The Face of History
I sat at the table, impatient to eat. "I'm
starving," I exclaimed. His voice gentle but marked by a bitter accent,
Grandpa answered: "You've never been starving." Overlooking his gloom, I
replied cheerfully: "Were you very hungry, Grandpa, when you were a
prisoner of the Germans at Dachau? But then the Americans came, and gave
you crackers and tea, and you weren't hungry anymore!" Satisfied with this
easy solution to his plight, I smiled. "Grandpa, after lunch, can we play
This scene and countless like it are still firmly anchored in my memory. My grandfather's story was the background against which I grew up, and blended with the rest of my family history, over which my day-to-day life took precedence. Many times, the topic resurfaced - through a simple word, a twist in the conversation, or an image that prompted my grandfather's memory. Never did we dwell on the subject for more than a few minutes. The fact that it was always there made it almost invisible.
I never quite connected my grandfather's memories with specific historical events, even as I grew older. His experience seemed so ordinary that I could not associate it with the shocking inhumanity of the Holocaust. Yet, when I turned sixteen, curiosity pushed me to ask him about his nine months in the prison camp. What I learned was beyond anything I had imagined or anything I was prepared for. He talked of war, prison and death, of injustice, horrors and violence - but the story is his to tell; it belongs to him. Nothing that I could say would be enough to grasp the reality of his past.
When his eyes blurred up and tears rolled down his face, I saw, for the first time, the depth of the wound he carried inside his heart since 1945. My stomach dropped and my throat tightened as I fought back my own tears. I felt an acute sense of helplessness because, in all my sixteen years, I had never guessed that he carried this pain. In fact, I realized that I had never understood all that he was. I had never known him beyond his role as my grandfather. He was the man who had played hide-and-seek with me as a child, the one who had given me my first chewing gum. But, I now understood, he was also the youngest member of the armed resistance of France. He was a man who had met death and suffering multiple times over. He was a man who had seen horrors he still couldn't understand. I now realized that he was shaped and molded by his past, to this day. Each line on his face was more than the passage of time - it represented a chapter in the story of an entire life, a chapt in history.
It is now clear to me that this very past influences each and every one of us. It is present throughout childhood - it colors our days, changes our dreams, and adds depth to our bedtime stories. It is embodied by the generations before us, captured in the old photographs, and lives on through old objects filled with meaning. Wars that have shaped the world have changed the mentality of entire peoples, thus influencing who we are and what we become. I now feel connected to the prisoners who suffered in Dachau, and the soldiers who died to save them. History is no longer a class that I simply sit through, but a vibrant part of who I am. I feel this part of me as a powerful wave of energy within, urging me to learn more, and to strive to do justice to my heritage through what I will become.
The story of the holocaust has shaped generations of people and has taught a lesson that stays anchored in hearts, minds and souls. For many of us, it remains particularly alive today. For some, such as my grandfather, it is a vivid memory, a nightmare relived day after day. For others, such as myself, it is a story that creeps from the past through the eyes of loved ones, and that impacts our lives indirectly but poignantly. Yet, as time goes on, connections to the Holocaust will thin out with each additional generation. This leaves an important mission to students today. It is our duty to ensure that the lesson be passed forward intact, with all its strength and vitality. We must carry with us the idea of Never Again, by fighting discrimination, racism and violence. By furthering our studies of the past, valuing the experiences of our grandfathers and grandmothers, and applying our knowledge to today's world, we can raise our own awareness in our understanding of politics and world events, but also in our own lives. Big actions as well as small will change attitudes and mindsets. We have to believe in the power of knowledge to affect change. We have to believe in ourselves. Most of all, we have to hold on to the memories and remember always what they teach us.
THIS ESSAY IS A TRUE STORY
William J Vanden Heuvel. The Holocaust,
(published in American Heritage, July/august 1999)
Richard R. Lingeman. The Home Front during World War Two.
Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here.
New York: Doran, 1935, 74-83
Loeb, Harold, and Selden Rodman. "American Fascism in Embryo." The New Republic 77. no. 995. December 27, 1933, 185-87
Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of
the Third Reich. New York: Random House, 1950.
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