Content note: To my Jewish loved ones and those who are simply passing by, this post involves discussion of Holocaust stories, survivors, and camps. I am an author and historian, specialising in the Second World War and Holocaust, with additional study in the sociology of fascism and authoritarianism from the mid-20th century to now. Most of my relevant studies were conducted at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, with many study-related trips to Oświęcim (where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located), Majdanek, and to organisations focused on Holocaust remembrance and education. I’m not Jewish and cannot speak for the Jewish community. This post is about the responsibility we bear to those who are targeted to ensure we do not forget and the obligation to understand that simply remembering is never enough — we are morally required to educate ourselves and to act to the best of our ability. Further reading/listening on doing just that: Keffy Kehrli over at Glittership.
I made a promise.
It was 2007 in January. The sky had a rift of stars that showed through the clouds, and the snow under our feet was tightly frozen. It creaked when we moved, but few of us moved.
We stood in front of a large stone. Around us were flags of different countries, and faces that had seen many years. There was little light, except from stars.
My feet were cold in their dress flats. I found myself wondering what it would be like to be there, to not have a warm place to go after. To have only wooden clogs and no socks and that creaking cold.
It started to snow as someone spoke, tiny perfect crystal flakes from a starlit sky.
We did have a warm place to go when it was finished, but many of the people around me remembered what it was like not to.
We were at the end of the train tracks in a place called Brzezinka, a place better known as Birkenau.
It was 27 January, 2007.
Liberation Day. It wasn’t my first time at the camps. I lost count sometime in the year and a half I spent living in Poland studying those years of war and horror. They weren’t the first survivors I met. I lost count of the number of survivors I met, too. It wasn’t the first time I walked through those places, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek — and too-easily felt the echoes of fear and death. It wasn’t the first time I saw people who walked them in their height and came out alive. Somehow, miraculously, alive.
That day, one of the survivors spoke at the Międzynarodowy Dom Spotkań Młodzieży (the International Youth Meeting House in Oświęcim, Poland). He threw the translators into a tizzy, deciding to speak in English instead of Polish. He was a New Yorker, born in Łódź. A survivor of Auschwitz. He spoke frankly that day, winking at the translators running around trying to find who among them could translate English to French and German for the visiting students instead of Polish. He met my eyes once as he spoke.
Toward the end, he looked around the room, which was full mostly of teens from France and Germany. Some volunteers (among them, my boyfriend). Some guests (among them, me), some diplomats. He said something I will never forget. “You’re the last ones,” he said. “You’re the last ones who are going to meet us. You’re the last ones we’re going to get to tell. Those who come after you, well. It’s your job to tell them what you know. Don’t let them forget. Don’t let this happen again.”
He spoke brightly that day. He was old. In his 80s already. He had been a child during the war. That day he had had a dizzy spell and almost fallen. He’d insisted on speaking anyway. That night he willingly went back to the place that had wanted him dead and stood there in the cold under that starry sky as a free man, an American citizen, a Polish-born Jewish man.
They all did, the whole group of them. I remember standing there nearby, watching their faces, struck silent by the strength I knew it took to know something was that important, the most important thing in the world to make people go back of their own accord and stand in that very spot where the train tracks end. Where the angel of death used to gesture with a flick of his cane who would struggle on in life and who would go to die.
It was the most important thing in the world. To pass on those memories. To stand with a new generation and watch their faces take it in. To show them the numbers on their forearms and say, “Never again.” The most important thing in the world.
Later we went back to the meeting house, where it was warm. I sat down beside him, speaking quietly in Polish. He was at a small table with another survivor. He greeted me and took my hand and beamed. He asked where I was from, and I told him from the States. He clucked at me and said in Polish, “But which one?” So I told him Montana, and he looked at me in mock admonishment and said, “Dlaczego nie mi przyniosłaś mi konia?”
“Why didn’t you bring me a horse?”
I promised him next time I saw him, I’d make sure to remember to bring him a horse. He laughed. His friend laughed.
And then he told me how he knew his friend. They had gone to primary school together in Łodź. Then the Nazis had invaded, and they had gone to the ghetto, and then the trains had come, and they had gone to Auschwitz. They never saw each other after the ghetto, until almost twenty years later at a survivor event in the 60s. They had found each other then. Again. They had both survived. And they were both there, at that table. With me, a young historian struggling to compass the depth of their memories and marveling that after everything, they still had smiles to give. Warm handshakes. Courage. Love.
