I work at a Holocaust Center. My daily language consists of the most obscene of numbers, concentration camps, death, suffering, and incredible personal miracles.
I am just about to complete my seventh year as the director of education. When I tell people where I work, I am often met with looks of pity or silence, and then a change of subject.
“Isn’t that depressing?” is the most frequent question I receive.
Until recently, I would answer that I am inspired daily by the educators with whom I work. The teachers in our schools who teach this subject — a subject that is not required or mandated — are creative, insightful, and motivated. Seven years later I am only more impressed by their efforts and determination.
However, my answer to the question has changed. The gravity of the Holocaust — of any and all genocides — is severe. The depth of human suffering is beyond description. This tragedy did not end in 1945, but continues in the survivors’ memories, in their children, and in new generations of survivors of more recent genocides. As I type this, there are at least four places in the world on the brink of genocide. No one should suffer so extremely at the hands of another person or group of people. No one.
It’s easier for us to turn the other way, to bury ourselves in our own lives, to glance over the headlines without associating the individuals involved. It is easier because we have no explanation for innocent people being persecuted and suffering so greatly — we know it is unjust, we recognize the absurdity of it all, and this is why we can hardly bear to face it.
I am the mother of two young children. When they were born, as everyone warned me it would, my view of the world changed. I think I was always sensitive to people’s feelings, fears, and to the pain and hurt a person experiences at being rejected, put down, disappointed. After having children of my own, the stories of parents hiding their kids, sending them to safety, holding on to them — all of it was too personal.
The fear experienced by children, parents, grandparents, the grappling with the unknown, the efforts to save loved ones, and even the pursuit of joy that occurred in the worst of conditions — all of this becomes part of the world we live in. We wish this was history, but in fact, people around the world continue these experiences on a daily basis.
No, depressing is not the word I would use. Overwhelming, really, is more like it.
I love my job. Many people have heard me say it. I work with the most incredible people — survivors, educators, and a staff of the most driven, intelligent, passionate people.
But, there are days I go home and feel overwhelmed by the suffering, pain, hatred, and ignorance that exists in this world. What can I, one person, do? Sometimes I feel hopeless.
Still, I like to think that maybe I’m making a microscopic dent. I’m idealistic, I suppose. I try to live honestly by my values, to practice the things that I tell others Holocaust education imparts: To stand up to intolerance, recognize the dangers of stereotyping, be respectful of each other’s differences, know that your words and actions affect those around you…because really, if I can’t do it, how can I expect anyone else to? All I can do is to try to work toward these lofty ideals and hope that maybe others will find it worthwhile to do so too.
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 11, I am thankful to the survivors for sharing their experiences and for trusting their listeners with their stories. I am thankful to all of those who have made an effort to remember, search for, and hear the stories of those that did not survive. On this day, we must not simply remember, we must feel, and we must act.