All my adult life, I have felt a burden to live more than one life. I am a child of survivors and a mourner of many who did not survive. In 1944, my grandparents and more than 700 others were murdered in a little-known massacre in Kremnicka, Slovakia. This, after Max and Alzbeta escaped the town in which they prospered for many years and hid in caves like animals to avoid capture. They had already lost three of their children in Auschwitz and lost track of the other three, one of whom was my father. They were betrayed, arrested and, on one cold foggy night, they were dragged from jail to a forest, where they were shot in the head by drunken Slovaks from the local town. They fell into their shallow tank-trench graves along with hundreds of other Jews, including 211 women and 58 children.
I am also a child of the ’60s, and in my soul I carry many natural and acquired beliefs from both my own religion and other Western and Eastern thought that enlightened us in those decades of abandon and experimentation. I respect the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, and Buddha’s teachings about surrendering oneself; I believe in karma and trying to live from my higher chakras. I try to be generous in my heart when it comes to forgiveness, and I am no stranger to prayer and other spiritual practice.
And yet, when I think of my grandparents on that cold night facing the last seconds of their shattered lives — all their dreams broken, their children murdered and lost, I am no longer a man who believes in anything, not even God himself. Those who exterminated our grandparents, uncles and siblings have left many of us with a crippling and burning fury in our hearts and minds. I am incapable of finding any religion or spiritual guidance that could budge me away from the pain and anger I feel when I think of the base, inhuman acts that have been perpetrated upon my people, my family. So, I have carried this wild, injured, vengeful animal inside of me for many years. This beast that was born of the terrors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the thousands of other killing fields where my relatives suffered and died, has destroyed many of the more tender sides of me, but it has also kept me steadfast, and it has also given me the will to remember. It awakens inside me and wants me to make others remember that not so long ago there were acts committed that cannot and should not be excused or forgotten, or even forgiven. I am not alone in carrying this beast inside me. But now, in my early 60s, I am reminded that I am part of a dying breed. Many of our parents have died and those who remain are old and the only few eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust. And we, the children of survivors, are the last generation to have witnessed and heard their stories and felt their pain directly.
Generations ahead face the unique and difficult task of educating their children to remember and to tell this story of millions of unthinkably cruel acts, a story of incomprehensible brutality of man to man. No amount of archived testimony will replace a sense of outrage and indignation in one human heart. The beast may die with my generation, but the rage must be saved and even nurtured in our children’s hearts and minds when they are old enough to know. Because only by remembering, understanding and feeling the magnitude of such terror can we succeed in our efforts to prevent it from happening again.
I have tried to live as much as I could to fulfill not only my dreams but those of my grandparents and my uncles and aunts who could not fulfill theirs. I have preserved my heritage for me and for them. I have taught my children the unbearable truth for me and for them; and I write these words for me and for them. Their lives were very much like ours here, today. They were not any more deserving of hatred, persecution and killing than we are — but they are more deserving of our compassion and our effort to remember them because they were innocent victims whose lives were cut short with such shocking disgrace. Even if they were strangers, my heart would bleed for them. But these were my own flesh and blood and that of my children and their children and all the generations after them.
George Kalmar, born in Slovakia, is a local sculptor and writer and founder of IES, an organization promoting US colleges worldwide. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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