"God offers to every mind
its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please-you can never
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
American poet, lecturer and essayist (1803-1882)
This is the Holocaust, an entire race of people set-aside for
obliteration. A people, whose creeds are the foundation of modern law,
raped of their humanity. Six million Jews and approximately five million
others tortured and murdered by the satanic whims of a megalomaniacal
What good can come from this abyss of evil? The stark answer is: None.
There is no lesson learned, no elevated philosophy, and no generous
platitude that can equivocate with the depth of despair, the chasm of
evil, that is the Holocaust.
And yet, we cannot forget. It is our debt to the millions, and to
ourselves, to remember their lives and their deaths, to remember their
sufferings and their pains, to remember them, for they are us. Mothers
and Fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, wanting to live
and to love, but unwillingly caught in a volcanic hate whose eruption
could only end in holocaust.
Alicia Appleman was just a young girl when she was taken with a group,
one of many groups, on a long walk towards death. The Germans shot those
who lagged behind or could walk no further and left them along the
roadside. The longer she walked, the more bodies she saw. The group was
taken into a forest and then to a large meadow. People were lined up
along large trenches and Germans with machine guns ripped them into the
hole. As her turn approached, she heard her name being shouted, and
machine gun fire close by. At first she thought she was imagining, but
she kept hearing her name. It was Milek, her wonderful, brave, young
friend. Milek had a machine gun and was firing into the squad of
Germans. She heard him again scream for her to run and she did, as did
many others. She and others escaped that day because of one tenacious,
defiant boy, Milek. (Appleman, Alicia, pg. 94-95)
Helen K. survived Majdanek, only to be transferred to Auschwitz, she
said, “It’s very hard to explain it to you. We just did it. What we had
to do, we did. Our aim was to defy Hitler, to do everything we can to
live. Because when you live--he wants us to die, and we didn’t want to.
We didn’t want to oblige him. This was our way of fighting back.”
(Green, Joshua M. pg. 147)
This is the tenacity that leads to endurance, and the defiance that goes
before personal victory.
Arnold C. was only 11 years old when he first entered Auschwitz/Birkenau,
he remembers, “There was one boy, he was probably around fifteen. And as
he was told to line up in the group that was selected, he yelled at the
SS officers. His name was Chaim Auka. He should be remembered. He said,
‘Jewish blood is not water! You’ll get yours one day!’ and they were
taken away. They were gassed the same night. I could see the
crematoriums burning. You could smell it.” (Green, Joshua M., pg.
Benjamin Jacobs writes, “Robbing us of our names was a way to complete
our dehumanization. Our names became numbers. In time we knew why.
Numbers had no faces. They were much easier to deal with…. One day the
Kapo kept us outside in the cold rain for more than an hour. When we
finally got back into the block, we were dripping wet. We hung our
clothes around the room to dry. When the Kapo noticed, he asked us who
had had that idea. Since we all did it simultaneously, no one admitted
guilt. Then he ordered us to go outside naked and circle the block. As
we passed by him standing at the door, he swung his whip at us. Mendele
was hit badly, but even though some lashes on his back drew blood, he
didn't whimper.” (Jacobs, Benjamin, chapter 12)
Of all who ever lived, these must not remain ciphers. They are not
nameless Nazi numbers. They are our friends, our family, those we
cherish most. Helen and Alicia and Milek, Arnold and Chaim, Benjamin and
Mendele, and countless other witnesses and victims.
Let us search them out and discover who they were, how they lived, and
why they died, for in our remembering them we may find the truth of who
we will become. And if we are to remember them, let us also remember
their tenacity in the face of evil, their endurance in the face of
absolute exhaustion, and their defiance in the face of the cruelest
And what of the SS officers and the “neighbors” who turned away or
turned them in, they too had names, but they shall not be mentioned
here. They are traitors to themselves and to humanity. Dante claimed the
deepest circle of hell was reserved for the traitors, and so it is. They
are now the nameless numbers who fill that self created region of hell.
Yes, they are all us, not just the victims but the oppressors as well.
We must accept the duality of our nature. Each of us has the capacity to
inflict great injury or to endure great suffering. We can choose to hate
or to heal. Our responsibility is to recognize this truth, with all its
implications, and to combat the evil within us and around us.
They say it can never happen again. Yet, even now there are despots,
some in shadow and some in the clear light of day, circling their
regions of real estate, denying as fact the most documented
conflagration of human flesh in recorded history. They are those who
would willingly repeat the past and shed innocent blood on altars of
conquest and power.
What can we do? This is the important question we must each continually
ask ourselves, whether we are neighbors of the concentration camps or
standing in a hallway next to someone in need. We can offer kindness to
those whom others deride. We can and must stand for those who cannot
stand for themselves. We must form our own resistance against any
violence forced upon the innocent or against our own corrosive desires
to wound others. We must respect and protect the rights and the beliefs,
the ideals and the ideas of others, as if they were our own, for only in
this way do we truly protect ourselves. But above all, we can remember.
We must remember. And we must choose truth and leave repose for the
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1841
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. 2005
Appleman-Jurman, Alicia. Alicia My Story. Bantam Books. 1988
Green, Joshua M. and Kumar Shiva. Witness, Voices from the Holocaust.
The Free Press, A division of Simon and Schuster inc. New York, NY 2000
Jacobs, Benjamin. The Dentist of Auschwitz A Memoir. The Nizkor Project.