The Trees Saw Everything
I was only seven years old. The hard ground
was covered with a light dusting of snow, and thick gray clouds blotted
out the sun. I stood in front of two large ovens, clutching my mother’s
hand tightly. I stared silently at the ovens that had been used to burn
human bodies; the bodies of those who did not survive their time at
Dachau. Before this day, I had never known the meaning of true
desperation, true terror, true agony, and strange as it may be, true
hope. Hope of sheer survival, hope of someday holding loved ones again,
hope of seeing a better day. And today there is still hope; hope that
the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust will never be forgotten, or
Being only seven years old, I had difficulty articulating all of these overpowering emotions. Still, as my mother and I walked back towards the barracks of the camp, I gazed up at the very old, mighty trees that stood along either side of our path. I can still remember the chilling feeling I had when I turned to my mom and said, “Those trees saw everything.” Then, in an uncontrollable release of emotion, I lowered my young head and began to cry.
Established in March, 1933, the concentration camp at Dachau was the first to be built in Germany, but it was certainly not the last (Neuhäusler). Dozens of other death camps would be created in the ensuing years, and nearly 6 million Jews, along with droves of other “undesirables,” would be casualties of Hitler and his warped concept of the “master race.” (Berenbaum).
At the age of seven, I did not understand the social and economic causes of World War II, nor did I have a grasp of the true impact of the Holocaust on the millions of people involved. However, visiting Dachau and actually seeing, hearing, and feeling what prisoners suffered was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. In essence, this was my overpowering introduction to the lessons of history’s greatest tragedy.
As horrible as it was, all history seems ‘ancient’ to a seven year old. But, eight years later we returned to Dachau. On this trip we brought my grandmother, although she was torn over her decision to visit an actual death camp. Her memories of the war were vivid. She was a young adult in her twenties during World War II and knew young men that were killed fighting in Europe. The emotion on her face as we toured the camp was one of horror, disgrace, and shame. She repeatedly commented that she could not believe that something so horrific could actually have happened in her lifetime. Suddenly, history didn’t seem so ancient to me.
Later, as a high school junior, my interest in the lessons and details of the Holocaust prompted me to take ‘History of World War II,’ a class which covered the Nazi war crimes in great depth. Throughout my class’ Holocaust unit, I was shocked at the amount of indifference that other students exhibited when shown disturbing images and statistics regarding the extermination of 6 million Jews. Even extremely disturbing video clips, which nearly brought me to tears and even nausea, barely phased my apparently uneducated and apathetic classmates. Obviously, none of them had seen a real concentration camp.
One of the greatest challenges facing my generation is the preservation of Holocaust remembrance. As Holocaust survivors become more scarce, I am terribly worried that most people my age, as well as future generations, will lose sight of this despicable and tragic event. Its lessons will slip into obscurity, like old black and white photos at the bottom of the family keepsake trunk, and will seem too far in the past to warrant any serious study or remembrance.
However, all one has to do is pay attention in today’s world, and there are sickening and disturbing cases of Holocaust-like genocide occurring all over the world. Today, even with often pervasive media presence, atrocities continue around the globe; Rwanda, Darfur, and many more disturbing stories explode on our TV screens every night. But, apathy and the ability to somehow separate oneself from those who are different, either in race, religion or even geography, drives the most devastating movement of all: inaction. It is the lapse in caring and compassion that allowed the Holocaust to happen at all. This is the root of the problem; people simply don’t know what to do when pure evil becomes too powerful.
For example, in Rwanda, approximately 800,000 people were brutally murdered during a one hundred day period in 1994 (United Human Rights Council). For those one hundred days, neighboring countries, and those around the world, took virtually no action to save the lives of scores of innocent people.
In the Darfur situation, not since the
Holocaust has the world been challenged by such a horrific act of
ongoing genocide: nearly 400,000 people have died in this region of
Sudan since 2003. As many as 1 million more could die in the next few
months from malnutrition (Darfur Action Committees). As it was during
the early years of the Holocaust, apathy and inaction are the greatest
enemies of hope in these bitter situations.
Today, racial tensions worldwide seem higher and perhaps even more explosive than ever before. It is often difficult to find much hope in this world, with so many complex and troubling situations left unresolved and so much hatred guiding the way.
How do we find the hope we need to carry on and never forget not only the Holocaust, but all the evils man perpetrates upon man? Personally, I think we should celebrate, honor and bring to light all the brave souls that risked everything to stand up for the rights of the Jews and the other "undesirables" during this most shameful time in our history. Stories of incredible heroics in the most horrific of circumstances are awe-inspiring and give future generations the hope needed to believe that despair and racism can be overcome. It starts with all of us, continuing the story and never forgetting.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Wiser words may never have been spoken. It is my firm belief that this generation has an obligation to preserve the horrific story of the Holocaust and its victims, lest these events be repeated in the future. It is our job to ensure that the story of the trees that saw everything is never forgotten.
Neuhäusler, Johannes. What was it like
in the Concentration Camp at Dauchau?. Munich: Osiris Cliché Factory,
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