Fields of green and gold seemed endless as our bus coursed through the Polish countryside. I was on a fully subsidized trip to Eastern Europe through the Jewish Federation, and part of the day’s agenda was to clean up a cemetery of a long-lost Jewish community. We pulled over at the bottom of a large green hill, and disembarked from our modern bus to head back in time.
After hiking along the edge of a wheatfield and through an ancient forest, we arrived at what appeared to be a small clearing in the woods. I soon realized, however, that headstones were spread out among the shrubs and tall grass. Some were cracked and toppled, others were entwined in knotted vines, and others were almost completely buried. “This is all that is left of a Jewish community that once existed near here,” a counselor said, “It was completely wiped out by the Nazis.” And with that, we began to clip hedges, right headstones, and unbury the memories of a long-lost community.
Later in the week, our group travelled to Auschwitz. As I wandered through the harrowing place, I came across what appeared to be a windowless bunker. Shortly after, I discovered that it was a gas chamber. It was cold and black inside. I saw the chute through which the Nazis poured the Zyklon B. There were white scrapes along the wall which victims had clung to in their utmost desperation. It was terrifying, heartbreaking, and atrocious. I was standing where thousands of children and families had been umercifully murdered.
As we were leaving, a holocaust survivor came up to our group and spoke with us. He had white hair, dark brown eyes, and creases on his face from knowing and seeing what should never have been seen. “Never forget,” he said in his broken English. “Six million Jews, six million Jews. You needed twelve years to tell every name, twelve years to repeat every name, twelve years to speak six million Jews. My father, mother, two little sisters, forty out of forty-three, how am I still alive? Tell your children and your grandchildren, insist on what happened.” He pointed his finger at the sky, “Justice!”
The trip truly opened my eyes to the reality of the Holocaust. The communities that were annhiliated, the families that were destroyed in the gas chambers, and the individuals. The individuals like the man who spoke with us outside Auschwitz on that unforgettable day. The individuals that led normal lives, lives similar to mine. Lives that were cruelly and outrageously “terminated.”
Recently, I spoke with a family friend and survivor of the Bergen-Belsen death camp, Dora Zaidenweber. When I asked her about Holocaust remembrance she said, “We have an obligation to speak out and honor those who have perished—to remember those who have no one to remember them…We must teach the lessons of the Holocaust, the lessons of hatred, of misunderstanding, of evil and compassion.” It is for these reasons that the remembrance, history, and lessons of the Holocaust must be passed down. Those who have died deserve honor and eternal memory, and the living must be educated about the events. They must be educated not only to learn from the past, but to learn about themselves. To realize the necessity of empathy and tolerance, and to realize that humans have the ability to choose. Humans are faced with choices of doing good or evil all the time, and the lessons of the Holocaust must always be there to steer people away from malice and toward compassion.
When asking Mrs. Zaidenweber what could be done to combat and prevent prejudice, discrimination and violence in our world today she responded with one word—“Education.” As students, we need to embrace our education and pass it on. As Mrs. Zaidenweber said, “Everyone has the right to be treated as a human. Live and let live.” Almost all of the prejudice and discrimination in our world is the result of ignorance and accepting everything we hear at face-value. It is our duty as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors to educate all those around us about the Holocaust. We have an obligation to prevent intolerance from ever returning to the level that it was at during the Holocaust.
When talking with my grandmother, a World War II German refugee, about Germany during the rise of Hitler, she emphasized over and over again the importance of “watching our civil liberties.” “If you don’t speak up,” she said, “nothing will change.” As the new generation, we have the responsibility to speak up when those around us are losing their civil rights. Everyone deserves their rights and our support, whether or not we feel affected.
One of Mrs. Zaidenweber’s concerns is with those who “forgive” for the Holocaust. She says that those who forgive are forgetting. By forgiving, people feel able to move on, to escape the Holocaust. But the death of six million Jews is unforgivable, and it is our duty to fight the will to throw up our hands and move on. It is our duty to always remember, and keep the events of the Holocaust from falling into the fog of history.
During my trip to Eastern Europe I was exposed to all different facets of the Holocaust. I saw the death camps, gas chambers, cans of empty Zyklon B, and cases filled with thousands of shoes belonging to individuals lost in the Holocaust. However, I was also educated about the Holocaust and the reality of the human situation. I realized how important it is to be careful about everything we say and do. I realized the necesesity of always portraying every person and race in the best of lights, and preventing a reversion to past intolerance. Auschwitz is still a place that feels raw and painful. But, truth is, it is a wound that should never be allowed to fully heal. It should always be there as a painful reminder of what can happen when humans deny each other respect; what happens when humans think of each other simply as numbers and not as individuals; what happens when humans lose tolerance. To never forget means a better humanity, a humanity that has learned from its mistakes and has bettered itself as a result. And if the memory of the Holocaust ever begins to crack, fall over, and become engulfed in vines, we must trudge through the forest, rip the vines away, educate and remember.
Personal interview. April, 2006.
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