Never Look Away
I was in the 9th grade, Social Studies class. We were studying government. My teacher felt compelled to bring in a speaker to enlighten us. I remember at the time trying to think up a plan to cut class, which I often did with some creative frequency. When that failed to pan out, I found myself stuck in class, attitude a mile long with the intention of sleeping my way through. I knew everything back then…
But my plan was foiled. -Matter of fact, I not only remained wide-awake but riveted to my seat. Unable to comprehend all that I was hearing…incapable of matching the words to the visual. My young mind exploded. For the first time in my sheltered young life, I drank the bitter, acrid poison of absolute dread. And strangely enough, each painful swallow bestowed a lasting gift in shaping my humanity because on that day the speaker was a Holocaust survivor. I don’t honestly recall her name now, but I most certainly remember what she shared. It has stuck with me throughout the years. I’ll also never forget the ugly numbers rashly tattooed up her frail aged arm. But most of all, I remember her warning.
As I entered the classroom I noticed that the usual loud banter was replaced with curiosity. Who was this tiny elderly lady, dressed in a modest linen pantsuit, sitting in a student chair with her hands resting folded on her lap? She wore almost no jewelry except a modest set of pearls around her aged flaccid neck. Sitting in the back of the room I noticed how dignified she seemed. Deceptively quiet, but like a falcon nothing got past her attention. While waiting patiently for the usual ruckus of students to settle down she observed us as much as we did her.
Back then I usually elected to sit in the far back corner of my classes, preferring the anonymity, the distance from the teacher, and the ability to gauge if and when I wanted to participate in class discussions or simply slack off. Of course, the guest sitting in the back of the room in my space threw me, and I didn’t much appreciate that, but despite being a snotty, full-of-myself teen I kept my thoughts to myself.
After the teacher introduced our guest, the floor was all hers, but instead of walking to the front of the room as expected, she made no move to get up, and remained in her seat, forcing the rest of us to turn ourselves around to face her. Without so much as a whisper, the elderly lady took total command. The stage was set, and little did I know then how the direction of my life was about to change forever.
In a voice neither loud nor soft, she began to tell her grisly story, -more history than a tale. As she spoke, the room remained perfectly still. Not a single student dared stir or interrupt. Much too captivated by this woman’s regal posture but equally mesmerized by her penetrating strength of voice and character.
She told us about the day she was hauled away, like a useless piece of trash, taken as a young girl to the Auschwitz concentration camp. About the openly vile hate that decimated her entire family, her friends, robbing her of her youth, her home, and almost her future. She describe in detail the smell of fear permeating every pore of those who rode the trains- and for far too many to their awaiting deaths. She explained how ruthless guards calculatingly separated countless amounts of people. Ripping frightened children straight out of the arms of their devastated parents. Men carted off to their deaths, children crying for the mothers, and mothers clinging to their babies. Some shot dead in the process, while others were given the gruesome job of digging their own graves.
She expressed with pinpoint precision having been stripped of her clothing along with her dignity, imprisoned in a hellhole to await her own inevitable finality. She described the hollow eyes of other housed prisoners; some so sick and weakened that death had been a welcomed reprieve. How starving bodies lined the walls in the dirty stench of waste, deep hollow dead stares fixed in dark-ringed sockets. Starving human beings draped in tattered rags of clothing, hanging precariously off protruding bones…eyes no longer capable of shedding another single tear… hair and bodies contaminated with lice.
Each additional detail disclosed left not a dry eye in the room. Even the most hardened of students, me included, gave up trying to wipe away the wet dripping cascade of escaping tears, choosing instead to blink them out among our stifled sniffles and whimpers.
Of course, I knew about WWII from my history books, but words splayed across a page did little justice to explain the pain and suffering of those who were forced to live it. They did little to capture the same death grip on my heart as she so effortlessly managed to do.
The class bombarded our guest with questions.
“How could the German people let this happen?”
“Didn’t they know how crazy Hitler was?”
“Why were they so easily manipulated into believing Hitler's hate-filled rhetoric?"
“Why did they scapegoat whole groups of people -and why didn’t anybody try to stop them?”
Patiently she answered each question.
Tears were flowing. The teacher unobtrusively passed around a box of tissues. Minutes ticked away, but nobody noticed or cared until the loud sound of the school bell indicated a change of class. The halls outside promptly filled, consumed with the rush of students. Outside the classroom door diffused sounds of playful exchanges between students could be heard. Lockers being opened and then slammed shut while the pounding parade of rushing feet took off in every which direction.
Inside the classroom, the oxygen had been sucked out of our bodies, transformed into a numbed coexistence. Transfixed in time and space by this brave survivor’s account.
Our teacher told us that we were free to leave, but I didn't want to go. Too spellbound in my chair, unwilling to take my eyes off this commanding woman. I needed to understand, to ask. I couldn’t fathom how she had lived through such horrors, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand how people were able to get away with treating others in such a deplorable fashion. Where was the humanity? The morality?
The rest of the class trickled out after thanking her for coming, but I stayed behind, still not satisfied. For the entire discussion I had remained quiet. Intently listening to every detail, absorbing, trying to understand how something of this magnitude was permitted to happen, but most of all, I was burning inside to ask my question.
Noticing me still sitting before her, she smiled. “Yes?” In hindsight, I think she had been waiting all day for the one question nobody thought to ask.
“Do you think it can it happen again?”
“Absolutely. Genocide has never stopped.” Her eyes dug deep into my soul, pleading with me to ask more. Be brave they said…
With growing trepidation, I rallied my nerve to give voice to the question I dreaded hearing the answer to.
“I know we have a lot of problems in this country. Racism, bigotry, and the rise of hate groups, but can what happened in Germany happen here, -in America? To that magnitude?”
She neither wavered nor vacillated before answering, “Yes, I know it can,” she told me, “but I pray it won’t. This, of course, will all depend upon how far the masses allow themselves to be led as sheep by those in power. Will the public permit themselves to be conned by those who have supposed authority, influence, and control? Will they give them a platform to promote their hate and bigotry at the expense of others?”
“But we saw what happened! We saw how far hate can go. Americans would never let what transpired in Germany happen again here, " I informed her, the ignorance of my youth on full display.
"Really?" She looked disappointed. "I disagree. Certainly not all Americans, but it doesn’t take everyone. If there is a big enough group and they are angry and blinded by hate, they can be capable of committing some of the most heinous acts, -beyond the imagination.”
"But if that’s true, then what can we do to stop it from happening here?”
“Never forget,” she sternly warned me. “Never look away or ignore those who perpetrate hate, or worse, think they’re nothing but a harmless joke... someone people wouldn’t listen or follow. Don’t view their hate speech as just rhetoric or political scheming, and never make excuses for their bigotry. The minute you do that, they win, and the stakes are too high for them to be ever be permitted to win again.”
4 decades later…
2016: She was correct. Not only is fascism reappearing again but this time it is gaining a foothold here, right smack dab in our red, white and blue backyard. Feckless leaders, KKK sympathizers, political cowards, their followers-the new versions of the old brown-shirts gaining ground amongst a shocked nation, many of whom actually thought this could never happen again, and certainly not on American soil. That somehow prejudice, bigotry, visceral racism and bias would somehow become legislated away. -That diversity and culture would be celebrated instead of used to brand and marginalize whole groups of people, but at the end of the day, -no amount of laws can change the hearts of the people if they are diseased.
Every vote counts. Stand up and be counted. Don't let history repeat itself on our watch.