I Am My Gramma's Voice
On a chilly morning in May 1944, a large group of Hungarian Jews from the City of Palanka, Czechoslovakia, huddled together on the platform of a train station. They were thin and hungry from months of segregation in a filthy, overcrowded disease-ridden Jewish Ghetto. And even though they suspected that their destination might well be worse, they boarded the cattle cars without resisting and without the knowledge of the suffocating, horrific four-day trip that would terminate in the hell called Auschwitz. (Wiesel, pp. 20-21) Among this group were 76 members of the prominent Akerman family, which made a good living operating a jewelry and clothing business. Gittle Akerman, my grandmother, was then a small, scrawny 15-year-old girl. After four days without food, water or proper facilities, the train passed under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate (Levi, p.22) and stopped next to the platform of the most notorious death camp in history. Gittle was the only one of the entire Akerman family who survived Dr. Mengele’s selection. (Nyiszli, pp. 17-19) The rest of her family, as she later learned, were gassed that day. It is clear to me that if Hitler’s plan had been fully executed, I would not be here today.
My generation lived through the frightening events which took place on 9/11. Before that day, I was aware of violent acts of hatred motivated by religious fanaticism only through the stories told to me by my Israeli mother. The events of 9/11 brought that reality close to home. Americans were attacked by a group of radical Muslims because we, as free people, do not share their values. The goal of these terrorists, not unlike the goal of the Nazis, was to exterminate as many of us as possible on that day. This was done in order to send a message that because we are different, we do not deserve to exist.
Yet we, as Americans, are not without blemish. America has committed significant official acts of racial and ethnic inhumanity: the genocidal destruction of Native Americans, the herding of Japanese into concentration camps at the outset of World War II, the medical experimentation on blacks in the 1940’s by injecting them with the syphilis virus, and the long history of enslavement and subsequent discrimination with respect to African Americans. These examples demonstrate how essential it is for people throughout the world to remember the lessons of the Nazi Holocaust, because both history and current events have shown that the genocidal impulse is not peculiar to any one nation, people, religion or group. Vigilance cannot be relaxed when it comes to recognizing the beginning signs of this evil.
As a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I cannot emphasize enough how vital the State of Israel is to World Jewry. The Holocaust would not have had such dire consequences if the Jews had a country to which to escape before and during World War II. Until recently, Israel won every war in which she has engaged. (Herzog, pp. 105-112, 139-153, 145-191) But the victories did not stop the terrorism. The lesson to be learned is that religious and ethnic hatred cannot be remedied or resolved by violence. Military force can provide temporary security, but not permanent peace. For a lasting peace, our generation of Jews and Arabs must build bridges of tolerance to overcome towers of hatred. This process requires time and patience. But we, as the Third Generation of Holocaust survivors, must regard the peace process as an imperative undertaking.
I have spent the last few years reading Holocaust books and watching Holocaust movies, in order to answer the question: HOW COULD IT HAVE HAPPENED? Human beings tend to seek rational explanations for that which appears to be inexplicable. There are many studies which offer all kinds of explanations for the Holocaust: Freudian analyses of Hitler’s personality, his frustration with not being admitted to art school in Vienna, his hidden homosexuality and probable molestation by a Jewish nanny, religiously inspired anti-semitism, the economic stress in Germany (Large, pp. 158-160) and white Aryan superiority. (Friedlander, pp. 1-9) All of these and other theories seek to explain how a highly civilized country which produced Beethoven, Brahms, Goethe, Schiller, Schubert, Schumann and many other German artists and intellectuals, could blindly follow a raving lunatic who, with his cohorts, orchestrated such mass murder. But these explanations fail to answer the ultimate question. There are others who were not accepted into art school, or did not fulfill their artistic dreams. There are many nations which experienced extreme economic stress at one time or another. Anti-semitism has permeated societies for centuries. And yet they do not dissolve into a robotic mass which follows a maniacal leader in the extermination of more than 8 million people. In the words of author Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust itself was “Beyond Belief.” (Lipstadt, pp. 240-278)
The only conclusion I have reached over the years is that evil is part of the human condition. Acts of evil do not have entirely rational explanations. Therefore, the only solution is to prevent and avoid those acts of evil. In the 1930’s, if European Jews and Gentiles alike, especially the Germans, had appreciated the power of evil to multiply itself and spread, many of them would have assessed the situation in Europe differently and acted when there was time to do so or to escape.
Since disbelief in and denial of the existence of evil is a human characteristic, we, as the next generation, should do what we can to remember and remind ourselves that evil can and does occur. The best remedy is to recognize it and stamp it out at its first onset. As my grandmother and her generation of Holocaust survivors are approaching the last lap of their life journeys, it is critical for our young generation to carry the torch of remembrance and to combat the revisionist deniers of the Holocaust. Those who survived it, like my grandmother, still experience nightmares of walking through “walls of fire,” unable to return home. (Akerman, Video Testimony) Teaching tolerance, although difficult and slow, is a foundational step. Vigilantly living tolerance is essential. And learning about the Holocaust can also alert us that the potential for evil is part of human makeup. We might not be able to explain it, but by recognizing it, we can save lives. As the history of the Holocaust instructs, evil must be eradicated at its roots well before it reaches full bloom.
1) Gittle Akerman, Video
Testimony for the Yad Vashem Archives, Israel
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