June 5, 2008
Color puts Holocaust in new dimension
When Monise Neumann, the incredible director of the March of the Living, came to my school to recruit students for the trip to Polish concentration camps and then Israel, I listened respectfully, picked up a paper and stuffed it in the deepest corner of my backpack. |
At the time, I thought, "I have been in Jewish day school my whole life. I have read Holocaust books, seen Holocaust movies and heard Holocaust survivors speak. I get it. If anyone should go, it should be all the non-Jews, so they can see what they did to us."
A few weeks later, I was sorting through my desk when I came across the crumpled application. As I skimmed the first page, the word "photo" caught my attention. A friend who went on the trip last year told me of a particular photo at Auschwitz. This photo was just another picture on the wall, until one of the survivors pointed to a certain gaunt child and said, "That's me."
As I sat there reflecting, I realized the time had come for me to step up and become a firsthand witness. The survivors would not be around much longer, so it was now or never. I chose now.
Months later, I stood inside one of the most feared camps the Nazis had constructed, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We stood in a group and listened to some of the survivors tell stories. We then divided up into smaller groups to walk around the camp.
The leader of our small group told us many history book-type facts that for me went in one ear and out the other. I was concentrating on the camp. However, one of the last things he said stopped me in my tracks. He said, "Remember guys, the Holocaust didn't happen in black and white, it happened in full Technicolor." Oh.
Every picture, every movie, every book I had seen had been in black and white. I now imagined them in color.
A few days before, I had seen a black-and-white picture of women standing at attention inside Auschwitz-Birkenau. But now I knew. Those dresses hadn't all been a dirty gray. They had been red and green and yellow. Those eyes weren't really black but blue or green or brown. And that sky hadn't been gray, it had been blue, maybe the same color of the sky today in front of dark woody barracks surrounded by bright yellow flowers. All enclosed by gray, lifeless barbed wire.
So here was the truth. The Holocaust did not happen in a different dimension. It happened in my world, in a sleepy town you might expect to see on a postcard. Here, on the spot that I was standing, 1.1 million of my people had been slaughtered. Horrifying doesn't begin to describe it.
That day we, the Los Angeles delegation sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau along with 10,000 other people from 40 different countries. Some chose to march in silence, others in wild exuberance. I tried both and found that it didn't matter.
The simple fact that we were all there, transforming a march that had foreshadowed death into a march that celebrated life, was enough. And not only did we march into Birkenau; we marched out. More than 60 years after the Holocaust, it was obvious who had won.
Exactly one week after our march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, we stood outside the Old City of Jerusalem, preparing for another march. But this was not a march of mourning, remembrance, defiance. This was a march of celebration.
More than 6,000 of the 10,000 people from Poland had continued with us to Israel, and on Israel's 60th anniversary we marched through the streets of Jerusalem. Everyone was singing and dancing to their favorite Israeli tunes. People held flags and conga-lined through the group. One of my friends was even thrown several feet in the air by some overexcited New Jersey boys.
One week before, we ended our march at one of the darkest places in Jewish history. That day, we ended our march in the heart of Jerusalem at the Western Wall.
One week we walked through a place of despair. The next week we stood in front of the symbol of hope. I had felt horror, pain, humor, despair, wonder, joy and now as I stared at the wall, I felt pride. Pride in how my people rose above the cruelty of the world and built for themselves this haven in our spiritual homeland.
I thought of the survivors, the heroes of our journey who traveled with us and woke painful memories so that we would become the next link in the chain of remembrance. And as I sat there reflecting, I made a promise -- I will never forget.