Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Have Never Forgotten You

My heart sank as I read the news this morning. Henryk Mandelbaum, Poland's last surviving Sonderkommando (Jews who were forced to man the Nazi gas chambers) passed away on Tuesday at the age of 85. Mandelbaum was forced as a prisoner to strip victims' bodies of their valuables, pull out their gold teeth and fillings and carry them to crematoria for burning. It makes me very sad to think that the survivors who keep the memory of the Holocaust alive are slowly disappearing. Without Mandelbaum, who will be able to teach the world about the gas chambers, the Sonderkommando, about the Holocaust? Will we allow the horrors of our past to simple fade away and turn to dust?

I recently came back from an amazing trip in Poland and Israel, to commemorate our tragic past and to affirm our glorious future. I sat in synagogues and yeshivot that once housed thousands of Jewish worshippers and students and now sit emtpy. Krakow's beautifully decorated and extremely ornate Tempel Shul is unused for most of the year. In Lublin, a city which was once refered to as the Jerusalem of Poland, if one did not know to look for a Jewish cemetary or synagogue, one would have no idea that Jews once lived there. In Poland, I noticed how easy it was to forget. In Placzow work camp, a park was created out of the mass grave. On the bones of 20 000 Jews (one of the survivors who accompanied us on our trip explained to us that her cousin of 6 was shot right were we stood), Poles sunbathe and walk their dogs. The distance between Auschwitz and Birkenau is flanked with restaurants and shops. Majdanek, certainly the most evil place on Earth, is 5 minuted from the center of Lublin. Inhabitted houses sit at the edge of the barbed wire, standing while its horrible furnaces burnt human flesh. In Warsaw, nothing of the ghetto remains besides two walls. The area was rebuilt and today is full of apartments and stores. In Umschlagplatz, the train depot from which 300 000 Jews were taken to the gas chambers at Treblinka, these tracks now carry tour trolleys and cable cars. While we emersed ourselves bitterly in the pain of our people over 60 years ago, the Poles continued their daily lives, undaunted.

On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, we marched the 2.5 kilometres between Auschwitz and Birkenau in solidarity of the millions murdered. At the end of the Birkenau death camp, we had a ceremony with survivors, at which the former chief rabbi of Israel and the IDF Chief of Staff spoke to us. Sitting in a cold and damp barrack, the 5 survivors who accompanied us told us their stories and experiences. One eldery woman told us that when the war finished, she would often meet with other survivors to speak about their experiences. She had always assumed that when she would die, her story would die with her. She told us that now, she has no fear of this. She knows that we will keep her story alive.

What an incredible responsibility! I am scared of this challenge. We are the first generation to live in a world without Holocaust survivors. With the ever-rising anti-semitism and alarming Holocaust denial, will we be able to stand up and set the record straight? Or will we simply let the memories of the Holocaust victims turn to dust. On our last day in Poland, we visited Treblinka, a death camp in which one millions Jews were gassed. Treblinka was completely destroyed after the war and nothing stands there besides a monument of granite slabs representing the train tracks into annhilation and tens of thousands of enormous pillars representing communtites that were wiped out. Treblinka is surrounded by a beautiful forest which the Germans grew on the ashes of murdered Jews used as fertilizer, in an attempt to cover up their horror. Standing in that awful place, I felt so alone, so empty, so forsaken. The million that were exterminated there went up in smoke and ashes. They have no tomb, no yarzheit. They had no funeral, nobody sat shiva over them or said kaddish for them. Another survivor told us how his entire village besides his family and a few other were rounded up and sent to Treblinka. He is the sole survivor of his 60 young classmates. He told us that he thinks about them every day. When he, after 120 years, passes away, will I be able to do their legacy honour? I cannot let time make their names and memories grow cold. I promise to educate people about the Holocaust, about the dangers of anti-semtism and intolerance, in the memory of the 6 million murdered Jews.

Many years after the war had finished, Simon Wiesenthal, the legendary Nazi hunter, went to visit a friend of his in New York. This friend, after the war, had moved on with his life and had become a businessman. He wanted to know why Wiesenthal did not do the same. "You're a religious man," replied Wiesenthal. "You believe in God and life after death. I also believe. When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, ‘What have you done?,’ there will be many answers. You will say, ‘I became a jeweler,’ Another will say, ‘I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes,’ Another will say, ‘I built houses,’ But I will say, ‘I did not forget you’." There must certainly be great agitation in the heavens as the President of Iran claims that the Holocaust is a myth and that he will wipe Israel off the map. As anti-semitism from the Far Right and Islamofascists continues to rise in Europe and North America, we can ill afford to forget.

To the 6 million men, women and children, holy and pure martyrs, killed because they were Jews, who have vanished to the wind: I have never forgotten you.

Cross-posted to Goat's Barnyard


Yehudi said...

BK, unfortunately, it is human nature to colectively forget the unpleasant things in life. Look at the US after 9/11. In the weeks and months immediately following that tragedy, America was itching for a fight...democrats and republicans both. Now, as a nation, we have somehow forgotten that day and how it affected so many people. It didn't take long, either.

We must fight and resist the temptation to forget hashoah. Though we will never forget, we must do as Simon Wiesenthal did and purpose to keep the memory of those precious souls alive. I stand with you, achi, and vow to never forget...nor will I let others forget, either.

Rita Loca said...

I take the responsibility of remembering seriously. I have passed it on to my children. I know you will remember!

Anonymous said...

BK: I will never forget and will try to teach others. Maybe my kids will continue this chain.

Deborah said...

On my coffee table lies a large hard-bound book, "The Holocaust Chronicle". Recently, a friend asked why I choose to display a coffee table book with such an unpleasant theme, to which I answered, “Never forget… we must never forget.”

Actually, I wasn’t offended in the least that my friend accused me of displaying such an unpleasant book… the book produced what I intended to effect: the provocation of thought and conviction by blatantly reminding anyone who walks into my home of the Holocaust.

G-d bless and protect His Chosen!

Harry said...

This is off topic, but I hope you don't mind if I reprint your "Dear World" post at at Garbanzo Toons. I will credit this blog.

Anonymous said...


Very moving, we will never forget, we cannot forget and thank God for the internet, hopefully this will remain on the www forever.

You are doing a hell of a great job, although a Christian, I love to learn what you have to write. keep it up buddy!

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