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Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership
railcar used in the Holocaust

MIDN 2/C Angela Rousch

I observed the Holocaust through the eyes of others. Survivors' testimonies are windows into the weight of the Holocaust. They are a way in which I can make the leap from knowing the statistics to understanding that the numbers are much more horrific than they innocently seem on the pages of a book. While a survivor is telling his or her story, their legacy and that of their father, mother, siblings, relatives, children, and loved ones that died in the past are alive again, if only in memory.

Helen Goldkind, a survivor of Auschwitz, is an amazing woman, and I am fortunate to have had the chance to meet with her. Her character is so strong that I almost did not notice her petite and frail frame. She told her life experience and the legacy of her family in such a way that after her introduction I nearly felt as if I had known her and her relatives all my life. They were no longer a part of a book's statistic, but rather, they were living, breathing, human beings with likes, dislikes, and ambitions. I had, in effect, associated myself with her life. I found myself caring deeply for not only Helen, but also those for whom she had loved… In the end, I had but one emotion left: sorrow. I felt sorrow for Helen's beautiful family that had committed no crime. Their deaths were without reason, logic, or anything else that could possibly provide justification and therefore comfort. And this was only one of a hundred thousand families.

For the too few minutes we had with Helen, I understood what the Holocaust meant, although such understanding is not something that can be boxed up, tucked away, and recalled on demand. Such understanding only existed within me when I had completely associated myself with Helen's life, something I cannot fully do now as I type this essay, no matter how hard I try. Thus, it was through Helen's testimony, and the other incredible testimonies we had the opportunity to hear first-hand, that I was able to understand what the Holocaust had cost humanity.

Association is powerful. The tears of a friend weigh a thousand times heavier than the tears of a stranger. Had I not known Helen, then the pain in her eyes over the loss of a loved one would have meant very little to me, but because I knew her, her story, and her relatives, her pain and sorrow became mine as well, and I am very grateful to have shared its weight.

I would like to point out that sometimes I believe survivors fear the power of association when they tell their testimonies. They fear that by doing so, they will pass on their burden, a burden that is too painful to bear. What they do not know is that this is impossible. By sharing their testimonies, survivors allow my generation to understand to the best of our ability what the Holocaust had meant, but that does not mean we have understood fully without walking in the shoes of the survivor herself. Even those who attempt to recreate the experience of being in Auschwitz Birkenau by visiting in the dead of winter, taking off their shoes, and walking around for a brief period of time in the cold cannot possibly understand, because that type of an experience is superficial.

I believe that in my own life a common form of disassociation is the use of discriminatory words to invoke laughter in some people and feelings of alienation or persecution in others, present or not. The term 'gypped' or the adjective 'gay' are but a few examples. I have even overheard on the very rare but disturbing instances in which the term 'Jew' was used in a derogatory sense… Somehow, this feeling of disassociation must have allowed for people's thoughts to change toward a specific group of people, defined by religion, ethnic background, or skin tone. It allowed the men and women who were ordered to send Jews to the gas chambers to do it without the feeling of remorse.... that we today cannot think about the Holocaust without. The end result was an intimidation of the victims and a reinforcement of the victimizers' belief in the legitimacy of what they were doing, and the whole while I can only imagine that one person's disassociation from the Jewish community would feed on another's feelings of disassociation, thus allowing it to grow.

The feeling of disassociation, it seems, was engrained into every aspect of killing, both inside and outside the camps. When someone is stripped of their clothes and identity, deprived of privacy, and beaten and humiliated, then the rest of society is conditioned to view this person as something less than human.

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