They did not have to remember. Some have spent years trying to forget. But forgetting is not the answer. Only remembering can help avert a repeat of such brutality and suffering. For them, remembering has become an obligation.
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 on the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943. The inspiration for the essay came from my retracing of the rescue route in 2000 after being captivated by Lois Lowry's 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 gold medal and college scholarship. 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 the lifelong and essential task of carrying the survivors' 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 imminent sixty years ago, it will be inevitable soon. Their speeches were a quiet plea. They needed 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 impact of these survivors' stories—Leo, Irene, and Peter to name a few.
Leo exhibited the fundamental desire to live, and how taking risks is a necessary part of life. Crammed inside a dingy cattle car bounding through the picturesque French countryside toward Auschwitz, terrified men, women, and children helplessly awaited their fates. Leo remained determined to elude his Nazi captors once again. He had already escaped from his home in Vienna during the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria, at the urging of his family who remained behind. He had already swum across the Sauer River and been smuggled into neutral Belgium. He had already escaped from an internment camp in Vichy France by digging a tunnel underneath the barbed wire, only to be recaptured.
That is why Leo was feverishly rolling his shirt in the human excrement that had overflowed in his rail car. Shrewd and resourceful, the twenty-one year old knew a cloth soaked with urine could bend the windows' bars just enough for him to squeeze through. Driven by fear and hope, he stubbornly refused to let his spirit be extinguished. Leo jumped off the speeding rail car of death into the unknown. Until the war's end, Leo continued to evade Nazi capture.
Miraculously, Leo continues to embrace life despite losing his entire family to the Holocaust. Today, the spry 84-year old smiles in knowing he no longer needs to leap off trains to preserve his identity and heritage. While I hope I will never have to make a literal "leap into darkness" (The title of his biography) to survive, Leo's story teaches 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. At the age of thirteen, Irene was orphaned upon arrival at a concentration camp when her parents were immediately herded into the gas showers. She was also separated from her siblings, all of whom were eventually murdered. Narrowly avoiding a similar fate because the chamber was over-packed, Irene was left alone to fend for herself. The only remaining tangible connection to her loved ones was four diamonds her mother had given her. Despite certain death if caught with such valuables, Irene defiantly insisted on preserving the memento of her family.
Irene's mother had beseeched her to use the diamonds to feed herself. Instead, Irene used the diamonds to feed her soul, nourishing her wounded spirit. For the remainder of her years incarcerated, Irene continually swallowed the stones. Secretly slipping away to the waste holes, she would claw and pick through her own waste to recover the diamonds. In a world where love suddenly evaporated, Irene clung onto her family through this pathetic, brave cycle until liberation.
Today, Irene - mother and grandmother - wears her mother's diamonds on a pendant that hangs from her neck. Resting by her heart, the four diamonds are set in the shape of a teardrop to symbolize the sadness and anguish evoked by the memory of her family's cruel demise. Imagining Irene's unimaginable aloneness at such a young age augments my appreciation for being 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, the result leaves children without families - in total desolation.
Peter is my definition of a hero. By fleeing his home in Vienna, Austria for England in 1938, Peter and his family secured freedom from persecution and evil. Working on a farm in the British countryside, he had everything his fellow Jews stranded on mainland Europe longed for: safety, family, freedom, happiness. Though Peter had everything to lose, when the opportunity arose to retaliate against those who had oppressed his people, Peter eagerly seized it.
On June 6th, 1944, Peter and 86 other commandos landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. Riding his fold-up bicycle to the Nazi-held village of Benouville, Peter performed an unthinkable act of selfless heroism. Strolling down the street alone shouting in German, completely exposed and vulnerable to any gunshot, Peter instigated a Nazi offensive. By drawing fire toward himself, Peter exposed his enemies' positioning enabling his comrades to liberate Benouville.
