the war ended. But one morning they woke up—and found that just over the hill was a mass graveyard of victims, and that beyond the next bend in the road were thousands of prisoners starving and near death. They were not the only ones who woke up that morning. Though it took many years to fully come to light, the truth of the Holocaust was eventually uncovered, and the world witnessed the hell hatred can create.

But yet the story does not end there. For in the midst of horror and heartbreak, hope can spring forth with renewed desire and relentless passion. Stories of resistance and sabotage in the most helpless of situations reveal a fierce spirit of the Jews and others who were determined to fight back. German guards armed with machine guns were put to shame by Jews with brilliant strategies in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, led by a twenty-three year old Polish civilian. Treblinka, a death camp run by the Nazis, was successfully blown up by seven hundred Jews, killing over twenty German soldiers. Raoul Wallenberg forged false Swedish passports for over 30,000 Jews, providing for them safe passage from certain death.

And yet with these heroic stories are the harsh consequences of their actions. Mordecai Anielewicz bravely led the Warsaw Uprising, but committed suicide to avoid getting captured for information concerning the underground just before the Germans broke through the ghetto barricade. The Treblinka bombing killed over 500 Jews along with the prison guards, and Raoul Wallenberg was arrested for his illegal activities and later died in a prison labor camp. Yet countless other men and women dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom, and were willing to give extraordinary means of self-sacrifice. Their stubborn wills made them determined to survive.

The Holocaust intrigues me. It also grieves me. And yet it inspires me.

By remembering those who have suffered, we can avoid a recurrence of that same tragedy. By honoring the innocent lives snuffed out by the darkness of injustice we can create a better world where freedom is as vital as the air we breathe. With tribute for those lost, heartache for the vanished, and respect for those who gave everything, we can find a future. A future where each is as good as the other, and no one is above or beneath us. Where individual responsibility takes the lead, and our actions are driven by compassion.

I slowly close the book, not with haste, but with honor. This is my history. And I am grateful for it.

Referenced Material

The IB Holocaust Project, http://cghs.dade.k!2.fl.us/holocaust/resistancel.htm

Holocaust Survivors, http://www.holocaustsurvivors.org

Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, by Joshua M. Greene

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

Warsaw Uprising, from Project in Posterum, http://www.warsawuprising.com
 

Auschwitz-Birkenau, photos by Alan Jacobs, http://www.remember.org/Jacobs
 

The Pianist, by Wladyslaw Szpilman
 

 


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