This morning, Pat was clicking around on the television and ended up stopping on a PBS documentary about World War Two, the countries involved in World War Two, and how Europe has been transformed by this war. At one point, the narrator walked through Berlin and showed the location of Hitler’s former bunker and remarked on how this was the location where the Goebbels parents poisoned their children. Then, a moment or so later, the narrator talked about the Holocaust which, understandably, led her to Auschwitz.
The Holocaust has been a part of my life since I was a girl of seven or eight years old and my parents took my brother and me to Dachau. At the time, Dad was stationed in Germany and we were living in Munich. I was a naive child who had never really understood humanity’s capacity for inhumanity. I was in first, possibly second grade. My exposure to cruelty was limited to cartoon violence, ignoring the news, and whatever violent events might be captured in artwork (my mother pretty much raised me in art museums).
And then came Dachau.
I actually don’t remember very much. I remember long gravel paths, high walls, and a huge (to me) building that was filled with artifacts. I have no idea if my parents ever told me what had transpired in Dachau. I remember looking at a political cartoon that showed Aryan children hanging upside down with their throats slit and evil looking men (Jews) holding silver platters in order to catch the blood. I thought, as a girl, this was actually documenting the evils being done to the Jews. It wasn’t a decade or so later that I realized how wrong I was.
I remember pictures documenting the human experimentation….a man in a pilot’s suit being submerged into water. At 42 (almost 43), I know now that the man in the suit was killed by hypothermia, that this was done for scientific reasons.
I think I remember the crematorium. I’m not certain. So much of that day is completely blocked out. I don’t think it’s because I was traumatized. I think it’s because I was innocent and, somehow, that innocence was preserved. In a way, I think I’m grateful.
What I most remember is the weird vibe, this sense of wrongness that the planes of the world were out of alignment and I couldn’t find a way to rearrange things so that I could find my comfort zone. This is not literal, but it was like the trees were whispering to one another, telling each other the stories that had been extinguished and sent up the chimney or turned into ash that would fertilize fields with their secrets and silence.
I remember that after we left Dachau we went to a Germany bakery (bakerei in German) and I got a cream puff. That was the last cream puff I ate for…decades. I was nauseated and couldn’t stomach the pastry. I don’t know if it was just too rich for me. Personally, I think it was the fact that what I have blocked was still destroying me internally.
Fast forward now three and a half decades and I reclining on my bed (in my wool socks again) and am thinking…am once more walking down blurred, long gravel paths that I am not certain as to where they lead.
Back in the 90’s, when the world was commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, 60 Minutes did a report on the journals of Dr. Mengle, the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. As the camera scrolled down a page that listed the twins on whom he operated or performed horrific experiences, I was shocked to see my family’s name at the top.
Now, my father’s family had emigrated to America back in the 1800’s. However, people with whom I shared a last name had been prisoners in one of the worst places on Earth. People with whom I shared a last name and possibly stairs on the DNA staircase were victims of a man who called himself a doctor but was truly no healer.
For the longest time, whenever I taught Night by Elie Wiesel, I would have nightmares in which I was in Auschwitz with my son and daughter. And, my Sophie’s Choice was not which one I was going to save. I hid them in lockers that suddenly appeared and chose to go to the gas chambers myself. How they would survive in the lockers was not part of the dream’s logic. They were going to live and I was going to die and I was not going to mourn this decision when the Boy and the Girl were going to live. This was the dream. Not even a real nightmare because I was sobbing as I shoved them into hiding spaces that were magically large enough to care for my kids.
Maybe, I stashed them in the wardrobe that would take them to Narnia.
Yeah…that’s good enough for me. I haven’t had this dream/nightmare in years. Also, I haven’t taught Night in years because my students are reading this book when they were freshmen or sophomores (I primarily teach seniors).
What I know is that I am compelled to teach my students about the Holocaust or 9/11 or child soldiers in Sierra Leone or child brides in India or poverty in the United States because, in the end, our lives are fairly good in comparison to these atrocities. And in teaching my students, I am living the legacy of remembering and choosing “Never Again” as opposed to “Not Right Now.”
It bothers me that we have this concept of “Never Again” when we have stood by and watched atrocities happen like genocides in Cambodia or Bosnia-Herzgovia or Rwanda. It bothers me that I am on this incredible continent and want to expand whatever goodness I might be capable of committing and I am not doing it.
I want to say it’s because I am a mother and I need to be here for my children.
I want to say it’s because I just don’t have enough money.
I am ashamed to say that I think it’s because I am afraid. I am afraid of confrontation and causing other people harm.
But, at the same time, this fear of hurting others also means that I allow people to be hurt which is contrary to my nature as well.
So, in the last bit of time (can’t really measure it…maybe because I am embarrassed) I have stopped standing quietly and have started speaking and saying what needs to be said. Most of the time, it goes through the lobes of the person I am trying to stop from causing pain to others. Sometimes, I think it might have an effect.
I don’t know.
But in choosing to remember and to say “Never Again,” then I guess that I don’t have to cross oceans to do my best good. I guess that the best good I can do, at this point, is to continue to teach my students about the realities of the world that exists within or just beyond their zip codes. And to raise my children with the desire to show compassion and not harm. And, when I see ugliness being committed, to stop thinking that looking aside is the right thing. That happened at least six million times during the Holocaust.
I will not be an accomplice to that kind of evil.