Peter's "striking back" (the title of his biography) at the evil in the world is awe-inspiring. It was not enough that he had escaped the Holocaust only to reenter the inferno of war-torn Europe to help his people. Once there, he nearly sacrificed his life to ensure the success of his cause. I hope to have a fraction of Peter's selflessness and courage if ever faced with a perilous dilemma. As a witness to this witness, I hope to inspire others to stand up to evil and hatred.
I also shared this experience with Alice, another Peter, and Henry. During our week in Washington D.C., I had the privilege of getting to know these six individuals as human beings, not just "survivors." Washington's symbols of freedom and monuments of democracy served as a most fitting backdrop. Freedom is a miraculous gift to Leo, Irene, Peter and the others. Seeing how they cherish this privilege has heightened my appreciation of living in a democracy. In a democracy, we are given the invaluable opportunity to choose our leadership.
"One must remain alert, for it is erroneous to assume that whatever progress we struggle to achieve automatically continues to advance. Retrogression is the worm, progress is a fragile flower, in constant need of fertilization, and careful protection and renewal."
Peter composed these words in a letter to me on February 18, 2005. His lyricism is only overshadowed by his message. It is our generation's duty to preserve and care for the garden that is our society—our world. If the worm is left unchecked it will consume the fragile flower. Simultaneously fending off the worm and tending the flower is a daunting task for a mere few men. That is why retelling the stories of those who witnessed the Holocaust is essential to progress' welfare. If more men bear witness to the witnesses, it will become more possible to avoid retrogression—another Holocaust.
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 - far exceeding the lifespan of most Austrian Jews during Hitler's reign - Peter's death shocked and surprised me. With his passing, I realized how naive I was in believing there was no rush for me to begin fulfilling my duties as a "witness to the witness". 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, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs."
Peter's voice has now been stilled. My commitment to him must begin now.
Whenever I dial Irene's phone number, I expect to hear many stories. Our most recent dialogue was no exception, as we discussed her recent weeklong trip to a boarding school in Arizona. What she told me was mind-boggling:
"Most knew nothing about the Holocaust. They have never seen a survivor."
Her next anecdote was even more eye opening - scary; an unbelievable story that I was shocked had not made front cover headlines.
"At this same school five years ago, a Jewish boy was found naked on the football field, beaten and with swastikas all over his body. Dead."
Whereas much of the world has chosen to ignore - or fails to publicly recognize - our society's bigotry, Irene continues to serve as my wakeup call to reality. Sheltered by a diverse and accepting university campus, it is easy to forget that, while progress has been made since the Holocaust, our world is far from being a tolerant place. Being aware of the hate crimes that perpetuate today, Irene reminds me that prejudice and racism remain ever-present forces.
From my very first conversation with Leo, I knew we had a soul connection. There was an unspoken chemistry. We shared an unwavering optimistic outlook on life, a ceaseless sense of humor, a kind and caring demeanor. With spunk that far exceeds most kindergarteners and an unusual capacity to operate modern technology, I still struggle with accepting the fact that Leo is 84-years old and will not be with me forever. In my first year at college, I corresponded with Leo more (by telephone, cellular phone, electronic mail, and instant messenger) than many of my closest friends from high school.
Through our interactions, I find myself reflecting on my own vulnerability. I see myself through Leo. Evil men and women may always exist in the world. Left unopposed, my life could be jeopardized as Leo's was. Hope, cheerfulness, and optimism do not create an impenetrable shield from the acts of murderers; in Leo's case, they merely gave him the capacity to create a new life filled with happiness after surviving the extermination of his people.
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 one voice alone can influence the world. So, in conclusion, I offer the words of Simon Wiesenthal, a man who epitomizes what a profound impact one person can make at large. After surviving the Nazi death camp of Janowska, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to documenting the Holocaust and hunting down former Nazis. In the process, over 1100 Nazi war criminals have been persecuted due to his work. His efforts send a clear message to the world that no man's inhumane actions will be forgotten or tolerated.
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?,' there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler.' Another will say, 'I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.' Another will say, 'I built houses.' But I will say, 'I did not forget you.'"
To Leo, Irene, Peter and the others, as a witness to the witness, I promise I will not forget you either.