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Monday, August 21, 2017

I saw Hitler in a dream once. He had spotted an emaciated Jew trying to crawl into some cattle-cart of his, so he took the Jew out, laid him down and watched—with pitiless, careless, cold, gray eyes—as the Jew was crushed under the weight of that cart…This, in essence, is the Nazi sin—for them, the inhumane was a very human characteristic—but that sin was no dream; it was reality. Forever it will remain unerasable, unforgivable and, with any luck, unrepeated…But, then, isn’t it up to us to ensure that? After all, though the Nazis showed the world humanity’s capacity for evil, our Jewish forebears, in turn, showed humanity’s capacity for perseverance; they refused to give in, they fought on bravely, endured an incredible amount, grew past the trauma, out from the collective horror and rebuilt their lives elsewhere. So, then, what of us?

Well, when confronting the Holocaust, a certain question must be asked, which is: What is the best way to commemorate the past? In my 18 years of life, have I seen any answers? Only one—and that is empathy. Empathy for the dead and their struggles before death; for the victims still living and all the life they lost during that horrendous time period; and for one more group, which is tougher to locate: those whose very existence was stolen away from them—those innumerable Jews who, because of slaughtered would-be parents or grandparents and so on, were never even given the chance to be born…were never even granted that first fresh breath of life…

Now, there is a certain exercise in thought—a terrifying one—but one that I’ve taken to heart, and have practiced on more than one occasion. It goes something like this… First, picture you, yourself—body and mind, heart and soul—walking, slowly, wearing blue and white striped threadbare clothing, in freezing weather, with your head shaven and a thin numerical trail of ink upon your left arm. You’ve been through more than your terrorized mind and beaten body allow you to remember. Your former life is gone. You have no food to eat, no bed to sleep on, no house to come home to, no friends to have fun with and rely on—you’ve been stripped of ownership over all that was once yours—and your family…now that’s the worst of it all: You don’t know the fate of your family, the ones you love most, the ones who, despite your flaws, supported you through everything….But maybe all that is too much, too many variables to consider, too difficult to imagine; so let’s start with this: just one. One loved one—someone you can’t imagine life without—perishing, right in front of you, into your arms…You don’t know what to think, how to feel. That immeasurable person is gone. Gone. Taken from you. Forever…

So, with that in mind, you continue your dreadful walk. But where to? There are many scenarios that can play out, but let’s go with this one, as it was commonplace: The Nazi guards are screaming commands, searing your ears—you wish they would stop, but they never do. You are surrounded by countless bodies, and, as if caught in a ferocious sea, you are torn forward, backward, left, right—at any moment you can be trampled—and you’re not sure where you’re headed, but you’ve heard—rumors—devilish rumors. A rumor that, in truth, you cannot refute. A rumor of death. But, then again, the vile Nazis have reassured you, the whole way through, that this routine shower is a favor from them to you, a kindly act for cleanliness. Can you imagine what that feels like? To be walking to your doom without knowing it? And then, upon entering, what it feels like to be surrounded by living corpses—whether children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, teenaged or elderly—each without space to move, hardly able to breathe, as, one soul after the other is—stolen…mercilessly…

Maybe we should make a list of possible destinations for those unfortunate enough to be marked as Jews during that time. There were ruthless labor camps, where people would work hours on end with starved stomachs and helplessly thin and weakened bodies. There were concentration camps, too, with savage experimental labs, gas chambers, crematoriums and, later, a chilling death march, if you chanced to make it that far. There were countless extermination sights, scenes of bloody massacre by the hundreds of thousands; and, before then, you might have experienced Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when the dark cloud of Nazism came to envelope the Jews. Or you could be hiding—as Anne Frank, in all her precocious brilliance, once did—living every moment in fright of what might come storming in. You could be a Kapo, overseeing the destruction of your fellow Jew; a Judenrat council member, deciding, upon Nazi directive, who in your community should die first; a Sonderkommando, forced to carry the corpses of your Jewish brethren into ovens of fire, the crematoriums, before being sentenced to meet the same fate just a few months later; or maybe, after escaping from the ghetto with the measly equipment that you managed to capture, you fought for your life in the woods as a partisan, attempting to stand your ground despite the impossible odds stacked horribly against you…All of these options are awful, imbued with terror beyond our comprehension—and the worst part is, I’ve only touched the surface…

Now...I can sense, already, that there are a number of you who don’t like to hear this, you never like to hear this, you wish it were over already: The Holocaust is something you’d rather not think about it. So, now, I’d like to address that, as it is something I’ve seen a lot of. Many people I’ve talked to believe that having learned what they already have of the Holocaust was enough. For such people, to hear anything more than the fragments they’ve already acquired is just immensely painful, utterly unbearable. And I understand. For those kinds of people, who empathize so deeply and sincerely—who feel the pain, those villages of suffering, the dirtied faces of those poor people, on such an extreme level that it fills their bones with a kind of magnified terror—I certainly can’t blame you for shutting your eyes or covering your ears. But for any other reason, there is no excuse. If, like me, somehow, you can learn of these things without becoming totally emotionally distraught, without being consumed by that wave of darkest horror, then it is up to you, as best you can, however you see fit—whether that means movies, shows, pictures, artifacts, books, articles, museum trips—it is up to you to internalize the monstrous immensity that was the anguish of our ancestors. Though the Holocaust was forcefully injected into our Jewish bloodstream, in a terrible way it unites us—binds us—we are linked together by that shared heritage of suffering…

“To forget the dead would be,” as Elie Wiesel once said, “akin to killing them a second time.” If we forget ourselves and where we come from, these victims, just as they were once abandoned by the world in their time of desperate need, would be abandoned once more, and, this time, by their own children…

We can’t let that happen. Our duty is to be vigilant. Their right is to be remembered.

By Aviad Shely, TABC senior