Today, January 27th, is Holocaust Memorial Day. It was 65 years ago today that the allied troops liberated the prisoners at Auschwitz Birkenau. Many of you will know that I visited Auschwitz with the Lessons From Auschwitz Project in 2007 – you can read what I wrote upon my return here.
I still get a knot in my stomach every time I think about it. The Holocaust is so much more real to me because of it. I still get more angry than most would think is natural when people show an indifference or disregard towards it. It’s as though the need to defend the memory of it all is ingrained in me, like I have to, like it’s all down to me. I know that it isn’t but I’m trying to convey the weight of the burden the trip has left me with. It is a burden I carry gladly, but a burden all the same. It’s undoubtedly made a difference to who I am, my outlook on life and my theology.
We all know the facts and the numbers of the Holocaust but few of us know the stories. It’s the stories that make it real. It’s not the buildings that I remember most readily but the possessions and the photographs stolen/salvaged from the prisoner’s suitcases. Toothbrushes, prayer shawls, holiday pictures, families together, spectacles, smiling, shoes, laughing. I particularly remember the toothbrushes still, and a little red clog with a flower on the front which couldn’t have belonged to a little girl any more than six years old. It’s the stories that make it real, that make you realise how many were cut tragically short.
This is part of Esther Brunstein’s story:
I did not know then that our destination was Auschwitz. We were herded into closed-in cattle trucks, as many as would go into each one. There was barely enough air for us to breathe, with just a glimmer of daylight from a vent at the very top. There were two buckets in the centre; one with water, and one for our bodily functions. I huddled close to my mother; we talked so much, recalling happy pre-war years and telling ourselves that maybe at the end of the journey, there would be a nice place waiting for us. To this day, I really don’t know how long that nightmare lasted. We seemed to be going back and forth and back again in semi- or total darkness.
When the train finally came to a halt, the iron bars were removed and the doors were thrown open. Many of our number were dead on arrival. We were pushed out – women to the left and men to the right – and told to form rows of five. Looking around, I saw barbed wire in the distance, and creatures with shaven heads behind the fence. (I learnt later that the wire was electrified and then understood why a woman, whom I saw touch it, dropped dead.) We looked at each other in fear and disbelief and were convinced that this was a lunatic asylum, that it was not for us, that it was only a stopover on the way to our real place of resettlement. What followed is the hardest memory to verbalise; for my mother, although only 44 at the time, did not pass selection for life.
To this day, I cannot fully recall the details of Auschwitz. All I know is that the experience has left me with a feeling of total madness, as if the whole world had fallen into an abyss of apocalyptic proportions.
By some miracle, I found myself selected for a transport to a labour camp situated on the outskirts of Hanover. Conditions were appalling; we were subjected to hard labour, but at least we each had a bunk to sleep on at night and a daily food ration. But in mid-January 1945, our labour camp was disbanded and we were forced to march to Bergen-Belsen. On the way we saw nice, neat little houses, people peering out of their windows and even some civilians. So why is it that most Germans say they did not know what was going on?
We marched to Belsen quite unaware of the place and what might greet us there. My memory of my arrival there is hazy. There were 400 of us and we were herded into different barracks, which were already overcrowded with living and decaying corpses. Total chaos and the stench of dead bodies everywhere: that is how I remember Belsen, a living ‘inferno’. I see myself – a skinny, bewildered 16-year-old – running from hut to hut, looking, searching, hoping to find a friend, a cousin or maybe an aunt still among the living. Everything seemed so unreal.
Esther had suffered in the Lodz ghetto before being transported to Auschwitz and was then in Bergen-Belsen for three months before it was liberated. You can read her full story here
She lost everyone and everything. The only survivor in her entire extended family was her brother. Imagine this story, replicated more than six million times over. And, she was one of the few fortunate to escape with her life.
The HMD Trust theme for this year is Legacy of Hope. We know, we have seen, what humans are capable of doing when they are filled with hatred or consumed by indifference. But the legacy that is left behind should be one of hope for a future that is different. Only if we can make the future different will we be honouring those who died.
Cynthia Oziek – an American Jewish writer – said,
“Indifference is not so much a gesture of looking away – of choosing to be passive – as it is an active disinclination to feel. Indifference shuts down the humane, and does it deliberately, with all the strength deliberateness demands. Indifference is as determined – and as forcefully muscular – as any blow.”
Esther finishes her story by saying:
There was murder in all of us who were liberated there, and it scared me. I remember praying silently, more fervently than I had ever prayed in all my life. I prayed that I would not forever be consumed nor destroyed by hatred. I would say that against all the odds, I have succeeded.
But not without scars.
May we not be consumed with hatred any longer or suffer from indifference, that there may be no more scars.