During a recent trip to Poland with my family, I had no expectations.
I was warned that emotion can run heavy in that country, and yet I still left for the trip feeling excited to spend eight days with my family. We toured neighborhoods my relatives once called home and concentration camps we’d never seen in person. During these tours I learned the stories both of my family and of others – and there I discovered my own reality.
Walking through the Majdanek concentration camp, I felt an undeniable connection to the events that had taken place there. In an effort to hold on to that emotion after the trip, I wrote a note for myself on my phone articulating the feeling that had washed over me. As my family and I continued our tour, something compelled me to continue writing.
Once I started expanding upon those thoughts, I was drawn to conclusions for which I hadn’t known I was ready.
To my surprise, I knew I needed to share my experience and this new understanding.
Before this trip, I had never said the words “my family was killed in the Holocaust.” What happened just over half a century ago didn’t feel personal to me. From behind a window of academia, I’d learned the facts, but until I saw the history with my own eyes the story wasn’t my own.
Prior to the war, my great-grandparents had built a comfortable life for themselves, their three children and one that was on the way. Their lives were shockingly similar to life as we know it today: private property, safe space for children to play, suburban streets housing friendly neighbors and kin, and a local pub around the corner.
After years of oppression, Jews had finally found a home in Poland, a prosperous life. My great-grandparents could not have predicted what lay ahead for their four children – just as I cannot imagine such horrors taking place today. Walking the streets on which awful brutality occurred just a few decades ago, staring at the very house that once stood for hope and family, hearing stories of my own family’s suffering, brought to light the real history of my family that my conscience had been neglecting in past years.
Families and individuals, torn from their homes and murdered. This is real. This happened to millions of people, and the weight of the suffering and pain never goes away. People were humiliated and murdered because of their beliefs and faith. One-, three-, five-year-old children were orphaned; lives that should have been filled with love and hope were instead senselessly torn apart.
During World War II, my great-grandparents were forced to pack up as much of their belongings as they could carry on their own backs and leave their life as they knew it. My grandmother, just three years old, begged for food and money alongside her parents, two young brothers and unborn sister.
That family, as well as the family of my grandfather and thousands of others, made the forest their home, living off whatever sparse resources they could find. The future became dark, as survival filled their thoughts.
While my grandparents avoided contact with the concentration camps, many families before them and millions of others did not. What took place there was an abyss of darkness.
Sadistic, heartless torture in which the perpetrators found rationality.
Prisoners in these camps, spanning demographics beyond the Jewish people, were viewed as less than human.
Calculated psychological warfare broke down everything it meant to be human. Women’s hair was cut off, prisoners were packed into bunks that slept over 1,000 (originally built for 150), line-ups, mass killings and burials stripped families of the dignity of honoring death through ceremony.
Even outside the camps, tombstones of buried Jews were destroyed, among countless other acts of terror. During those eight days, I quickly realized that at every turn, a story of malice and agony had taken place.
The effort to dehumanize the Jewish people began in the ghettos and the streets on which they lived. Before being sentenced to death, the Jews were reduced to animalistic beings, less-than-human creatures who, in the eyes of the Germans, were not deserving of life. Concepts of family, love, human connection and prosperity were rare luxuries, replaced either with survival or the compulsion to give up. Competition for survival surfaced as a result. Jews turned against Jews. Family members turned against each other. Six million people with careers and aspirations were stripped of their most basic human rights. The Germans built a world of theft and disparity. Souls were stolen. This manufactured world created a space that destroyed relationships as a result of selfish decisions made out of desperation – hope was blinded by emptiness.
The psychology that drew hundreds of thousands of Europeans together in their nationalistic effort to exterminate a race will always be difficult to understand and explain. Why was the need to belittle Jewish life so innate? How were such large numbers of people brainwashed with the idea of exterminating an entire race, with intricate torture? Why did so many bystanders silently watch? How have so many incidents of genocide presented themselves throughout world history – and why does this still occur today in parts of the world? Through my trip to Poland, my eyes have been opened to a dystopia of suffering and heartbreak and unthinkable questions about what happens next. Life or death? Me or them? Immersed in this history, it’s easy to question how life goes on afterwards.
Why do we continue to bring children into that world? The dystopia is real.
Anyone can be the victim. Anyone can be the murderer. Anyone can be the hero.
These events are my history, my roots. This is not the history of my parents’ family, of my family’s family, it is my story. My people, my bloodline.
This history is in every Jew and in every person who understands the helplessness of it all. Until all are able to grasp the emotion of this history and unite around the purpose of sharing the story, we are not done. The only way to stop history from repeating itself is through pure understanding and brutally honest and open conversation.
There is no happy ending.
Only survival and pride. The pain is still real, still heavy.
This period remains a broken heart in textbooks and in the families of its survivors. We can spread the weight of its emotion among the shoulders of our neighbors and friends through expression and dialogue. No one should carry that weight alone. My grandparents were fortunate to have met each other after the war, granting them the opportunity to share the weight of their families’ painful past with one another and with their future family.
After surviving the war, my grandparents met while seeking refuge in a new state called Israel. There they built a new life together and created a family now spanning four generations in front of them. My comfortable life in the United States wouldn’t exist without the strength of my family.
Moreover, if my life were to be threatened tomorrow, I know that my American friends and family and I share the promise of refuge in the land of Israel, a promise that didn’t exist before WWII. Apart from the idea of a safe home in the event of future threats on Jewish life, Israel presents an ideology that inspires Jews around the world. I’ve encountered American Jews who are inspired by the images, flag and culture of Israel. The very existence of the country fosters pride and strength. From across the world, we’re able to feel connected to a small country 6,000 miles away because of the reality of our history and the unity it has inspired. The Holocaust is not just the story of my family, it is the story of every Jew and every person who feels an emotional reaction to the events that took place.
This is your story. That soul stolen in the ghetto or the camp could have been yours. It could have been your father’s, sister’s, best friend’s. You are here because of someone who survived the unthinkable. Someone found the light among darkness – and if it has been forgotten, it can be remembered.
Be grateful and patient, carry sympathy and kindness in your heart. Learn the story and give it a voice. The power of experiencing history through one’s own eyes is palpable – let the pages of your story grab you. Most importantly, feel the weight of its emotion even for a minute, and use that empathy to ignite inspiration. We’re here: darkness does not prevail. We’re now the survivors, because the story is living in each of us.
The author holds a degree in political science, sociology and global studies from Binghamton University.