When I was nine years old, I had dinner with
Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein and her husband Kurt. Our
community was hosting them for a Yom Hashoah program and my parents were
chairing. I had only learned a little about the Holocaust at that time.
We had discussed it in class at my Jewish day school and my mother and I
had begun reading Anne Frank's diary together at night. But not until I
sat that evening, listening to Mrs. Klein share her personal story of
survival, did I begin to understand the meaning of the concentration
camps and those harrowing years in Europe.
Her words showed me a different perspective on life and on being Jewish. She related with passion and honesty the horror of losing her family. Her father, her mother, and her beloved brother Arthur perished at the hands of the Nazis. She told of her time in the various camps, working at the loom as a slave laborer in factories, and the final march where the ski boots her father had demanded she wear in the heat of the summer saved her life. Her husband, Kurt, a quiet, gentle man, was part of the 5th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army that liberated Gerda and 120 other survivors in Czechoslovakia in 1945. She remembers reluctantly, fearfully, telling this handsome lieutenant, "I am a Jew," and hearing him say, "So am I." Married for many years, the couple knew the importance their story held in our history.
As Mrs. Klein shared her testimony with
our community in a packed synagogue, I felt I had a special friend. For
the first time in my life, I had been given an intimate glimpse into the
existence of the life of my people during this unprecedented time. I
remember Gerda's words as we said our goodbyes in her hotel lobby. "Tace,"
she embraced me and said, "it is your generation who must carry the
word, must remember the Holocaust. Young people of today must make sure
we honor the vow 'Never again.'"
The systematic annihilation of six million Jews by Nazi genocide remains unparalleled in human history. But what was the winding road to the Holocaust? Like the rest of the world which endured acute depression in the early 1930s, post World War I Germany suffered from the severe effects of unemployment and social unrest. Discouraged and bitter over Germany's defeat in the war, the citizens were seeking political stability and new leadership. In 1932 the National Socialists (Nazis) was the largest political party in Germany, and in January 1933 Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of the coalition government. Both relentless and charismatic, Hitler began his move against the Jews immediately.
Throughout the decades, historians have tried to understand his unmitigated hatred of the Jews, but we may never know the true answer to this question. The one thing we do know was that during Hitler's rise, anti-Semitism, which had been an undercurrent in Europe for centuries, reached a breaking point. Once Hitler took power, Jews were singled out and excluded from working in certain professions. Jewish-owned businesses bore government-sponsored boycotts. By 1935 the Nuremberg Laws escalated Hitler's anti-Jewish policies and all Jews were denied German citizenship.
In November 1938 the Nazis carried out the pogram that has since become know as Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. Shattered windows, shattered businesses and shattered synagogues signaled the beginning of what would soon become shattered lives. Struggling for world domination, Adolf Hitler's aspiration to eliminate the Jews had begun. Many had left Germany since his reign, and those hopeless souls who had remained behind thinking that Nazi anti-Semitism would diminish found it virtually impossible to emigrate.
As Allied leaders showed indifference to the fate of the Jews, countries throughout the world denied refuge for those fleeing Nazi persecution. The fate of the S.S. St. Louis in 1939 summarizes the world's apathy for the plight of the European Jews as the ship was denied safe haven in port after port and finally forced to return to Germany. For many their next stop was the Nazi death camps. Between 1941 and 1945 the methodical murdering of Jews became Hitler's top priority. This "Final Solution" was the central focus for the Nazi regime. Jews were concentrated and moved from small villages to large cities where there was easy railroad access to deport them to the camps. In most cases these deportations led to certain death.
"Remember the Holocaust. Never again." As I have grown older I have come to understand that knowing and remembering is necessary in order to combat further prejudicial attacks against Jews and other people. I have stood at the site of a Russian pogram outside Kishinev, Moldova, where I heard a lone survivor tell of crawling out from under the weight of the dead bodies in the darkness of night. I have recited the kaddish within the labyrinth of courtyard walls at Yad Vashem's Valley of the Communities honoring the sudden disappearance and destruction of thousands. This spring I will embark on a journey to Poland and Israel, joining Jewish teens from all over the world on the March of the Living. But what can I do with the lessons I've learned?
In the sixty years since the Holocaust our world has continued to be confronted with cruelty and evil. The killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda have been witness to hundreds of thousands of victims. And today at the beginning of the 21st Century, a new genocide is taking innocent lives in Darfur, Sudan. Nine years after Gerda Weissman Klein's challenge to "remember and never forget," I have chosen to commit my energies to raising awareness to the continuing genocide in Darfur.
Through my local Jewish community and my school, I have held educational gatherings and organized Students Who Care: Save Darfur. Using media clips from MTV's recent documentary Translating Genocide and information readily available from the American Jewish World Service and the Save Darfur organization, I have tried to act on the challenge given to a nine year old. I have encouraged my peers to "carry the word" as Gerda had charged and to recognize our moral and ethical commitment to this humanitarian crisis.
I am one individual, but the indifference of the world during the Holocaust has taught me all too well the price of silence. I believe that by standing up and speaking out I will help lead others to find the strength to say "Never again."
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