If I am only for me, what am I?
On Kristallnacht in 1938, my 12-year-old father and his family hid in the attic while the Nazis smashed their apartment and pushed the piano out the second story window. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather was taken to Buchenwald without notifying his family where he was or why he was gone. Less than a year later my father traveled alone with a numbered tag around his neck on one of the last of the Kinder Transports (trains carrying thousands of Jewish children with no money and only what they could carry) out of Germany, making his way to England. He knew no one, didn’t speak the language and didn’t know if he would ever see anyone from his family again.
As a child, I never really liked my father''s stories. They were too full of suffering and strife, too removed in time and place from my childhood. I remember acutely how agonizing it was to hear the same story over and over again. Every time I gleaned even a hint of a story from "the olden days," I would scurry off as if the devil was on my heels. As I began to mature, I better understood why my father told me his story so often. It wasn''t for any intrinsic value in the story itself. While hilarity would have ensued, his dream was not for me to become a bard, keeping our family''s stories alive in perpetuity through song and dance. Rather, it was the lessons and history he hoped I would learn from his harrowing, and ultimately triumphant, past that were so important.
My father found himself in the worst of situations — hunted like an animal, much of his family murdered — yet he did not let that break his spirit. Surviving the blitz in London, he made his way to America and built a wonderful life for himself and his family, exemplifying Ad astra per aspera (to the stars through difficulty). He kept his history alive, so that the memory of Tante Fanny and Onkel Edmond’s existence would not be swept into the “dustbin of history”. He passed his stories on to his children so that they would know the importance of fighting for what is right, and not allow themselves to be tyrannized by fear.
An even greater evil than the holocaust itself would be for its history to be forgotten. George Santayana said, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” If the world is allowed to forget the atrocities that occurred, then those 6 million people died completely in vain. By keeping the collective consciousness of the holocaust fresh with its human stories, we help prevent a recurrence of such an abomination. Our best defense is knowledge and education. The results of an uneducated populace can clearly be seen in many areas of the world, including the Middle East. In such dictatorships as existed in Iraq until the American invasion, and as still exist in Iran and Libya, the government goes to great lengths to indoctrinate its people to order to control them and further its own agenda. They purposefully manipulate history, even going so far as to claim that the holocaust never happened, and control their populace through ignorance. Having only ever been exposed to their government’s barrage of propaganda blaming the Jews and America for their problems, it is no surprise that they hate with such vehemence. The only remedy for this malignancy is education. Every generation has a duty to keep the history of the holocaust alive and unbowdlerized for the benefit of its children.
My father’s family reunions are at a wall in Frankfurt listing the names of his friends from school, his aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors, and the camps where they died. The efforts the Germans have made to redeem their history, with all that is great and wonderful about it, are admirable. But when they asked my father to speak at a high school about his experiences, they warned him not to mention the Turkish genocide of the Armenians so he wouldn’t upset the Turkish students. They are doing their best to make it impossible for such a thing as the holocaust to happen again, but by limiting information and controlling the allowed points of view, they are falling back into their old trap. After 60 years they are like a snake that has swallowed an elephant—they cannot digest the incomprehensible horror that their grandparents unleashed.
The best antidote for poisonous points of view is education and free speech, and students can best apply themselves by becoming educated and speaking out when they see injustice, and by fighting for the right to a free flow of information.
It is difficult for us to imagine how quickly a determined propaganda machine can capitalize on latent prejudices to accomplish the dehumanization of whole groups of human beings. One of my father’s books about Dachau has pictures of the Nazis’ accomplishment at dehumanizing—when one looks at those pictures one doesn’t think of individual human beings but of pathetic victims, closer to tortured animals than to people, repellent in the horror of their nearness to death. That they were husbands or daughters with hobbies and quirks, kind hearts or special talents like any other people is lost in the nightmare.
Jewish tombstones show the long history and deep roots that the Jews had in Germany, but that did not save them. Jews have lived and died in Germany since before the year 1000, when all of the Jewish residents of Frankfurt were killed except 20 young women who converted. At the root of the repeated murder of Jews in their midst was the sense that the Jews were other, not really as human as the Christian Germans. Even today, the world turns its eyes from the genocide in Darfur; are these people not like us, not quite as human as we are, do they not feel as we do? The UN has declared that what the Islamist extremists are doing in Darfur in killing its animist and Christian populations is not genocide. I fail to see the distinction and it is my obligation to speak out.
Until we refuse to allow ourselves to be manipulated by lies, until we understand that we are all people with the same right to live free and follow our conscience, genocide will be with us. The only protection we have against it is the free flow of information and education, so that we can’t be fooled into thinking that it is okay to murder or punish people for disagreeing with us or living differently. Each generation of children must be taught, or must learn for themselves, that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet, for as Hillel said, “If I am only for me, what am I?”
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