Of Memory and Courage
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
- Edmund Burke
Dvora Taller was born in Tarnopol, Poland to an orthodox Jewish family. Her father, Shlomo Leib, a shochet, a ritual slaughterer of animals, and her mother, Bracha, a homemaker, took care of Dvora, her brother, Mendel, and her sister, Clara. Dvora enjoyed living in her small Jewish community. She was an avid reader who loved learning. Her interest in math led her to pursue a career in accounting. Dvora could not have known of the tragic events that she, her family, and her community would soon be forced to endure.
On September 17, 1939, Stalin’s army invaded Tarnopol sparking a battle between Polish and Russian troops. Dvora experienced the first pangs of war as her father was caught in the crossfire and fatally wounded. A bereaved Dvora faced further grief soon after her father’s death, as her brother was drafted by the Red Army and she was forced to assume the role of head of the household.
When the Germans conquered Tarnopol in 1941, Dvora, Bracha and Clara were placed in the Jewish Ghetto. Luckily, Dvora was able to earn a pittance working for the Luftzugstaff, the German air force, as part of their kitchen staff. When the Luftzugstaff was transferred to fight in Stalingrad the next year, Dvora, always resourceful, managed to find new work in the kitchen of the Waffen-SS.
That winter, the Ghetto was liquidated as Nazis rounded up many of Tarnopol’s Jews sending them to concentration camps in cramped railcars. Bracha and Clara were among those sent to Auschwitz. Dvora was heartbroken when she returned home from work to discover that her mother and sister had been taken. She pleaded with the SS officers to free them but nothing could be done. With her family gone and no end to the war in sight, Dvora began to lose all hope.
Then, a small miracle occurred. Upon returning home from work one day, Dvora was astounded to find her sister, Clara, alive and well, waiting for her. Clara had been pushed out of the train to Auschwitz by her mother and survived. Dvora’s joy, however, was short lived. The “Final Solution” was already in place. Dvora knew that it was only a matter of time before the entire Jewish population of Tarnopol would be obliterated. Dvora was walking by the Ghetto fence one day when a Polish woman took notice of her from the other side, complementing Dvora on her beauty. Sensing her kind soul, Dvora convinced the woman to save her and her sister. The woman hid Dvora and Clara in a hole in the ground near her barn in the nearby village of Zagrobella. Dvora, her sister and three other Jews lived in that hole for seven months. As the Russian front approached, these five were left without food for six weeks. Then, on April 16th, 1944, the Red Army conquered Zagrobella and Dvora and Clara were rescued.
Dvora Taller, my grandmother, currently lives in Haifa, Israel. Though far removed from Poland she is still haunted by nightmares of the atrocities that befell her. In the year 2000, my father, a history professor, wanted to share the story of his mother with his students and colleagues to show them how one person can make a difference, like the Polish woman, Ganda, who saved Dvora’s life. He delivered a lecture on the Holocaust at his university, located in a German-American community in northern Minnesota. A week after my father gave the lecture, he was fired. Apparently certain administrators and faculty were not interested in addressing the topic of the Holocaust, as some were deniers and others Nazi sympathizers. Consequently, my father sued the university for anti-Semitism, winning a pyrrhic victory. The university was forced to include Jewish history and Holocaust studies in its curriculum, but my father was denied the opportunity to teach there. To this day, the university struggles with issues of racism and anti-Semitism.
When we hear of such malice in our society, it is no longer acceptable for us to let it continue. It is not enough that one person is moved to act; we must all jump to action. My grandmother and father’s stories taught me the importance of perseverance in the face of hardship. I know that I must always be iron-willed in my convictions and actions because I have seen the consequences of apathy. The sheer inertia of a society led to the downfall of humanity. The great crime of the Holocaust did not lie solely in the destruction of an entire society, or in the loss of millions of lives, but rather in the apathy of the billions of people who allowed it to occur.
The fact that prejudice, racism, and anti-Semitism still exist anywhere in the world demonstrates the need to teach the history and lessons of the Holocaust to future generations. For the past four years, I have volunteered with a non-governmental organization in which educators from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Lebanon work together to establish a shared middle and high school curriculum to promote tolerance and understanding between these parties in conflict. One of the lessons taught in the curriculum addresses the topic of the Holocaust and other 20th century genocides.
As part of my work with this group, I recently had an opportunity to attend a conference in Istanbul, Turkey. I arrived there during the same week in which Hrant Dink, editor of the Turkish Armenian newspaper, Agos, was assassinated. Mr. Dink “wanted to shatter the silence in Turkey on the 1915 deportation and massacres of Armenians, believing that remembrance was a responsibility” (Shafak). The first genocide to be described as a “holocaust” was the Armenian genocide, in which a million and a half Armenians were murdered, starved, and deported by the Turkish government (Balakian, 11). Dink, an Armenian, awaited the day when Armenians and Turks would be able to mourn this genocide together. Sadly, he was killed by a young Turkish nationalist before it would come to pass.
The denial of genocide can lead to future genocides and ethnic cleansing. It is imperative now more than ever that we, as a society, remember the Holocaust. As I listen to the news today, I hear about the displacements, rapes, and massacres in the Darfur region of Sudan. I recall the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the genocide in Rwanda where Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. We can no longer sit and watch these events unfold. We must be active in educating future generations on the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent such genocides from ever occurring again.
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