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By Catherine Clifton
Lexington, KY


 

The man walked to the front of the classroom. He was short, gray headed and stood with a quiet dignity belying a certain grace that comes with age and experience. He stood with his hands held behind him facing a small room full of students from a nearby Episcopal girl’s boarding school, all eager to enjoy a few weeks reprieve from the regular class schedule. The class they had signed up for was simply named “The Holocaust”. Over the last several days, the guest teacher, a rabbi from a local synagogue, had gone about introducing basic elements of the Jewish faith to his students. They had visited a Jewish school and sat in on Hebrew lessons for elementary children. They had toured the rabbi’s synagogue, discussed the Torah and taken a field trip to a museum that was showcasing many donated Jewish artifacts. On this day though, the mood was more serious. The speaker in front of them had not been introduced and the teacher sat politely in the back waiting for the gentleman to begin. When he started to speak, it was with a soft voice. Everyone strained to listen, so to not miss a word. The story was one they could not fathom. Memories of a carefree life and loving family in pre-war Europe gave way to closing borders, fear for safety, brutal fighting, and the separation and destruction of all he loved. At war’s end, he was left with haunting memories, a prisoner number tattooed on the inside of his forearm and something far more visible. During his time in the concentration camp, he was forced to work in a saw mill. Remaining silent and obedient were key factors in camp survival, he had told the girls. Neither philosophy helped him the day he was being guarded by a soldier in foul humor. The soldier decided that the prisoner was not cutting the wood pieces fast enough and proceeded to shove him with the butt of his rifle. The fingers that were carefully guiding the wood piece through the blade were sheared off instantly. The hands so politely held at his back as he spoke now came in front of him. His missing appendages were not a badge of honor, nor meant to horrify his young audience, but simply to educate them on the realities of the Holocaust.

My mother’s experience as a junior during her “minimester” class at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, VA led to a life long interest she has shared with me. The Holocaust is a powerful illustration of survival and depicts the very best and the very worst of human interaction. That a government can go unchecked and unchallenged long enough to inflict death and indignity on millions is a reality that must be addressed. To America, so strongly rooted in the rights of the individual, with “core principles enabling life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, the realities of an oppressive government seem surreal. Today’s students with access to the Internet are more of a global mind than ever before and therefore must demonstrate a proactive stance on intolerability to oppression. I have not been to Cuba, walked the streets of Iran or visited Rwanda. But in an effort to make history “real”, I can research, read or even revisit the Holocaust Museum in DC now that I am tall enough to see what the protective barriers shielded from my young six year old eyes. I can encounter the architecture, artifacts, documentation, photos and videos all designed to provide a powerful and moving experience of life during all phases of the Holocaust. I can compare my dark hair and eye color among other physical characteristics with those that were persecuted and discover few differences. I can gaze at the piles of discarded glasses or shoes of those whose fate I cannot contemplate. This living memorial was established almost thirty years ago by the efforts of President Jimmy Carter and is available to all that care to experience it.

Knowledge of the Holocaust is just a beginning. Accepting how it makes a difference to the current actions I take today is the key. I can take interest and educate myself on world events. I can speak out, quickly and with conviction, while encouraging others to do the same. Demonstrating fairness, equality and respect for all mankind day by day will be my challenge.

 

Bibliography


1. Clifton, Melissa. Personal Interview. 28 February 2008

2. Lopatto, Jeanne . "Statement of Sen. Orrin Hatch ." News Release: Judiciary Committee 01 Mar 2000 10 Mar 2008 <http://judiciary.senate.gov/oldsite/31200ogh.htm>.

3. Valentino, Benjamin. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

4. Weinberg, Jeshajahu. Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: New York Rizzoli , 1995.

 

 


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