"The Holocaust is not only a tragedy of the Jewish people, it is a failure of humanity as a whole."
Moshe Katsav, President of Israel
Sarenka Rebhan was born in the early 1900s and raised in Przemysl, Poland. She was born into a large well-educated and wealthy family, which owned a publishing house, brewery, and other businesses. Sarenka enjoyed playing with her six siblings and she received a remarkably good education. When she grew up, Sarenka married and had two children. The large family remained close, frequently enjoying dinners together. In 1931, Sarenka's sister, Miriam, left the comfort of her close-knit family and established wealth in Poland, and emigrated with her baby and young husband, to Palestine. Sarenka would not see Miriam again for many years—unaware that in those intervening years, hell would descend on her and her family in Poland.
When the National Socialists rose to power, Sarenka and her family were forced out of their home and into a cramped ghetto. Despite the abject squalor and deplorable living conditions, circumstances would worsen. Sarenka's husband was summoned to a meeting for professionals, where he was summarily shot and killed. Shortly thereafter, her son, who had joined the resistance, jumped to his death from a roof during a chase by Nazis-refusing to die on their terms.
Sarenka was left with her twelve year old daughter, Tasha. They were soon thereafter deported to a Nazi death camp. On the train, a fellow Jew offered Sarenka cyanide, a deadly poison. Sarenka refused the poison, but unbeknownst to her, Tasha, feeling nothing but hopelessness, ingested the poison and killed herself.
Sarenka somehow survived the death camps, and was reunited with her sister in Israel after the war. There, Sarenka lived the remainder of her life—without her husband or children, and without countless siblings, relatives, or friends.
Sarenka Rebhan was my great great aunt and her sister Miriam, my great grandmother. Naming me after Sarenka was my parents' way of remembering her as well as other relatives who perished in the Holocaust: those who had no one left to say a prayer for them, or light a memorial candle.
After nine years in a private Jewish day school, I currently attend a large inner city public high school where I am part of a tiny minority. Frequently, people ask about my name. Each time I explain its origin, I recount Holocaust experiences. Many of my classmates are unaware of what transpired during the Holocaust. When I discuss my name, I am educating others about the cruelties that occurred, and the evil of which humans are capable. Moreover, because I am one of the few Jews in the school, I hope to dispel preconceived ideas. Likewise, I am learning about the experiences of my African-American classmates. This exchange fosters understanding and respect between people who have differences and similarities—especially in the suffering of our predecessors.
Although the magnitude of death and torture in the Holocaust is unique, genocide is neither unprecedented nor unrepeated. If we do not learn about the unimaginable depths to which "civilized" humans sunk during the Holocaust, and educate future generations, we are certain to repeat our mistakes.
Notwithstanding the slaughter of over six million Jews as well as five million gypsies, homosexuals, and other ostracized individuals during World War II, much of the world today discriminates against people who are "different." The killings in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, and the fact that anti-Semitism, racism, and hatred persist, signify that the lessons of the Holocaust have not prevented murder and torture since World War II.
One of the important lessons of the Holocaust is that the perpetrators were not only the Nazis who carried out Hitler's orders, but also the "innocent" bystanders. It is relatively painless to sympathize with victims, but pity is not sufficient when a country's policy is genocide. Those who closed their eyes to the Holocaust were not blameless: their crime was standing by while millions of innocent people were murdered. Learning about the Holocaust through individual stories, books, and memorials reminds us of the obligation to resist being complacent.
Certainly, there are individuals who act to prevent genocide—or, at least, help victims of murder, torture, and hatred—because of their knowledge of the Holocaust. Indeed, the mobilization of organizations to stop the genocide in Darfur is based largely on the lessons of the Holocaust. Because I know that that the world remained silent while Sarenka and her family suffered unspeakable horrors, I am committed to acting in the face of genocide. For these reasons I attended a rally in Washington D.C. to protest the genocide in Darfur and am organizing students to send postcards to government officials which seek action for the victims of Darfur.
Personal accounts of suffering open our eyes to the pain of genocide. Sarenka's story has moved my family. In a larger venue, Night, by Elie Wiesel, and Leap Into Darkness, by Leo Bretholz, educate society about the Holocaust. These books affect readers on a personal level, which raw data and textbooks cannot accomplish.
Ultimately, while honoring the victims of the Holocaust and teaching the world about the depraved acts committed during the Holocaust, personal stories demonstrate that even in the face of such atrocities, the indomitable human spirit survives. Wiesel's survival as recounted in Night is a testament to the tenacity of one individual.
"Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever..." (Wiesel 32). Separated from his mother and sisters, forced to watch hangings and beatings of his elderly father and companions, throughout his incarceration at several concentration camps, Wiesel's determination kept him alive, fighting, and struggling for his life. Not once did his willpower fail him, not once did he lie down and ask God to let him die.
Likewise, Leo Bretholz astounds his readers when they discover that he escaped seven times from the Nazis and certain death. Most compelling was his "leap into darkness" from a train transporting him to a death camp. For hours he used a sweater, soaked in urine from the floor of the train, to grip the bars of the train window. With Herculean effort and undiminished determination, he bent the bars enough so that his body could squeeze through and he could jump from the train.
Personal accounts like those of Wiesel, Bretholz, and my great-great-aunt Sarenka remind us of the individuals affected during the Holocaust, not merely the staggering numbers. Teaching people about the genocide of eleven million individuals reminds us that the Holocaust is not simply an incomprehensible and overwhelming statistic, but rather the painful ruin of individual lives. Holocaust recollections are documents of the darkest period in the world's history. They call upon the human race to remember, and to resist being complacent. Perhaps someday, when all people of every race and religion, have been educated about the Holocaust, the refrain "Never Again" will resonate and become a reality.
Bretholz, Leo. Leap Into Darkness. Baltimore, Md.: Woodholme House Publishers, 1999.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York, N.Y.:
Hill & Wang, 1960.
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