It was a rainy day in Amsterdam when it really hit me. I was 17 years old, a year older than she was when she died. Now, 65 years later, I shuffled through the attic she called home: cramped, claustrophobic, and musty, did Anne Frank really live like this? How did she write such enduring beauty while surrounded by walls that closed in by the second? Just one of 6 million, and here she was, alive in front of me, screaming from the walls.
It was my first experience truly feeling an ounce of the weight of the Holocaust.
Unlike many, I didn’t have any ancestors who came through the Concentration Camps. I never met anyone in my family tree with a number tattooed on their arm. Every ancestor I ever met had either immigrated to Canada or been born here. My grandmother’s grandparents were killed during the war, yes, but Ukrainian Cossacks, not Nazis (although the Nazis certainly had no qualms), had killed them, herding their whole shtetl into the local synagogue and setting it ablaze. Horrific, but not the Holocaust.
I went to Jewish Schools growing up, and every year we learned: through assemblies, lectures or books. But when all you do is read, it doesn’t seem real, especially horrors on such a scale. It seems like another part of history. When we were old enough, survivors came and spoke with us. That was closer, but for some reason it never hit me.
The Anne Frank House and Museum hit me.
It was just one stop on a 10 day Canadian history trip, aimed at commemorating the 65th Anniversary of the end of World War Two. We visited D-Day museums and locations. We visited military cemeteries and World War One Trenches. On the itinerary, one day detailing the history of Jewish Europe and it’s Holocaust-devastation felt more like a footnote. An acknowledgement of “Yes, this also happened too. Now, where were we?” And as one of maybe 10 Jews on a trip of 2500 Canadian high schoolers, it felt the same.
But here I was, silently weeping in an attic in Amsterdam.
So today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, it’s marked by sirens and silence. In North America it’s marked by speeches and facebook posts.
In our hearts, we mark today as the breakdown of humanity and the triumph of a hate-filled, ideologically driven entity, taking advantage of disillusionment in society. We mourn for the mechanization of violence and hatred.
But unto each victim is a name and a story and a life cut short.
The mechanization of the Holocaust utilized anti-Semitism to dehumanize. To rob people of their humanity and assigning them a number, to be a cog in a machine until used up and eliminated.
This is why meeting and listening to survivors is imperative. Before its too late, we must record stories and testimonies so we never forget their names.
Almost 6 years ago, to the day, I felt. I learned no new information, nothing I couldn’t read in a textbook. I stopped rationalizing and just felt. And finally understood a miniscule fraction of the horrors experienced. And on that day, it nearly broke me.
Let us never forget each and every name of those killed.