What happened to them should have never happened. No one thought it could happen. Those in power didn’t mean it, not really. It was just a registry, at first. Just making sure citizens were taken care of and safe from those who wanted to exploit their land. Just favouring homeland citizens and their businesses. Just in case the others couldn’t be trusted. Just in case. Homelanders should be able to decide who they do business with. Homelanders deserve first priority. They were there first, after all, never mind those other people, the uncivilised ones, the ones who are loud and making a fuss. This is why the homelanders deserve first priority.
It was just a precaution, having them identify themselves. Just a precaution, resettling them. Wouldn’t they be better off together anyway? Safety in numbers. Only temporary until the threats were sorted. Just another resettlement, have them bring their valuables. They’d need them when they got where they were going, right? Afterward, because it was only temporary.
It wasn’t forever.
A precaution. Just in case.
And the others, too — who could trust the elites at their universities and in their labs? Surely they are paranoid. Delusional. It’s better that they are quieted. They think they know everything. The media — don’t trust them. They lie. The citizens deserve the truth from someone who tells them what’s really going on. Who is really to blame.
It wasn’t forever.
Except it was forever, for over six million human beings. Six million people. It was forever.
He didn’t tell us his story because the story started in a gas chamber. He told us his story because it started with human beings who thought they were protecting themselves from a threat. It started with human beings who thought they were good people. It started with human beings who had neighbours who weren’t just like them and were kind to them. It started with human beings who felt tired, who struggled to feed their families or who wanted to protect their jobs and income, and here is the vital thread that goes through that statement: protecting jobs and income is not a full statement. To protect something implies that there is a threat to it from somewhere or someone. It started with human beings who felt they needed to protect their lives from other people who were different than them.
We have come back to the beginning of his story. We shy from using the same vocabulary words of his story because they feel like they shouldn’t fit. After all, his story starts in German. And the words in English feel less threatening, therefore they must be, right?
It can’t happen here, right?
Nazi is a word that comes from the German “nationalist” — Nationalist is pronounced “naht-see-oh-nah-list” –> phonetically abbreviated to Nazi.
Lebensraum. Lügenpresse. Heil. Those words frighten us because the words themselves are Other, in another context, with a specific connotation. They’re from the terrifying middle of the story to us when it’s a story we know the end of.
But to Germans in the 1930s? That was just their language. Just like “lying media” is English.
We are at the beginning of the story again. But this is a choose your own adventure tale. The end isn’t set in stone and ash. We don’t have to get to that ending again. But that ending is one of the possibilities. It’s an ending that could be reached by many different paths, many different choices. All of which involve human beings who believe they are good human beings. All of which involve human beings deciding that each page isn’t that much scarier than the last. All of which involve human beings thinking the worst ending isn’t anywhere in the book they’re reading, when it is.
Ten years ago, I made a promise. I promised that I’d bring an old Holocaust survivor a Montana horse.
The promise I made is a metaphor. It’s not about the horse.
People born today will never meet them. They won’t have grandparents who survived or grandparents who were there on Liberation Day. They won’t sit in a youth meeting house and watch as an older person tells them a true horror story where somehow they were left standing at the end. They won’t sit and share biscuits and tea with them. They won’t hold old hands full of life and grit and courage and resistance and humanity. The declaration of “never again” will feel more removed, less real, less alive. It will sound like history and not like memory.
But they might live it themselves, if we don’t choose a different path than the one we’re on. There could be a pair of Muslim students in primary school in the United States right now who, if we choose wrong, could find themselves thirty years from now and wonder how they both possibly survived the internment camps or worse.
We are at the beginning of that story, a different book in the same series. It’s in a different language, on a different continent. The characters are different. But the story’s guts are the same.
I made a promise. I’m not only going to bring the horse, but I will help form the damn cavalry if I need to. I will not keep turning the pages to wait and see what happens next. I will choose to resist. I will choose not to normalise. I will choose to feel this fear. I will continue to speak out when we get to the end of a chapter and choose the wrong page to go to next.
I made a promise.
Leah Bobet said on Twitter last week, “It’s funny to see how little and how much it takes to be a good person. So little, so much.” Can I be a good person? I don’t know. It takes so little. It takes so much. I know that I can try every day, to get used to doing the little things. To hopefully find the courage it takes to do the big ones. We want to think that being a good person is simply what we are, but in cases like these, it’s not what we are. It’s what we do.
History has its eyes on you.