For some time I’ve been interested in, and somewhat passionate about, Holocaust education. That was not always the case. I am Jewish, and I was always aware that my maternal grandfather’s family vanished without a trace during World War II. They were from Riga, Latvia and apparently, the Holocaust swallowed them up. No one could help the family find them, not the Red Cross, not any of the other organizations that assisted families after the war. This is tragic, but if I’m to be honest, it wasn’t an issue for me. I was a child, teenager, and a young adult who had issues to deal with in the here and now. As I continued to mature and went out into the world, the Holocaust started to become more of a “topic” for me. The more I saw, read and experienced, the more I realized that this was a period of history that we could not allow to fade into oblivion.
I’ve been privileged to participate in Holocaust remembrance ceremonies at several locations but the one that touched me the most was in Cheyenne, Wyoming where I met two survivors – a brother and sister who attended my synagogue. They didn’t like discussing their experiences and declined requests to speak at remembrance events. Their quiet dignity, love of life and devotion to their faith told their story for them. The numbers on their arms spoke volumes. Arriving at Davis-Monthan, I again became involved in the annual remembrance events. I was excited to meet our local group of Holocaust survivors. It has become clearer and clearer that these people are an irreplaceable, priceless resource. They are, quite literally, living history and I need to hear their stories. I need to speak with them, to understand what they want me to know… what they want all of us to know.
It is from this perspective, that of a Jew who just within the past 10 years has begun to fully grasp the magnitude of the Shoah and to appreciate its significance in today’s world, that I agreed to write this article. Then it hit me, what was I to write about? Should I discuss the historical perspective? Volumes have been written about the war, the invasions, liberation of the concentration and death camps. Should I write about the modern-day implications and history repeating itself? Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur – many among us cannot find them on a map but we know their names. Real world atrocities occurring during our own lifetimes. What about the rise of anti-Semitism and the specter of fear that it carries with it? That’s certainly worth discussing. What could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? How could I put my own “spin” on such an important topic?
What occurred to me is that it is not about finding a new way to present the facts. It’s not about finding a different spin or a new moral to the story. It’s about continuing to tell the story. We cannot let the voices of the past be silenced by ignorance or indifference. “You shall teach it to your children and your children’s children”. Paraphrased from the Bible, these words encourage us to continue the discussion, continue the education.
What is it that we need to be teaching to our children? History tells us that more than six million Jews were killed over the course what has come to be known as the Holocaust. That this destruction began slowly, as laws were passed – stripping Jews of their rights. That this progressed to incidents like Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, the Night of Broken Glass. On this night over 7500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, 267 synagogues were burned and numerous individuals were killed. Over time, ghettos were formed, disease and starvation ensued. Jews and others were arrested and sent to concentration, labor, and death camps as Hitler’s machine implemented his “final solution”. All of these things are too terrible to believe – but are not too terrible to have happened. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the magnitude of the destruction and devastation.
Discussing the acts and events as simple statistics almost seems to trivialize them. This is not just data – this happened to real people. To mothers and fathers, to children and the elderly, to the healthy and the infirm. What was it like to be violently separated from your family? For parents to tell their children not to wave goodbye because that gesture looked too similar to the Nazi salute. To lose everything you ever worked for, to lose your very identity. The Holocaust was not a murder of six million Jews. It was six million murders.
There are lessons to be gleaned from the devastation and sorrow. When survivors are asked what it is that they want current generations to know, the answers are as unique as the survivors themselves. Some discuss the danger of hatred, some warn of ignorance and indifference. Others encourage us to hold on to hope, to seek the good in people and the beauty in the world –despite what they have seen and experienced. These are not only history lessons, they are life lessons.
The problem is that we are losing the teachers. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100,000 Jewish survivors world-wide. The number of those survivors who can still speak eloquently about their experiences is far fewer. The youngest of the survivors are now in their 70s. Sadly, it will not be very long before their voices are silenced. It would be an even greater tragedy if the histories, the lessons were lost as well. So, it falls to the next generation. It falls to us.
Each year we hold a Holocaust Remembrance here on Davis-Monthan. We study the history, we listen to the stories, we remember the dead, we honor the living and we say “Never Again”. If it is to be “never again”, it is incumbent upon each of us to take advantage of opportunities like these. We need to debate, discuss, build our own understanding and teach those who will follow. Do not miss the opportunity to hear the stories for yourself, to look into each survivor’s eyes as they remember and share. If you can bring your children, do it. You will all come away with a deeper understanding of history, with a stronger appreciation of the human spirit and with something to talk about.
On April 24, the 355th Fighter Wing hosted a Holocaust Day of Remembrance event at the Dove Chapel beginning at 1 p.m. The commemoration ceremony honored and remembered the many women, men and children who lost their lives.
For more information on the Holocaust, visit the Equal Opportunity SharePoint site at https://dm.eim.acc.hedc.af.mil/355FW/EO/Lists/Announcements/AllItems.aspx or log on to the United States Holocaust Museum, www.ushmm.org