By Cami Tussie
I am most frightened by the contrast. Just last week, I was standing in the blistering cold, boots covered in mud, staring upon acres and acres of death at Auschwitz Birkenau. One day I was there: in the same location where 1.1 million innocent individuals were brutally murdered in the most notorious Holocaust concentration camp. The next I was here: chasing the sunset as I biked to class in our beautiful California paradise. Just like that, it was as if I had not just been standing at the site where one of the most disgusting remnants of humanity took place. Today, I sit in my heated dorm room and cannot help but be frightened by this return to normalcy. I fear how quickly we can become complacent, how easy it is to transition back into comfort and put away the memories of such horrors. But it is this very contrast that drives the desperate need to remember, to transmit and to ensure that an event like the Holocaust can never happen again.
Last week, I was invited to attend the 75th Anniversary of the Auschwitz Liberation in Poland as a member of the World Jewish Congress Delegation. I joined the group of 3,000 people who attended the ceremony, including over 120 Holocaust survivors and global leaders from more than 50 countries. I sat before the gates of hell, staring at the train tracks that carried so many to their deaths as I heard testimonies from survivors recounting their experiences and their fears. I stood in the cold of darkness, fear gripping at my spine from the mere sight of empty watchtowers and uncharged electric fences, as I listened to the survivors who made it out of this death camp alive. And I struggled to comprehend how humanity could be capable of such a thing. How a state could sponsor the mass genocide of an entire group of people, construct gas chambers devoted solely to killing fast and efficiently and how the rest of the world could sit idly by as such monstrosities took place right before their eyes.
Like many other Jews, I was raised hearing stories of the Holocaust. I read books written about the events, talked to countless survivors about their stories. But nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing Auschwitz with my own two eyes. To witness a city entirely devoted to the murder of my people, to walk past the places where living, innocent humans were used as experimentation mice, to see where people were tortured and starved for pure sadistic enjoyment was simply incomprehensible. I was not prepared to walk the same cobblestones as the Nazi soldiers that haunted my nightmares as a little girl, to witness the barracks where millions were crowded and dehumanized or to touch the walls that lined the gas chambers that killed so many of my people — the very same walls where so many hands before me desperately clung to the dreams they were never given the opportunity to pursue. Nothing could have prepared me to walk through Auschwitz because Auschwitz is simply unfathomable. But it is this very unfathomability that drives the need to ensure that all are aware of the horrors to which humanity can shrink.
Bat-Sheva Dagan, a 94-year-old survivor, spoke at the event. She described her time at the camp: She entered and faced the SS officer who began the selection, his finger pointing towards the right line if he perceived you to look healthy enough for hard labor or to the left line to be sent to immediate death. She received the finger that pointed right — right to a line that could afford her temporary survival. She had her head shaved, her arm tattooed and was assigned the role of sorting the belongings for those who were told to go left and sent to the gas chambers that guaranteed their death. She now stood before us all and, tears in her eyes, asked, “Where was everybody?” She stood there, voice shaking, pleading, “Where was the world? The world who could see that, hear that and yet did nothing to save all those thousands?”
Where were we?
Upon my return, I was shocked to receive a message sent to me by the Jewish community about an anti-Semitic hate crime on our own campus; just last week, a bench on Palm Drive was defaced with a Star of David and a deceased rat placed on top. I encounter frightening statistics: 45% of Americans and 66% of millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz was. 31% of Americans believe that less than two million Jews were murdered, when in reality, about 6 million died. And from 2018 to 2019, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes that took place within our own country increased by nearly 20%. These numbers are staggering. They are terrifying. They are a rude awakening that we are not doing enough.
Each murdered life had a name, had a story, had a future. Margot Schrader, a mother who was separated from three young, beautiful children. Helene Lob, a French Jew who was forced into a cattle car in the freezing cold of winter. Gedalia Friedman, a father who was sent into a gas chamber at Auschwitz to face his death. Each had a passion, a family who loved them, a person that they loved. We owe it to them to pass on their stories, to teach our children of the monstrosities that humans are capable of and to ensure that we never allow our peers or ourselves to reach this level of inhumanity. It does not start with a gas chamber. It does not start with a cattle car. It starts with the way we talk to those around us, the time we devote to learning about cultures and people that we are unfamiliar with and the way we choose to embrace kindness and love instead of evil and hate.
It is hard for me to believe that it was only a week ago where I was standing at Auschwitz, but I look back and realize the imperative given to our generation: the last generation who will ever be able to listen to and transmit the lessons and stories of survivors. We must ensure that we do not only remember and transmit, but also that we stand up against this disgusting hatred, that we never accept the rewriting of history that shrouds the horrors lived by so many before us and that we live our lives with passion and love for all those before us who were never given the opportunity to do so.
We owe it to Margot, to Helene, to Gedalia and to the 6.5 million flames who were extinguished. We owe it to ourselves.
— Cami Tussie ’21
Contact Cami Tussie at cami2c ‘at’ stanford.edu.