The Link Between Us
By Charlie Gurion
Rolling Meadows, IL


 

My father was surprised when my grandmother asked to see the film “Schindler’s List.” Her life prior to the Holocaust was a mystery, something never mentioned, but always lurking in the background. She said that reliving the past would only cause anguish. He had never heard her mention the names of her first husband, her daughter, parents or brother. She had no photographs or memorabilia, nothing from the past but agonizing memories.

“Schindler’s List” had a profound effect on Grandma. It opened the door to dialogue. She said that many of the events portrayed in the movie were very similar to her own experiences. When she began to share her story, the lessons we had learned from history books took on new meaning. As she described how the numbers she was assigned in Auschwitz were branded on her arm, my perception of the world changed forever. Her story inspired the passion I have today to make certain that the history and lessons of the Holocaust will always be remembered.
Grandma finally came to understand that time was running out and that her story must be told. She decided to participate in the Shoah Foundation Project. A specially trained film crew came to our home to interview her. They carefully documented her account of what happened in order to preserve it for future generations to access on the internet. Our entire family was silent as Grandma summoned all her strength and courage to relive the excruciatingly painful tale of how she became a Holocaust survivor. We heard for the first time the names she had hidden in the back of her mind in order to protect her own sanity and to guard us from facing the terror inflicted on humankind by our own species. They were the names of the family my father never had. At that moment they became real to us, people with hopes and dreams similar to our own.

Grandma grew up in Lvov, which at that time was home to the third largest Jewish community in Poland. As many as two-hundred thousand people were executed there during the Nazi reign of terror. Labor camps were set up and sadistic guards used prisoners for target practice. David Kahane, a rabbi from Lvov, was hidden by an Orthodox priest. He later recorded a personal account of his experience. Grandma and her two-year old daughter Sylvia were transported from Lvov to the Auschwitz Labor Camp. Sylvia was brutally murdered and Grandma, overcome by grief and despair, felt that she had nothing left to live for. She traded a crust of bread for a cyanide pill feeling she could not endure anymore. She cried herself to sleep and said that her mother spoke to her in a dream, begging her not to give up. She took her mother’s advice.

In the novel Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman eloquently stated that, “the silence that comes of inarticulateness is the inchoate, desperate silence of chaos. The silence that comes afterwards is the fullness from which the truth of our perceptions can crystallize.” Grandma broke the silence she had lived with for so many years. The stories of the Holocaust survivors themselves are the most poignant, powerful tools we have from which to learn. Listening to them increases our own understanding of the level of suffering the victims of hate crimes endure. They become more than just statistics. Grandma’s story acted a catalyst to inspire others to read and learn more about the Holocaust. I write about her often, which has led to many discussions with my teachers, friends, and neighbors. They are usually curious to hear her story. When they ask questions I tell them that in order to really experience the impact of the Holocaust on the survivors, to log onto the Shoah Foundation website and to read books written by survivors like David Kahane or Elie Wiesel. Grandma died not long afterwards. Although small in stature, she had a powerful impact on everyone around her. Her legacy is one of wisdom, strength and courage. She showed me the effect one person can have on the world.
Education combined with social action is the way to assure that the history and lessons of the Holocaust will be remembered. It is unimaginable to many people that eleven million people were murdered, including two-thirds of European Jews. Sinti, Roma, Polish citizens, homosexuals, the handicapped, sick, aged, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious dissidents were also targeted. It is inconceivable that these people were labeled “untermenschen,” or subhuman and that it was not only sadists and criminals that took part in the annihilation, but people considered to be more “ordinary” as well. To acknowledge that this happened is to acknowledge the darkest side of human nature.

It is equally disturbing that people in other parts of the world were aware that this was happening and chose not to take action, thereby allowing the slaughter to continue. Aaron Hass, clinical professor of Psychology at the UCLA school of medicine, and child of Holocaust survivors, stated that for many victims the question asked was not where was God? But where was man?

My mission is to make people aware of the connection between the Holocaust and what is happening in the world today. The Holocaust didn’t just happen. It was deliberately planned and executed. We have no assurance that mankind will not do its worst again. Recent genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur bring to mind that prejudice and discrimination still lead to persecution, incarceration and annihilation. For the past two years I’ve been a volunteer speaker at area high schools trying to help combat discrimination and prejudice through social awareness. We need to support lawmakers in favor of strong anti-hate crime legislation and thorough investigation into hate crimes. Federal funding to law enforcement agencies needs to be increased. Educational programs promoting the benefits of social and cultural diversity, combined with dignity and respect for all, should be mandatory in all schools from kindergarten through high school. Humiliation and degradation should never be tolerated.

I agree with the noted scholar Herman Spertus when he stated in the Holocaust Chronicles that “education leads to empathy which fosters tolerance and increases out capacity to love beyond our family.” Education combined with political and social activism and community involvement can change the world.

 

Bibliography

1. Hass, Aaron. In the Shadow of the Holocaust. Cambridge, MA: University Press, 1990.
2. Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicles. Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International LTD, 2003.
3. Kahane, David. Lvov Ghetto Diary. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.
4. Schindler’s List. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley. Universal, 1993.
5. Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
6. Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

 


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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