We live in a world that has always contained both the best and the worst of which human beings are capable. Across the ages, as we utilized technology for the good of mankind, we utilized that same technology for its destruction. The Nazis will be remembered for many things, among them the industrial genocide of 6 million European Jews, as well as of tens of millions of non-Jews. It is impossible for any of us to grasp these numbers. The larger the number of deaths, the farther away becomes the human beings who populate the sum total. The only way we can grasp any of the horror, is to focus on one person at a time. One life lost. One future cut short.
Along with the losses are the stories of survival, in ways that challenge us to look at our own reverence for life and to ask ourselves the lengths we would go in order to save ourselves and/or others.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 27, is a day mandated by the UN General Assembly. The date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the death camps. At Auschwitz, roughly 1.1 million people were killed. On the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, 7000 Jews were saved.
Over 1.1 million killed. Seven thousand saved. The numbers are more than we can comprehend. The disparity, on the other hand, is not. It stands for all camps, all communities, all families.
I heard her cries coming from the research carrel next to mine at the Holocaust Museum. Her name was Irene, a short middle-aged woman, staring, as I was, at a computer screen. Hoping, as I was, that a relative's name would appear that might prove that family members lived in more than stories told by aging parents or grandparents. She had been searching for 10 years. Now, in one afternoon, she had found 70 people. I left my carrel and sat next to her. Stunned, I asked, "You had 70 family members who perished?" "No," she said. "I had more, many more." I asked Irene to tell me her story. Instead, she told me about her mother.
Her mother was born in Stanislawow, a shtetl in Poland. Everyone had to register for the census. There was a line on the form that was reserved for religion. She had a gut feeling about what would happen if she wrote that she was a Jew. She refused to comply. She ran from the shtetl. She was 15-years-old.
She was on her own, away from home. She was picked up years later in another town, forced to board a train with other Jews. She had a gut feeling about where the train was headed. She refused to comply. She jumped. She ran from the train. She was 18-years-old.
She was shot twice, but she wasn't caught. She ran into the woods. Resistance fighters found her. She stayed with them, until ultimately, she was caught and ended up in a concentration camp anyway. She met another girl there and they became friends, as only people can when they have lost everything else in their lives. They had a gut feeling about what their end would be. They refused to comply. They ran from the camp. She was 19-years-old.
She changed her name. She became Tsesha. She and her friend disappeared into the anonymity of a large city. They worked manual labor, whatever anyone would hire them for. They created new lives, based on their peasant clothes and peasant names. For the first time in five years, she felt safe. They met two boys who were surviving just as they were. Within three days, they married the boys, in wedding dresses they made out of blankets. She was 20-years-old.
She gave birth to two children and after the war, the family relocated to Canada. They had a good life. Then she got cancer. Surgery was performed and a mass was removed. Inside the mass, the surgeon found lead and shrapnel from the bullets 20 years before. Ultimately, the cancer was stronger than the census and the bullets and the concentration camp. It did not allow her to run. She died. She was 40-years-old.
And so Irene searches. For the large, extended families her parents left behind. Who obeyed the rules. Who complied with the census and were taken from their homes. Who didn't jump from the trains. Who were rewarded for their complicity by having their lives taken away. Who exist now only in the form of names on computer screen images. Unlike a young woman who refused to comply. Who instead ran and who survived long enough to give Irene life and to love her for 18 years. Who taught Irene what it meant to give up everything except one's spirit. And to never run from that.