Wednesday, January 28, 2009

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 27, 1945 is the date when the largest Nazi death camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. In 2005, the first global day of remembrance for Holocaust victims was established by special act of the United Nations. Victims of the Nazis included 6 million Jews and an additional 4-6 million non-Jews who were Roma (gypsies); Soviet civilians, Soviet prisoners of war; ethnic Poles; Jehovah's Witnesses; the disabled; homosexuals; and political and religious opponents. As Eli Wiesel said, "This was a war against the Jews in which, not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

The transcripts of the heart-wrenching sessions at the UN that decided the resolution to declare this day -- all 6 hours of them, can be found by scrolling down to 24 January 2005 on this archive page.

Now, please bear with me as I tell you a true story.

In August of my 16th year, I was with a study tour in Austria. We would take bus trips on weekends. One weekend we were driving through a forest that looked like it had been created by Hansel and Gretel.

We drove through miles of trees, through dense forests. I joked that we should scatter breadcrumbs to find our way home.

We were young, laughing, full of ourselves, not knowing our next destination. We rounded a corner and found ourselves in a grey courtyard, with a grey stone wall a story high around it. Inside were guard towers. Huge hooks hung from chains on the walls. Then there was the sign. We had pulled up to Mauthausen, one of the most brutal concentration camps of the Nazi era. Suddenly everyone was silent.

Very few of us stayed in groups as we walked through the camp.

Language was almost impossible.

The sky was blue. The camp, located on a hill of wildflowers, looked down on a peaceful group of villages. The smokestacks from the crematoria and the winding rock steps to the brutal quarry where slave labor took place are uphill, at the top of the mountainside, and in full view of the picturesque Austrian towns beneath it.

In one section of the camp are monuments put up by the many nations whose citizens died there. Some monuments bear the images of some of the dead.

I stood staring at the picture of a young Italian girl who was about my age. She had been gassed to death and then burned in the crematoria because she was Jewish.

I looked from the village to the picture of this girl to the smokestacks. They knew. People knew.

They saw what was happening.

No one could plead ignorance. They may plead fear, but not ignorance.

(Years later I saw a documentary about Mauthausen in which some local villagers proclaimed that they had "no idea" that exterminations were going on. They lied. It was not possible to be there and not know. I stood there and saw.)

I finally wandered to the exit gates. I met up with my summer's boyfriend. I sat next to him on a bench, looking very American, tears coming down my cheek, speaking to him softly about what I had seen. I had "gotten" what happened for the first time. I had brushed shoulders with what hatred can do. Something in the world that I had known had cracked open.

I was not to be the same after this day. Not ever. Not all the breadcrumbs in the world would lead me back through that forest to the innocent world that I had left behind me.

The guard's shack, near our bench, had been converted to a snack and souvenir shop where one could buy booklets and light refreshment. It seemed surreal.

Two men in their 40's walked out of the shack, one eating a big piece of yellow cake with white icing. He ate it without a fork, holding it in the palm of his hand. There were crumbs and bits of gooey frosting in his moustache. It was a savage way to eat.

He and his friend looked at me, not knowing that I spoke very good German that summer. One joked to the other about "the stupid American girl."

"Yes," said the other, looking at me directly in the eyes. "She doesn't know that here were the best days!"

They walked on.

I rose up off my seat and was pulled back down by my boyfriend.

"You cannot change the past," he said.

These men obviously were Nazis back on a nostalgic field trip. It was only 20 years after the war. What would horrify any civilized human being, delighted them.

These men did not just follow inhumane and brutal orders, they welcomed them, remembering them fondly. This was Evil.

And, Evil had looked me straight in the eyes and laughed.

I had not only brushed shoulders with what Evil can do; it had locked me in it's gaze. Evil that day was a man eating a piece of gooey cake. It looked like a neighbor, a friend, a relative. It was an ordinary person who hated. And it had laughed at me.

It makes me tremble now, 40 some years later, just to tell the story.

That day changed us all. Everyone was quiet back in the bus on the long drive back to our mountain, our safe place. The one Jewish girl in the group was crying for most of the way. She was being held by her boyfriend who stroked her long hair silently.

I sat quietly. I knew that I had learned two lessons that day, the first was the truth of what had happened. I saw the undeniable.

The second was a chilling glimpse into what could happen. The glimpse was of the fact that hatred doesn't end when hostilities cease, and that we need to be vigilant.

I applaud anything that reminds us of this, anything that keeps us from being complacent,from being villagers who deny the reality.

This day is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day that calls us to recall specifically the victims of The Holocaust.

It naturally raises our consciousness about others who are victims and who deserve their days. It reminds us, through the suffering of one group, that inhumanity affects us all. Please allow me a moment when I look (only generically, out of respect to these specific dead), at the broad issue of hatred that includes and extends beyond anti-semitism. Let the Holocaust stand as a warning to all who are the victims of hatred.

Diversity Inc reminds us that :

The number of hate groups in the United States is surging, up 48 percent since 2000, according to a report released today from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Now there are 888 such groups throughout the country, which marks an increase of 5 percent in one year.

And where are those hate groups?
Here are the top states:
# California: 80
# Florida: 49
# South Carolina: 45
# Georgia: 42
# Tennessee: 38
# New Jersey 34
# Virginia 34

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups. Click on your state and see what hate groups are there.

Every group that hates another, and is fueled by hatred, can hate your group, eventually -- regardless of who you are.

As John Donne said (slightly edited)

No person is an island, entire of itself; every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Today we are called upon to remember and mourn the victims of the Holocaust. Mark your blogs. Say prayers. Light candles. Leave a stone.

But whatever else you do, remember.

Hatred is not over.

Stay vigilant.

It is also in the thirst for justice, tolerance and acknowledgment of a common humanity that we can best honor the dead of the Holocaust.



A site for Holocaust Survivors

The United States Holocaust Museum

The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, describes themselves as "the Jewish people’s memorial to the murdered Six Million and symbolizes the ongoing confrontation with the rupture engendered by the Holocaust. Containing the world’s largest repository of information on the Holocaust, Yad Vashem is a leader in Shoah education, commemoration, research and documentation."

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust features an excellent list of information links.


Blogger Evelyn said...

I've been otherwise occupied, and am just now reading this post. I'm speechless, Mata. Thank you for sharing such a timeless and IMPORTANT lesson!

1:30 PM  

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