"Close your eyes and imagine," he told us. "Imagine it is late at night. A train pulls up to the place where you are standing. The doors open and the hundreds of people who were standing inside begin to jump down. A young Jewish boy of sixteen and his family are among this tired, hungry, beaten crowd. Eventually, they are separated into two lines; the boy and his father are pushed into one line, his mother and sister into the other. Then they are marched off into the night.
"I was never to see my mother and sister again. I was in the line to live."
The speaker, a survivor of the Holocaust, told his story and many more one bright, warm summer day at Birkenau, a concentration camp in Poland. His audience of American students listened enthralled and horrified as he told of his struggles to stay alive in the camp during World War II, the struggles of six million Jews caught up in the terror.
I remember wishing it would rain.
That day at Birkenau held no warmth or brightness. It was a day of realizations and acceptances. In a way, it marked a passage from innocence and naivety to a greater understanding of human nature. For me, there were no more denials.
I had always known about the Holocaust, even before I took the literature course that would bring me to Poland, yet deep-down I could never truly accept it. I found it difficult to believe that one man in his hatred of all that was good and decent could condemn a people to death or that a nation could stand blindly by and let it happen. I wanted to believe in human compassion and understanding. Thus, it was easy to pretend that the stories were exaggerated or sensationalized.
Now, I feel as though I know too much. I never thought I could get so emotionally involved, but after living closely with it for three weeks, I could not help but become involved. It became increasingly more difficult to deny or to remain detached once the truth began to unfold. I did not like the feelings it evoked in me or the unanswered questions it left me with. My mind balked. Yet, to run my hand over the wooden bunks in the barracks, to walk on the same hard-packed earth, to look out over barbed-wire fences and empty guard towers and just to know that I stood in the spot where they breathed their last, I believed.
It was a sad, angry realization, the sense of loss staggering.
That day at Birkenau changed my life forever. I learned a great deal about myself, but I feel I learned more about human nature as I watched my ideals crumble. What I learned scared me. The underlying cause of the Jewish Holocaust was prejudice that escalated into madness. I do not understand prejudice, no more now that when I began the course, but I know it exists. It is as real today as it ever was then. It exists everywhere and against all peoples.
This is what troubles me. I can see it everywhere, even here at St. Cloud State University, a place of "cultural diversity and higher learning." I ask myself why this has to be. Have we not learned anything from the past? I cannot help but think that with a little understanding, compassion and humility, we can work together to combat prejudice. We cannot correct the injustices of the past, but we can prevent them from happening in the future. If we care.
We need to do it for ourselves and for all of humanity. We need to do it for a young Jewish boy who lost his family and for a young American student who screams out to an indifferent world for the six million people who no longer have a voice.
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation.
Contributors retain all rights to their work.