On Holocaust Remembrance Day we should keep in mind one of the deepest concerns of Jews in the concentration camps. Would the world ever know of the atrocities? There was an urge to survive and recall it, for a world too naïve to believe them. As two Jews worked to escape from a train bound for Auschwitz, others feared reprisals, but an old woman shouted, “You must do it! If you get out maybe you can tell the story. Who else will tell it?”
This fixation persisted, even after liberation. A survivor of Birkenau warned, “Unless we know about it, and tell it to others, it is bound to happen again.”
Gradually they are passing away, taking with them their memories and tattooed forearms. But their message is more relevant than ever. Anti-Semitism has been around since the days of the pharaohs and realists know it will never end. Yet Jews have always defied the odds, bequeathing a triumphant heritage of endurance. This everlasting resilience should be recalled with pride by every future generation, and by those who know little or nothing of the Holocaust.
One of the greatest slanders against Holocaust victims is that they went like sheep to the slaughter. They had no weapons and faced well-armed fanatics who thought nothing of exacting reprisals. Nothing restrained the Jews more than the fear of reprisals against family, friends and fellow Jews. When they did fight they gave as good as they got. Witness their long clash against mightier forces in the Warsaw ghetto; Or a woman caught escaping from a death camp, and when asked by the commandant what she would do if he freed her, spat in his face and said she would do it again. Infuriated, he hanged her and let her dangle for days; When an elderly rabbi saw others waiting to be gassed, he told them they would die as martyrs and shouldn’t be afraid of death. So they sang and they danced defiantly as they went through the door to their deaths.
In the interviews I anthologized into a book, survivors tell of a wide range of atrocities and the severest forms of degradation. Some ate human flesh to fight off the scourge of starvation. A Jew had to kneel and address a dog as Herr, then apologize for stealing food from his bowl. If they were slow to follow orders at roll call they had to hop on all fours like frogs. Four women shared a single bowl so they defecated in it, threw out the contents, and half an hour later drank soup from the very same bowl.
There will never be an end to Holocaust deniers. My book was prompted by a French so-called comedian who ridicules the Holocaust in a skit called Shoananas while his audiences roar with laughter. The state may not be sanctioning it, but at times it seems eerily like embryonic Nazi rule. Many did not take the Nazis seriously when they were in their infancy. There was the German Jew, declined a job with an English film company, telling his daughter, “They are not going to do anything to me. I am a war veteran. I have the Iron Cross.” And another Jew who brushed off the threat by comparing the Nazis to rain, when people opened their umbrellas and waited for it to stop.
It is well to remember the words of a survivor who had just spoken to a group of students. One of them asked why she would bring children into this world after telling about the horrors of Auschwitz. She replied that Hitler had wanted to eliminate the Jews but she had taken revenge by saying, “Look, we are here!”
Anthony S. Pitch is the author of Our Crime Was Being Jewish. He was Associated Press Broadcast Editor in Philadelphia and a journalist in England, Israel and Africa before becoming a senior writer in the books division of U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C.