It is Yom Hashoah as I write this today, the Jewish “holiday” of commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust. What I think of, every year as this day approaches, is my own experience as a witness to the Holocaust. I know it may sound strange for a 36-year-old to be a witness to an event that happened when their parents were toddlers, so let me explain more. When I was 17 years old I was fortunate enough to participate in a program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit called The March of the Living. Today, at Auschwitz in Poland, that March was recreated for the 30th time as young people, mainly Jews from all over the globe, tour the now-museum of Auschwitz and recreate the mile-long March of Death from Auschwitz to Birkenau; renamed the March of the Living as many descendants of survivors or their kin can attest that we, the Jewish people, are still here. When I was 17 and on this trip, I knew what genocide was, but didn’t fully understand the term until I was in Poland seeing these relics first-hand.
Our group from Metro Detroit consisted of reformed, conservative, and orthodox Jews, including rabbis representing each denomination. The Rabbi from the reform movement was a woman, and I remember the dynamics between her and the Rabbis from the orthodoxy, who didn’t fully recognize her as their peer and equal, as being very eye-opening for me as a young woman not yet accustomed to the subtleties of adult sexism. The Rabbi from the conservative movement’s father was a survivor who joined us for a short time on the trip, along with his other son. The first camp we stopped at was Plaszow, a work camp he had survived, and he spoke to us about his experiences there in front of the stone memorial that now sits alone on a grassy field where he had once been imprisoned. While he was forced into this camp due to his ethnicity and religion, he was also there with others who were imprisoned for a short time due to criminal activity. I still remember distinctly how he described a fellow prisoner telling him that he was going to be in the camp forever because he was a Jew, while the man who committed a crime was going to be able to leave.
While there are many memories I have from this trip, including visiting the remains of the Warsaw ghetto, buying a beautiful hand-carved wooden chessboard from an open-air market in Krakow, marching with thousands of people chanting and singing from Auschwitz to Birkenau, there is one point of the trip that changed my life and perspective forever, that led me to a life of activism and public service, and that was visiting Majdanek. Majdanek was one of the oldest camps, built before the Nazis decided to cremate the bodies of their victims, and was both a work camp and a spot for gas chamber exterminations. It is located on a beautiful hillside location, and the memorial of the crematorium sits at the top overlooking the town below. The first time I saw Schindler’s List, as the ashes of human beings fall on Schindler like snow, I thought of how that must have been what this town saw as the crematorium burned the bodies of Jews and others during the German occupation of Poland.
As our group walked up the hillside together, the only remaining intact home was that of the commandant, as the rest, along with many other pieces of the camp barracks, were used for firewood as this small town in Poland was left to recover the aftermaths of World War II. The setup and layout was still there, a winding road up a beautiful hill dotted with nice homes, idyllic until the road ended at a concentration camp and a gas chamber. Together, we walked into the chamber, nowhere near as crowded as it would have been during its operation, and we were able to emerge in the sunlight to the other side, alive. As I walked out of that gas chamber, and our guide explained to us that this small grassy area was where the bodies would be piled up to be taken to mass graves and later the crematorium, I saw a chain-link fence less than 500 feet from that chamber.
Just on the other side of that fence was an older brick apartment building, surely there during the war. I stared for a minute, slowly processing how anyone could live next to a concentration camp and do nothing. How could anyone live next door to a place when they knew they could look out their window or walk out their door and see a pile of bodies. How could anyone live in a town where ashes of human beings could fall from the sky like snow? Why wasn’t there outrage and mass revolt from this horror? I’ve researched the Holocaust, and heard and learned about those who did resist, both inside and outside the camps, but I still today can’t come to terms with that apartment building. It haunts me more than the camps and crematoriums, more than the ruins of the ghettos and the tears of the survivor and his sons. That one apartment building opened my eyes to the genocide in the United States, and gave me the ability to understand how the Holocaust parallels our own history of slavery and massacres of Native Americans. That one apartment building is why I protested the Iraq War, the School of the Americas, and fell into activism. That one apartment building is why I ran for my local school board, have marched for Black Lives, immigrants and LGBTQIA rights, and why today I am now running to be the next Governor of our great state.
Never again has been used for many movements throughout history, as it should be, because the lessons of the Holocaust are not just to end any further acts of genocide across the globe, but also to learn what it means to be silent and complicit to atrocities. What it means to silence voices of dissent and those who ask uncomfortable questions to those with power. Today, I remember the 6 million Jews who were murdered and the other millions of Roma, handicapped, gay, and “others” murdered in those same concentration camps. Today, as our country engages in warfare in 7 different countries, I remember the full 60 million people who were killed in World War II. I remember that the country I live in, that I love, turned away refugees from that war, many of whom were then murdered, as we took no action until the Pearl Harbor attack. I remember that in this country, at that same time, we rounded up and imprisoned Japanese citizens and immigrants, put them in camps and stole their property, too. I remember that today, genocide is still happening around the world in Myanmar, Yemen, Iraq, Nigeria, the CAR, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria, with numerous other countries being watched for, and violating the human rights of their own citizens, including here in the United States. I remember that just last week, the State of Israel killed unarmed Palestinians because they came too close to their border wall, one not unlike what our current President wants to build between the US and Mexico. I remember that this week, the government of our great state of Michigan closed down water pods in Flint, without warning, and that still today, four years after they were poisoned for a pipeline, residents do not have access to clean, safe drinking water.
As the Day of Remembrance passes, we must do more than just remember, we must act. Today, tomorrow, and every day after, we must speak up and act on Never Again together or history will continue to repeat itself.