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Dealing with the Holocaust

Felix Nussbaum, “Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card”, 1943

Dealing with the Holocaust has always been a numbers game for myself as someone who loves history. But the problem with numbers are that they hide the grave realities of the people who made up those vast figures. When one speaks in millions, the individual, the personal story, the private grief and anguish gets lost in the figures. So it has been the goal of Yad Vashem to delve past the numbers and reveal the people behind the numbers.

Over the past few days, we have been taken on a personal journey into the lives of the Jewish people, the people destined for liquidation, whose choices were ultimately choiceless. On this journey, we have read poems, diaries and literature, all of which reveal the people and their struggles as the faced the inevitable – death under the Nazi apparatus.

Needless to say, it has been a struggle. How did an almost entire group of people seemingly go willingly towards death and the deaths of their families? Where was the fight, where was the resistance, where was the resolve to try and avoid death? The brutal tragedy of the Holocaust is that there was no room to fight. Survival often depends on our ability to compromise, and for a people whose deaths were ultimately unavoidable, compromise existed through a variety of facets alien to us today. But for the Jewish people caught deep within the folds of the Third Reich’s industrialised executions, constant compromise was all they had.

However, deep within these actions and the fingers that clawed at life, the Jewish people still found humanity within their plight. To defy a regime with violence often only ended in the senseless murder of families and neighbourhoods. To defy a regime with life was a revenge that was far more fulfilling. In this fashion, many Jewish people chose to confront their impending doom through a concerted effort to remain human, to remain Jewish.

It is within this quiet confrontation that we are able to witness the real beauty and humanism of a people who were in an environment where death fast became a normalised part of life. A diary, prayers throughout the day, a smuggled instrument, a poetry reading, a comforting embrace all became avenues through which the doomed Jewish nation managed to hold onto their humanity and resist – even for brief moments – the dehumanisation that was afforded by the Nazis.

Through reading the literature and viewing the art, we are gifted the voices of those who were silenced in crowded, blackened rooms where every breath betrayed life. Here within the words of the living, we encounter the victim and we shrug off the narrative provided to us through the Nazi administration. By viewing the literature, we pay homage to the memory of not just the artist or author, but the people and populations that they represented. We ensure that those condemned and left voiceless can be heard and understood.

Night – Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)*

The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally, our illusions.

Every few yards, there stood an SS man, his machine gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the throng.

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.

I kept walking,

my father holding my hand.

* Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust having been interred in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz while his father died in Buchenwald. He is the author of 57 books.