It was as if I had almost been there before.
Poland – so desolate, so isolated, so foreign. Yet as I stood at the
Umschlagplatz memorial, a sensation had run through me that made it
almost seem familiar.
My grandfather, Moshe Kriegsman, who I am named after, had grown up in Warsaw with his family, but was sent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
I had never met him. Never spoke to him. Never seen him. But the connection I felt there was indescribable. For the first time, a Kriegsman had come back to his heritage! Standing there, all I could do was stare.
All too often, seeing is not always believing. Rather, a culmination of an education, knowledge and physical presence will allow for a full body experience in order to relate to one’s surroundings.
And to think that there are those who deny, those who simply turn the other cheek and offer counter claims to my family’s past. Countless groups and organizations that either fully deny the holocaust or degrade its severity based on “scholarly interpretations and research.”
The United Nations General Assembly has recently passed a day, January 27th, in which it not only recognizes the tragedies of the Holocaust, but denounces those who deny it by officially "condemning any denial of the Holocaust." My presence this past January attending the 2nd annual commemoration in Manhattan was nothing less than a responsibility. Needless to say, to have other nations and individuals give their respect to those who had died during the attempt of extermination was overwhelmingly comforting. However, such compassion is hard to come by these days and it must not be the only means of empathy.
Please everybody, look around you. The survivors, the buildings, the documents; they are disappearing. Preservation can only keep its value for so long until the inevitable cycle of life and existence must end. Education and knowledge however cannot perish, and will not experience the same fate as materialistic objects.
My generation, merely a half century after the Holocaust, will be the last generation to ever speak with the victims. Yet even so close in time, we will find it ever so increasingly difficult to persuade others of the prejudice and discrimination that endured within the Holocaust.
I’ve taken the time to speak with many survivors, including my grandparents. At points, I often find myself almost numb from the stories. “No clothes, no food: cold – little girls, with their beautiful hair chopped off, running around naked, never to see their parents again. I never saw my mother again, or my father, my sisters, my brothers: Sol, Chana, Devorah, Avraham, Leah, Yizkole,” my grandmother said. The tears seemed to flow endlessly, but almost triumphantly against the Nazis.
Those tears were real. I could hold my grandmother; embrace her presence – but what about passing on her stories, her lessons, and her history? Sure, the stories had touched me at my most inner core, but how do I convey my grandmother’s experience to others when even I have trouble relating.
Education is the corner-stone of development for society’s evolution, through understanding our surroundings and developing our intellect through research, inquiry and understanding. It is the spread of education and past eye-witness accounts that will ultimately serve as the best defenses against deniers. Such claims include the use of gas chambers to mass murder Jews, explaining that the small chambers only existed for delousing Zyklon-B but argue that larger chambers were not constructed or would not have worked.
But education has failed. In fact, it allows deniers to argue their entire basis of disbelief through research and understanding. Certainly this must be some joke. I WAS THERE. My feet brushed up against the dirt, the ashes, and the debris. I had trekked across miles of snow, sleet, rain, earth, just to stand beneath the exact showers that sprayed death from its vent to end the lives of millions. And then there are those who deny?!
I guess if everyone had the “luxury” to travel to Poland and see these concentration camps, this would be the ultimate means to express the loss and story of the Holocaust.
But all too often there is a huge disconnect from what one studies and what one encounters.
Even more terrible seems to be the apparent disconnect of society; just yards away, towns have been rebuilt, cities border the concentration camps, overlooking the place where evil and destruction took place no more than sixty years ago.
It will ultimately be a culmination of education and first-hand experience to defy those who wish to describe our past tragedy as “embellished” and “the result of an American, British or Jewish conspiracy to make Jews look like victims and to demonize Germans.”
Today, it is even more imperative than ever to counter claims of denial and the severity of the Holocaust. With the rising tensions in the Middle East, the matter has only worsened. It will become increasingly difficult to protect a period of history that will only seem more distant and more abstract to future generations. Such Holocaust denial is a new phenomenon in Muslim theology, and the idea is only spreading. Certain measures have been upheld that ban symbols of Nazism and prohibit the spread of Nazi values, but this is only a small portion of what can be done.
Sure, the United Nations has recognized only as recently as 2005 that the Holocaust must not be denied, but we can not wait for slow steps to be taken by other forces. Students especially, the next generation, have the heaviest burden and responsibly to increase the awareness of matters that took place during the Holocaust, including prejudice, discrimination and violence, by addressing the issues relevant to the world today. Issues like genocide in Rwanda, Darfur; they must be addressed through education and travel.
And students have an upper hand on this battle with the power of technology. Technologies like the internet and television allow today’s students to spread the stories, the names within those stories, and the lessons from within those stories.
That day at Umschlagplatz, my relationship to my grandmother’s and grandfather’s stories changed drastically. Listening to the names from the story of my grandmother was one experience, but seeing them, was another., I thought I had been prepped for the experience; properly educated, informed and aware of where it was and where I was going. But what had been presented on video screens, researched in reports, and read in textbooks seemed almost abstract from my experience.
Proudly, I stepped away from the Umschlagplatz memorial. But I continued to stare at the stone wall, imagining what it would have felt like just sixty years prior. And for once, I could finally relate.
That day, I met my grandfather for the first time.
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