Truth or Repose?
By Sarah Ratigan
Hayden, ID


"God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please-you can never have both."

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 few.

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. 135-136)

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 conquest.

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. (Alighieri, Dante)

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 dead.



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. 1995.


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