They are survivors of the Holocaust. Each of them bore witness to unthinkable inhumanity. As I listened to them recount their nightmares, I became, in their words, a "witness to the witness."
In the spring of 2004, I composed an award-winning essay about the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943. The inspiration for this essay came from my powerful experience of retracing the rescue route in 2000 after being captivated by the Lois Lowry book, "Number the Stars." Who knew that, by winning this national essay contest, I would be inheriting a new responsibility? I knew I had won a trip to Washington, D.C. with nine other students, a group of educators, and six Holocaust survivors. I did not know that by winning the Holocaust Remembrance Project I would become a "witness to the witness," and thus take on a lifelong and essential task of carrying the survivors' personal stories into the future.
The entire week felt like a preparation for a changing of the guard. Sand has almost filled the bottom of the Holocaust survivors' hourglasses-they reminded us of this every day. While the end of their lives seemed probable 60 years ago, it will be inevitable soon. They need ambassadors for the future, a younger generation that will remind society of a time where inconceivable evil became a reality. While I had written about and studied the Holocaust as well as spoken to groups about the Danish rescue, I was unprepared for the personal impact of the stories of the survivors-Leo, Irene, and Peter, to name a few.
Leo taught me about the fundamental desire to live, and how taking risks is a necessary part of life. On a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, Leo used a cloth soaked with urine to bend the window bars just enough for him to squeeze through. He jumped off the rail car of death into the unknown and spent years ingeniously eluding capture and death. While I hopefully will never have to make the literal "leap into darkness" that Leo made to survive, I learned from him that throughout our lives there will be times when taking a leap of faith is the only way to embrace life to the fullest. As a witness to this witness, I will retell Leo's story so people will understand that no human being should ever have to jump into darkness for the right to live.
Irene reinforced the importance of family ties for me. When Irene was 13, her entire family was murdered upon arriving at a concentration camp. The only remaining tangible connection to her loved ones was four of her mother's diamonds. Despite the consequence of death if caught with the stones, Irene preserved the stones through a pathetic cycle: swallowing the diamonds, then secretly slipping away to the waste holes to pick through her own waste and recover them. Today, Irene wears the diamonds on a tear-shaped pendant that rests on her heart. Imagining Irene's unimaginable and complete aloneness at 13 years old augments my appreciation for how fortunate I am to be surrounded by a loving family. As a witness to this witness, I will retell Irene's horrors so people will understand that when hatred goes unchecked, its brutal results leave children without families in total desolation.
Peter is my definition of a hero. After fleeing Austria in 1938, Peter and his family secured freedom from persecution in the English countryside. Though he had everything to lose, he eagerly seized the opportunity to retaliate against those who had oppressed his people. On June 6, 1944, Peter reentered the inferno of war-torn Europe as a British commando on D-Day and helped liberate the village of Benouville. I am awed at how Peter "struck back" at the evil in the world. His story has motivated me to look at myself. I hope to have a fraction of the selflessness and courage that he had if I am ever faced with a perilous dilemma. As a witness to this witness, I hope to inspire others to stand up to evil and hatred.
After having the privilege of getting to know these individuals as human beings, not just "survivors," I continued to maintain friendships with them. But on March 21, 2005, my correspondence with Peter was suddenly terminated by his fatal heart attack on the tennis court. Despite being 83-years-old, his death shocked and surprised me. With Peter's passing, I realized my commitment to being a "witness to the witness" must now begin.
The words of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, remind us of the greatest fundamental desire of any witness to the Holocaust-to any form of persecution and torture: "What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stilled we shall lend them ours..."
As a witness to the witness, it is easy to put off the obligation that life has placed in your lap. It is hard to imagine how one voice alone can influence the world. So, in conclusion, I offer the words of Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to hunting down Nazi war criminals. In a conversation with a former inmate, Wiesenthal shed light on the motivation for his life's work-a message every witness to the witness should remember. Upon being asked, "Simon, if you had gone back to building houses, you'd be a millionaire. Why didn't you?" Wiesenthal replied: "When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?'...I will say, 'I did not forget you.'"
Eric Karlan of Weston, is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.