The youngest survivors are in their late 60s, early 70s. It is a very real possibility that in my lifetime there will come a time when no one is left to recount, first hand, the horrors of the Holocaust. Six million Jews (and millions more who were also deemed inferior) perished at the command of one man. Today is Yom HaShoah and Jews around the world remember those who were killed. I lit a candle and in doing so remember those who otherwise would not be.
Most Jews can tell you of the time or times they’ve met Holocaust survivors. I don’t remember when I first met someone who’d been in the Holocaust. Mrs. Slusser was part of our congregation. I was probably 7 or 8 when I noticed the bandage on her forearm. I asked if she hurt herself. “No”, she said, and left it at that. Weeks later the bandage was still there. And it was always there. I mentioned it to my mom who said it was something Mrs. Slusser didn’t talk about. I left it at that. It was years later when I first saw her tattoo. By then I had read about the Holocaust. I knew what it meant. Only prisoners at Auschwitz were given numbers. From her age, she must have been a young girl when she was taken to the camp.
This year marks the 59th time Yom HaShoah has been observed. It is observed across the globe not only to remember those who died, but also to remember those who stood up and did something. There were many who hid families, arranged for children to be transported to safety, opened their factories and shops to the Nazi’s yet treated the Jews forced to work in labor camps humanely. There are many stories, not all of which are told in award-winning films. But they are told. By those who survived or got out.
I’ve heard their stories first hand. I’ve seen men and women slowly roll up their sleeves to expose their tattoo indicating they spent time at Auschwitz. One day, though, there will be no one left to bear witness first hand.
Listening to these elderly men and women tell their story of hunger, death, famine and countless atrocities is sobering. I also hear them speak of love, beauty, family and hope and my eyes fill with too many tears for a single tissue. I close my eyes and listen raptly as they share this horror with me, with us. And with each time they tell their story a little part of it escapes, to allow that space to be filled with love.
My family had emigrated to America many years prior. Although in the military, during the time of liberating the camps in Europe my grandfather was in the South Pacific on secret missions. And while I have no family connection to the atrocities, as a Jewish person I am forever part of continuing to tell the story.
On my recent trip to Italy I visited Pompeii. A civilization destroyed by a volcano. But some had left prior. And others knew the city existed. But at some point their story stopped being told and the history died for thousands of years. Then one day a man unearthed a fragment of their history. And now history is rediscovered.
We can’t let that happen to those who died in the Holocaust. Regardless of religion, we can never forget. And we can not stop telling the stories to our children and impressing upon them the importance of why we do this. One day there will be no one to say “I saw it with my own eyes”. And on that day, it will solely be up to us to keep their memories alive.
In memory of all those who died in the Holocaust, I remember. Please join me and helping to keep history alive.
Today I also remember those who lost their lives, and whose lives were forever changed, by the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. I was in law school at the University of Oklahoma at the time. I remember everything about that day. It’s been 17 years since the Oklahoma City Bombing and I remember that day like it was yesterday.
Photo: Sara Hawkins, taken March 2012 in the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, Italy