May 31, 2007
1+1+1+1 ... = 6 million
No, the mounds of shoes or teeth or suitcases (with names and hometowns scrawled on them) or bald pictures of early prisoners will never tell us how they truly felt.
On April 11, I embarked on a journey back in time to one of the darkest chapters in human existence with the Los Angeles delegation of the March of the Living Program, sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. I felt myself detaching from the comfort and security of my family and many of my friends.
Upon arriving in Poland, we were told that more than 90 percent of Poland's prewar Jewish population was exterminated. We greeted vacant Polish faces, not knowing what to anticipate. Remnants of a once vibrant Jewish population -- destroyed ghettos, temples and Jewish schools -- were available for us to see in Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin.
The first site we visited was the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. I looked around, unable to digest the fact that there were more than 500,000 bodies buried underneath the ground I was standing on.
Our tour guide, Ronnie Mink, reminded us that we were not to look at these graves collectively. In other words, Hitler did not kill 6 million Jews, he killed one plus one plus one plus one... I could feel the uneasiness his statement suddenly caused.
I suppose this was propelled by a sudden realization that there is in every individual something that is inexpressible, unique to him alone and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost. Monise Neumann, our group leader, urged us to remember one of the names on a grave to honor those who perished. I chose Samus Bajnusiewicz.
Our group was accompanied by six Holocaust survivors. Each survivor had a different story. I struggled to understand their distinct experiences as they described them to us. When we visited Auschwitz, Ronnie pointed out the barbed wire where many Jews would commit suicide.
"I saw it happen every day. I wished I was one of them," said Alice, one of our survivors.
I saw the tears well up in her eyes. I wished I could conquer them for her and end all of the pain.
Paula Leibovic stood where her parents were taken away from her and began to cry as she intricately described the intensity of her emotions. I approached her afterward with many questions. She looked at me with a smile that struggled through tears: "Thank you for listening, Nicole."
Was she really thanking me for listening? I hadn't even thanked her yet. I looked at her, and all I could see was a fragile young girl stripped of her youth, yearning to be heard. I wanted to protect, care for, and love her.
It was time for the march. Eight thousand Jewish teenagers from around the world walked two miles from Auschwitz to Birkenau, along the same path through which 1 million of our people marched to their deaths. Names of the deceased were being read as we walked with our Israeli flags. I did not let the walls and fences conceal my pride. I felt empowered and proud to be part of such an enduring people -- the Jews. We sang together in unison: "Am Israel Chai! The Nation of Israel Lives!"
Israel was an entirely different experience. I had never visited Israel before this trip. I had a juvenile understanding of its roots, history, politics, and the challenges it has faced thus far. I knew I was pro-Israel, but only because I was Jewish. Along with many of the teenagers in my delegation, I saw Israel through a prism of what I saw in Poland.
During Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, the whole state stopped, and we stood with everyone to honor the lives of those who fought in the name of Israel -- our home, where we rejoiced, sang and celebrated the wonders of the one democratic country that binds us all together with its rich culture and distinctly just purpose.
Visiting Israel strengthened my enduring commitment to my Jewish identity. We are a small people, and for a long time had no country to call our own. We have not vanished, and I hope we never do.
For this reason, we must defend ourselves against the deniers, whose hatred is easily absorbed by the indifferent. We must speak up, because silence implies consent. We have all heard Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, call out for the State of Israel to be wiped off the map, and we have heard him refer to the Holocaust as a myth. During an interview, asked to justify his denial, he replied, "Where is the evidence?"
Well, I've seen it.
I have walked through the world that was and seen the world that has been destroyed. Now I am living in the world that so desperately calls for us to stick together and make a difference. I feel honored to know the stories of six powerful survivors from whom I drew strength. I not only remember, but retell their stories, knowing full well that if we forget the Holocaust, history will surely repeat itself. Perhaps if we could all hear one another's prayers, God might be relieved of some of his burdens.
Nicole Behnam is a senior at Milken Community High School.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the July issue is June 15; deadline for the August issue is July 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.