Holocaust Remembrance Day
The scariest photo I have ever seen was a small head-shot of my aunt.
My aunt Blanka was an unassuming white-haired old lady who loved to needle others good-naturedly. (She once asked her granddaughter, with feigned interest, “You can tell me dear, is your husband circumcised?”)
But the person who stared back at me in that photo was more frightened than anyone I had ever seen.
Before that photo was taken, my aunt, her husband and two small children had fled a German killing squad. The Germans arrived in the village by stealth in the early hours of the morning. They corralled the town’s Jews and ordered them to the edge of the Jewish cemetery. Those who were fit were forced to dig a long, deep trench. They were then packed into freight cars and shipped to Auschwitz where they might survive for a few more days or weeks. The rest—the very old and very young, those with obvious disabilities—were forced to undress and run along the top of the ditch. The German soldiers shot them, one-by-one, into the ditch. They fell, the dead and the wounded, into the pit.
My aunt and her family managed, somehow, to elude the Germans. They hid in an adjoining forest for two long days and nights, huddled together against the terrifying darkness and cold. Worse yet was the terrible noise. The gunfire continued relentlessly through the night, rat-tat-rat-tat. Every sound was a dead or mortally wounded Jew.
Later, with the help of former neighbors, my uncle fabricated false identification papers that allowed the family to pose as Polish Catholics. Hence, the head-shot photo of my terrified aunt.
Every Holocaust Remembrance Day, volumes of ink are spilled in search of an uplifting conclusion. But there is nothing uplifting about any of this.
Here are the take-aways: the gas chamber doors open to reveal a mass of wide-eyed naked bodies of those who were alive moments ago. There is silence except for the subtle nauseating sound of fluid seeping from the piles that used to be mothers, fathers, children, neighbors.
In the ovens, the hair catches fire first. The head takes the longest to burn. Two jumping flames fill the eye-holes.
How could so many people stay silent? Even worse, how could so many have participated in the killings?
Lessons learned? Only this: Every one of us is capable of evil. Every one of us is tempted to blame others for own misfortunes and failings. Just as the Jews were blamed.
And above all, the only way to survive is to be stronger than the evildoers.