Since I was eight years old, I have studied the Holocaust.
My introduction began when I was in third grade and my teacher announced to the class that the mini-series The Holocaust was on TV. Always interested in pleasing my teacher, I went home and watched it.
I had nightmares for days after watching the mini-series. In those scary dreams I saw my parents wrapped in cellophane and taken to a gas station never to return. My eight year old brain struggled to comprehend this part of history. My parents assured me that it “happened a long time ago,” and “would never happen in the United States.”
The Holocaust Haunts Me
For much of my life, the Holocaust has been ever present for me. It is always in the background of my daily life. In middle school and high school, I read every book on the Holocaust I could get my hands on. I even subscribed to receive a series of Time/Life books that documented the period of 1933 through 1945 from the perspective of the Nazis.
I learned about Hitler, and also all his henchmen. I saw the advertising techniques of Joseph Goebbels, and how he used essentially cartoons of Jewish people to stoke fear and hate. I learned about Heinrich Himmler, the mastermind behind the concentration camps. I was horrified by Dr. Josef Mengele who decided on the platform at Auschwitz who would go to the crematorium, and how would work in the camp, or worse, be subjected to his cruel experiments.
The heroes of the Holocaust held a special place in my heart. Miep Gies who kept the secret of the Frank family in Amsterdam. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who rescued Jews in Hungary. Corrie Ten Boom and her family hid Jews in their home and helped them to escape. I loved reading those stories, those profiles in courage.
It was disappointing to learn that America knew about the rise of Nazism, the violence towards Jews, and chose to remain on the sidelines. The story of the voyage of The St. Louis, and how the ship approximately 900 Jewish passengers was not allowed to land in Cuba, and the United States also declined to let them land. This ship was forced to return to Germany, were 254 of those passengers were killed during the Holocaust. There were so many other missed opportunities to help.
I was obsessed with the Holocaust. I had an insatiable curiosity. I watched movies and documentaries. I attended plays. When the author Elie Wiesel spoke at a university nearby, I was in the audience. I absorbed everything I could, trying to understand how something so horrific could possible happen.
Then, in my 30s, I suddenly stopped.
It was right after I watched the film Schindler’s List, and then watched the PBS presentation of Shoah, the documentary of testimonies of survivors. I was overwhelmed by the horror, of what I had come to learn about the atrocities during the Third Reich. It was just too much for me. The methods of eliminating an entire race of people were shocking. The rationale for carrying out this unspeakable mission
How could human beings let this happen to other human beings?
Only a Few Remain
I have a friend who’s father survived one of the concentration campus. He never spoke of his experience to oustiders, and only rarely to his family. His tattoo was the only glimpse of this part of his past. He was kind and soft-spoken. I never saw him angry.
When he died two years ago, my friend told me that three people at the funeral were also Holocaust survivors. “I’m so lucky he survived,” my friend said. “His passing isn’t just my loss. His death is the death of another witness to the Holocaust. Soon, there won’t be anyone left.”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar led by one of the leading Holocaust researchers in the world. Much of what the seminar focused on was the urgency of trying to preserve the stories and memories of the remaining survivors. Soon, they will all be gone. And when that happens, it becomes harder to convince some people that the Holocaust was not just real, but that there is always potential for something like it to happen again.
My friend’s words are with me every time I see reports about the rise of anti-semitism here in the United States and around the world. It feels like the world is forgetting what happened such a short time ago. The people who endured these extreme depths of hatred wont’ be with us much longer. Then what?
This past summer I came face-to-face with my interest in the Holocaust when I visited the exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. For hours, I took a solitary journey down into the depths of darkness as I read all the research, listened to the testimonials, and saw the possessions of those who perished at Auschwitz.
At the end of my visit, I walked outside, and looked out to see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. I sat down and cried for all those lives lost and changed by the Holocaust.
Guardians of the Truth
January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
We all have a role to play to ensure the lessons and people of the Holocaust are never forgetten.
The most important account I follow on Twitter is the Auschwitz Museum. Every day, they post the faces and brief stories about the victims of the Holocaust. We see their faces, either through personal photos, or some of the most harrowing are the pictures taken once they are registered at the camp. Knowing the victims as people matters.
The Auschwitz Museum staff are fierce guardians of the legacy of the victims and survivors. They routinely call out misinformation and ask for corrections. They work to remove work defaming the Holocaust. Their dedication to the memory of the victims is inspiring and essential.
The testimonies of survivors are signficant. We cannot turn away now. We must do all we can to record, recite, and remember what they can tell us about their eyewitness accounts to the highest echelons of hate.
These are the last survivors of the Holocaust.
On January 27, it is imperative that we take the time to bear witness to these survivors. Make time to watch, to listen, learn and understand. Then vow that we can’t let evil take hold again.