I was raised in the rural part of Western New York State and never knew any Jewish people. But growing up in the 1950’s and1960’s, my teenage imagination and heart was pierced by the life and death of a Jewish girl named Anne Frank.
During my childhood, the impact of WWII was still very vivid. The Diary of A Young Girl was published in 1952 and the movie, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was released in 1959. History lessons about The Holocaust were of great interest to my fellow high school students and me. Hitler and the terrible things he did were the story we grew up with. It wasn’t a colorful saga like the superheroes fighting on the big screen today. It didn’t offer a happy ending as good guys beat up the bad guys. It didn’t allow us a sigh of relief because the conflict finally ended. The holocaust was real and it was horrible.
I read The Wall by John Hersey when I was nineteen. The author wrote about barriers put up around the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland during the WWII. These walls kept the Jews of that city confined as they waited to be exterminated.
Because of my Polish roots, I have gone to Poland twice. I visited Schindler’s factory in Krakow and got to see remains of the wall in Warsaw that I had read about.
I visited visit Auschwitz, the Nazi extermination camp. The German words on the prison gates offered a cruel promise, “work sets you free.”
What a horrible place. The Nazi had figured out just how many Jews would generate enough body heat to activate the poisonous chemicals in the gas chambers. In some parts of the camp, I actually smelled the lingering scent of death. I kept it together until I came upon an exhibit filled with the suitcases. I thought of the millions of Jewish victims who carefully packed their belongings thinking they were going to be relocated but were killed instead.
During this 1990’s tour of Poland with my aunt, there was a Jewish man on our tour group named Jack who was a guidance counselor from the midwest. He was a kind person who made a point of asking where everyone was from and taking a genuine interest in who they were. I soon found out that Jack had been a “guest” at Auschwitz. His family was killed there but he was kept alive because he was small and agile and the Nazi used him to light the fuse inside a nearby coal mine. At the end of our tour, I asked Jack what was the most valuable lesson he had learned in his life. He told me it was to always stay positive and to enjoy and cherish every minute of each day. I will write more about the strength that comes Jewish culture in future posts.
I want to close with a warning. We can’t forget this terrible time in history, this extreme time of hate that manifested itself in horrific death and destruction. My memories of The Holocaust have never left me but they were beginning to fade as I, like all of us, have gotten caught up in the stress of our present day world. Society is off balance. We presently live in a high pitched frenzy of gossip and labeling, righteousness and absolutism, bullying and scapegoating, exclusion and discrimination. Anti -semitism and white supremacy are making an appearance again. We all need to stop and look at what we are becoming before it is too late.
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