MIDN 1/C Mollie Hebda
A reflective essay on Holocaust studies
First I take in the facts, then the feelings. I process disturbing matters like death, gore, pain and genocide in this order, because it's the only way I know how. In the morning I stand stoically in front of the Holocaust exhibits, mechanically reading the captions. I sit inexpressive in front of the graphic media clips depicting dreadful human suffering. Then I walk away. To the crowd of tourists wiping their fresh tears I appear heartless. They glare indignantly at my impassive reaction to that picture of the pile of human bodies. But that's not the end of my response, for I will see these images again soon. When the day's routine is over, those faces will come alive to me at night. In vivid dreams I will re-meet those still, sad eyes which bored into mine behind the glass case earlier that day. At 2:00 in the morning I slap the warm sheets of my bed. My eyes snap open and I jolt awake. A small spot on the back of my head hurts. I sit in silence, reflecting on yet another of the vivid dreams which haunted me during the ASAP program. Twilight tours have taken me beyond the killing site in the Auschwitz I courtyard, to Katyn, Zbylitowska Gora, and the ghetto wall of Krakow. For some reason they always end with a bullet lodging in my brain:
I am running through my neighborhood streets with a group of friends. They smile and laugh with me and everything seems fine. Suddenly they stop. They say they can't be friends with me anymore because some guy told them so. He said I was dirty and dangerous, a worthless piece of scum. He called me a "Jew" and told them to dispose of me. They believed that stranger, even though we had been friends since birth. They dragged me from my home and threw me in a living hell. I found myself standing in a gloomy courtyard staring at a concrete slab. Terrified, I notice the varying shades of red tinges splattered on the wall. Dark brown stains underlie bright red lines which trickles freshly down the wall. I look away. The layers and layer of blood tell me exactly what this slab is for. I wonder how many people were murdered on this very spot. Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? I'm not ready to die, and the anticipation of that fatal shot is sheer terror. "Don't do this!" my mind screams. "Don't shoot me! I don't want to die!"
I'm not sure why every dream ends this way, but I am thankful that I always wake up. The most horrific part of these nights, however, is the painful consciousness to follow. It is the recognition that, for 6 million people living in Europe a mere 50 years ago, these dreams were real life. The holocaust happened because people believe the lies of Hitler and his Nazi party. They refused to stand up for their friends. It is hard for me to retain the feelings I experienced in the ASAP Program. Everyone has felt those brief moments of horror, pity, and sorrow in front of museum exhibits and wartime memorials. But, no matter how we process the horrendous information we see, in the end we all go back to our comfortable lives in our comfortable homes where we eat, speak, and act the way we want. So what can I take back to others from the ASAP program? A tragedy like the Holocaust couldn't happen in our modern country…could it? A tour of Auschwitz 1 sparked this question which I struggled to understand in my journal entry later that day:
'Silence penetrates our small monastery room where three friars once studied hard for their upcoming theological exams. No one says a word. Kelly, Sara, and I just stare at the wall. There really are no words for what we saw. We just arrived from a 3 hour tour of Auschwitz 1, a Nazi labor camp built in 1940 for Polish political enemies and Russian POWs. For the first time, we stood in an actual camp, not just a museum. The large brick buildings, which once served as barracks for the Polish Army were converted into Nazi prisons. As we walked through the "Arbeit Macht Frei" arch and begun our tour, something just wasn't right. We had all seen that gate before in our prior studies. From the photographs I recognized the barbed wire fences and the brick buildings, but in real life it was different. It wasn't the black and white, gloomy place I had imagined. The sun was shining and the birds chirped cheerfully from the green trees lining the path. It was too pretty, too normal, too much like a college campus. It was too real. Yet isn't this the challenge, to recognize the reality of the Holocaust? When we think of Auschwitz we imagine a horrible place where the sun never shines and the birds never sing. We want to see a place completely set apart and unrecognizable from our own homes. Yet sitting here in the small town of Oświęcim, a mere two miles away from the camp, I realize that this tragedy occurred in people's backyards. The lovely Sola River runs right next to the camp. Its beauty juxtaposes the horror a few yards away. How could people have let this happen? How could the fishermen of that small Polish town glance up from their rods unmoved as thousands of prisoners marched by gaunt with starvation? How could the world have ignored what was happening here?
Inherited ideas are a curious thing. They are crippling and dangerous. They remove the power of independent thinking. Yet everyone retains some. We inherit ideas from our parents, peers, culture, media and even our government. That's what racism is, a bunch of mixed up inherited ideas. The Nazis did not just brainwash the entire German population with a new fabricated racial ideology. They watered the already existing seed of human arrogance which has been germinating since the early ages where men without pedigree or title were given no more consideration than so many animals, bugs and insects. The Nazis, through expert propaganda, fostered this seed of hatred, spreading it throughout the world. German children grew up with the ideology that they were the superior race. The Jews were the enemy, a threat to their survival as a pure breed.
Humans are strange creatures; we like to be told we are better than others; we thrive on inclusion in a group. All of us fall prey to the dangers of inherited ideas, especially if they favor ourselves. Why else would racism still exist in a modern country promising freedom and equality to all? Why else do acts of genocide still occur all over the world? We like to think of ourselves as important, superior, better than someone else.
I learned a lot on my two week journey with the ASAP Program. But the most important lesson, the one I want to take back and share with as many people as possible is the danger of inherited ideas. Don't let others dictate the way you think. Don't fall prey to the comforting whispers that your "group" is better than anyone else's. Don't thoughtlessly agree with the beliefs of your peers. Don't blindly follow the orders of your superiors. Stop. Think. Decide for yourself. Although not real, my haunting dreams accurately portrayed what was happening in Germany in the wake of WWII. Schooled in a racist ideology people allowed their Jewish friends to die by the millions. They did not consider the morality of the issue. Today we must ask ourselves what will best promote the welfare of humanity. We must beware wary of discrimination against a particular sect. Can you be that "Righteous Gentile" who stands up for what is right? Can you be bystander that makes a difference? If nothing else, realize that there is not much separating one human from another. We all put our pants on the same way don't we... one leg at a time.