Latest update: December 5th, 2013
Dying at an alarmingly fast rate (nearly one per hour in Israel), Holocaust survivors, some of the last first-hand witnesses to the atrocities committed during World War II, will soon become just another memory, and their words left to just mere paragraphs in text books. So many have been unable to share their traumatic stories, but for those who have, their reason for doing so is clear. They speak for those who died and can no longer speak for themselves, and they share some powerful messages. Among them are the following:
1. The Holocaust really did happen.
With the passage of time, fewer and fewer people are left to testify about life and death in the camps at the hands of the Nazis. Therefore, the more removed people become from this time in our history, the more unbelievable the event of the Holocaust becomes. Who in this generation could imagine such events ever being allowed to transpire? Surely, according to our younger population, someone could have and would have stopped such madness. To make matters worse, Holocaust deniers insist and work to prove that these crimes were never committed. Even American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson, during the Nuremburg Trials, worried that “unless record was made … future generations would not believe how horrible the truth was.” Little distresses Holocaust survivors more than hearing these people negate every atrocity that they lived through, while watching their loves ones and friends die at the hands of the Nazis. Although those involved tried to hide their crimes, Germans kept meticulous records. Some survivors have even received copies of their records from Germany in recent years. For example, there are records of Dachau inmates available online. Stripped of family, friends, education, and freedom, Holocaust survivors need you to know that this did, in fact, happen, and never forget that it did.
2. The number of victims is not exaggerated, and if anything is understated.
Another theory out there is that Holocaust survivors exaggerate the events of the Holocaust to play the role of martyr and use it to advance the interest of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. This trend, somewhat newer than denial, is known as distortion. Believers of this distortion theory insist any of the deaths were as a result of Nazi policy, but of only starvation and disease. They do not believe that gas chambers existed anywhere. Those who do admit to chambers of any sort, state that they were only used for disinfecting purposes to fight off the disease carrying lice. Yet, testimony of Rudolf Hoess, once commandant of Auschwitz Concentration Camp 2, claims otherwise. He clearly admits that gas chambers were indeed used for killing there. Holocaust survivors need you to look at and listen to the evidence for yourself. Research the Nuremburg Trials and go to the website for The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, among other places, where access to such records is readily available. They want to make sure that you are not easily swayed by Deniers, Distortion theorists, or “Holocaust Revisionists.” Just look at and listen to the facts.
3. One of the greatest crimes of the Holocaust was that of indifference
To witness any injustice and do nothing about it is tragic. Unfortunately, this happened far too often during the time of the Holocaust. From individuals to the leadership of many countries, inaction aided Hitler in his quest for domination. This is a lesson that needs to be heeded today. When people stand by and accept the injustices that they see, it is as if they are saying that they accept what the perpetrator is doing, as if they accept it. It was true in Hitler’s time and true today. For example, in the case of school bullies, if students watch bullying in action and say nothing, it continues, and the bully has what seems like an accepting audience. If those witnesses just said something like, “That’s not cool,” and walked away, even if it is a friend, the audience is removed, and things could change. Granted, Hitler was not an easy man to stop, but certainly more lives could have been protected and saved had differences been tolerated, anti-Semitic attitudes changed, and immigration quotas been lifted to show that his methods were not approved of nor accepted.
4. No one should be judged for being different (whether it is race, religion, color, or anything else.)
Most survivors who share their stories intertwine a common theme within their personal testimonies. They tell their audiences about the dangers of judging others, and plead for an end to discrimination, prejudice, or hatred based on race, religion, color, or any other difference. They understand better than almost any other group of people alive today where these attitudes can lead when left unchecked. Unfortunately, the Holocaust did not put an end to these behaviors, and the battles against them must still be fought today to prevent further atrocities. Survivors need people to understand that if they can change these attitudes, lives will be saved.
5. Anti-Semitism still exists.
For every Holocaust survivor who tirelessly travels to speak to audiences of tens-to hundreds, there are people who show up and protest what they do. Harassing these often eighty to ninety year-old elderly educators, they criticize and demean the survivors, downplaying their experiences and tragic losses. They are frightened to go to speaking engagements at times, because of some of the hatred that they must confront. They must endure pain all over again as insults are hurled at them and they are accused of making up the very tragedies that they must live with every day. Imagine knowing your parents, seven year-old brother, and nine year-old sister were taken away and gassed in Treblinka, only to have people accuse you of making that up and criticizing you simply because of your religion or other differences. Witnesses need you to know that they still have to fight these battles, and they want you to help educate others of the dangers of these attitudes.
6. Never take your education for granted.
Those young Holocaust victims who were fortunate enough to survive often lost their chance of getting an education. Long before many of them were taken or forced into hiding, they were stripped of the privilege of attending school. As just one example, one survivor was no longer allowed to go to school shortly after the German occupation of her village. At that time she was twelve years old. When she was fifteen, she was taken to a labor camp. Following three and a half years in labor and concentration camps and a death march, she was liberated in 1945. From there, since she had no home to return to and her parents had been killed by the Nazis, she had to spend another four years in a displaced persons’ (DP) camp in Germany. She feels that with so many years of her life taken, she lost her chance at an education, and there is a tone of bitterness in her voice when she discusses it. She gets quite frustrated at those who throw away their chance at an education or those who do not take it seriously and waste time in school instead of learning. The message of many in her situation is, please don’t take your educational opportunities for granted.
7. Not all Germans were bad
Regardless of the horrific stories told by survivors, most will tell you that not all Germans were bad, not even all Nazis. Some survivors attribute their existence today to one or more of them who helped them by providing food, advice, or protection. They not only acknowledge this publicly, but their heartfelt gratitude is evident as they speak. Even in the face of anti-Semitic actions of some, they have not forgotten those who once could have been, but instead, took great risks to do the right thing.
8. Research before casting a vote
Although Hitler became more radical with time, and the Nazi’s policies intensified to align with their need and purpose, the attitudes and intentions were never secret. In Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, he made the plan to rid Germany of Jews was clear. The methods may have changed over time, but the goal was there all along. Had more people read his book, written while he was in jail for a failed coup of the government, perhaps fewer would have supported him. This is another lesson for today’s world. Do not without researching a candidate’s policies for yourself. Anyone candidate can be a charming orator. Don’t buy into the propaganda and advertisement. Research the issues, former votes when relevant, and political stance for yourself.
Any chance to listen to a Holocaust survivor speak should be treated like a treasured gift. After hearing one, you should feel a responsibility to pass on their lessons to future generations. It is really all they ask of you. Don’t let their stories die. Do not let the truths of the Holocaust become watered down with the passing of time. These amazing people survived despite incredible odds and lived for an important purpose to bear witness to the atrocities that can come from hatred, intolerance, and indifference. Elie Wiesel, famous survivor, writer, and peace maker, once said, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.” Become that witness and educate the next generation to preserve history and prevent its reoccurrence.
Listening to and watching a Holocaust survivor share his or her story can be life-changing. They spend their lives reliving the same nightmares to educate future generations. They ask only that you continue that mission when they no longer can.
About the Author: Debbie Callahan is an eighth grade English teacher and college adjunct instructor of Writing. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Language/Literature, a Master’s Degree in Education, and is in A.B.D. status for a Doctorate in Teacher Leadership. Recently, she has returned to her true passion of freelance writing and editing, while writing two books of her own on education reform and a memoir of a Holocaust survivor.
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