To Bear Witness
By Katerina Belkin
Sioux City, IA


 

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”

–Elie Wiesel


Before her death, my grandmother would often tell me stories of how her family fled from the Nazis in the Ukraine when she was only sixteen years old. Closing her eyes in pain, she would relive in her mind the images of German soldiers shooting refugees in the fields like cattle, of SS men bashing the skulls of infants against tree trunks, of squalor and misery and starvation. On many an occasion, I would sit silently while she reminisced, unable to ask the question that bothered me the most- why? Why this hatred, this intolerance towards those who had done nothing to deserve it?
 

It was only later, when I began to actively learn about the Holocaust, that I began to make the connections between the deaths of eleven million people and the deep-seated prejudice of a country looking for a means of salvation. By means of propaganda, an embittered, power-hungry individual managed to convince a cultured, modern nation- the nation of Goethe and Kant, of Strauss and Beethoven- that the only way to advancement was through discrimination and violence. As a result of this, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population was annihilated. Whole communities disappeared in the blink of an eye. 34,313 Jews from Holland came to Sobibor; 19 survived and returned to their homes (Byers 11, 56).

Although the statistics are horrendous, Hitler’s dream of exterminating the Jewish people did not come true- I myself am physical evidence of that. My people live on and flourish, and will continue to do so. However, we have a special burden that comes with this status: not to live idly and forgetfully, but to maintain a constant vigilance in international affairs, to ensure that this tragedy never happens again. In the wake of our near-annihilation, we made a fervent promise: never again.

But we have not kept that promise. Genocide has happened since 1945, again and again…and again. Each time, there are the same pictures: terror-stricken eyes in haggard faces, rotting corpses piled up in mounds, wailing mothers clutching their dead infants. Each time, the world population mutters and whispers to themselves- “We did not know…” But we no longer have the right to use this as an excuse. Barely over a decade ago, in the heart of Africa, over 800,000 people were massacred over the course of merely 100 days- and the world community sat back and did nothing (Ghosts of Rwanda). How much longer can we watch and let these things simply happen? How many more Rwandas, Darfurs and Bosnias must we permit, before we realize the lessons that were set forth for us in Europe six decades ago?

On a smaller scale, we as students and teenagers must consider these issues as well. Too often do we witness prejudice and discrimination in our everyday lives, as well as in the global scene. In studying the Holocaust, we can learn how to effectively battle them and change the world for the better through a combination of memory, sensitivity, and action.

Memory is the first facet of our triple-pronged approach. We find ourselves in a unique position as the last generation to be able to speak with survivors of the Holocaust. Like members of a fragile and endangered species, these people will not be alive for much longer; hence, it is our duty as a generation to ensure that their words and legacies do not disappear with them. For if we let ourselves forget, if we allow their stories to slip from our minds, then it will all be in vain. The suffering of millions, the needless cruelty, the death- all will be rendered useless, and the Nazis will have ultimately achieved their purpose. For the somber faces staring out of the photographs will, someday, yellow and fade. The ragged, dirty shoes and decrepit articles of clothing will crumble to dust. And the fragile network of information we call the Internet may at any given time collapse into a black vortex, taking with it our texts, links, and archives on the subject. But if we choose to remember, inscribe the messages of the victims into our hearts and minds, and pass them on to others so that they may learn as well, then we truly may achieve something. “Memory is not only a victory over time, it is also a triumph over injustice.” (Bearing Witness)

The next value that we must keep in mind is sensitivity. Elie Wiesel said, “Be sensitive in every way possible about everything in life…insensitivity brings indifference and nothing is worse than indifference.” Sensitivity eliminates prejudice. This is one of the most important lessons that the Holocaust teaches us: that when we give way to apathy, atrocities like genocide can occur. When we are sensitive to the emotions of others, and allow ourselves to feel, we can realize on a much fuller scale the pain that others are experiencing. This will spur us to action, which is the next step that we must take.

“In such circumstances, if you don’t at least speak out clearly…you are contributing to the genocide.” Thus spoke Phillipe Gaillard of the Red Cross on his experience in Rwanda (Ghosts of Rwanda). Speaking out is one action that students may take in battling genocide; whether by the written or the spoken word, we must take the initiative in recognizing prejudice for what it is. Forming student organizations, such as the White Rose in Nazi Germany, is an effective way to battle apathy and gather strength in numbers. As world citizens, it is our responsibility to stay informed and act out at the first sign of an abuse against humanity, rather than reacting later when it is too late.

The Holocaust is a painfully extreme example of how the crazed ranting of one delusional individual can sway the minds of a multitude, and result in death for innocent people. There is no telling how many beautiful lives- children, intellectuals, lovers, musicians, artists, teachers- were extinguished not only in that time period, but in the years to follow. It is difficult to determine what our lives might have been like today, had those people not been brutally murdered. Any one of them had the potential to make the world a better place; but their minds and voices were needlessly silenced forever, along with their possible contributions to the human race. This chilling thought will continue to haunt humanity for ages.

True, we cannot change history. The ashes will continue to be ashes, and the grim remains of places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau serve as reminders of what depths the human race can truly reach. But together, we can overcome any barbed wire fence, and make something truly meaningful grow out of the ashes. Together, we can bear witness, and help to eliminate prejudice and discrimination from our world and that of our children.

 

Works Cited


Rochman, Hazel and McCampbell, Darlene. Bearing Witness: Stories of the
Holocaust. New York. Orchard Books, 1995.

Frontline. Ghosts of Rwanda. DVD. WGBH Educational Foundation, 2004.
120 min.

Byers, Ann. The Holocaust Camps. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Wiesel, Elie. “Interview.” Nobel Prize for Peace. Sun Valley, Idaho, 1996.

 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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