Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting a Holocaust survivor during a chance encounter in the store. She was a gracious, gentle woman who had been imprisoned as a child. The numbers on her arm were a painful reminder of the dark acts of which humans are capable.
What stayed with me the most was that the hand-inked numbers on her arm started out uniform, but then became more and more uneven and jagged. My heart wept as I pictured that small child fighting against the torture of each new number with increasing intensity. It broke my heart to know that someone so young had experienced such horrors.
When I became a mother those images took on new meaning. I learned that Nazis not only targeted Jews, but also waged a eugenics campaign against those with disabilities. The evils of the Holocaust somehow seemed even more horrifying with the realization that my own child could have been a target.
Is he more safe in today’s world than he would have been back then? Is society more accepting, more caring, more unified?
Let us strive to be better. Let us not forget the evils of the past, or we risk making the same mistakes again.
I reflected upon these things when I first wrote a post about that life-altering encounter, and I thought it seemed appropriate to revisit on Holocaust Remembrance Day :
On this day I stop to remember, and ponder, and listen. I reflect upon the atrocities committed by a group of people driven by greed and a lust for power, blinded by prejudice. I pause to hear the voices that cried out, yet were silenced too soon. I will not forget them.
Many do not realize the expansiveness of the list of groups targeted by the Nazis. It included not only Jews, but also “Gypsies, Poles and other Slavs, and people with physical or mental disabilities.” During their quest for racial purity the Nazis strove to eliminate the “unfit” as well as any who would oppose their quest for domination.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Nazi persecution of persons with disabilities in Germany was one component of radical public health policies aimed at excluding hereditarily “unfit” Germans from the national community. These strategies began with forced sterilization and escalated toward mass murder.”
“On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism. With the law’s passage the Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against the disabled, regularly labeling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society.”
“Burden upon society.” Lives deemed as less than precious. Of no value. I grieve all the lives lost during the Nazi’s cleansing campaign, but as the mother of a child with special needs this knowledge especially brings me great sorrow. As I gaze into my son’s sweet face I wonder~ would his life had been one that was deemed as dispensable?
All this causes me to ask myself, in a world that is so often tainted by hate, if we have really come that far since these events. Are we really more accepting today? Is the world really a safer, more welcoming place? Far too often we treat people who have ethnicities or views different than our own with fear or hatred. Society has such a narrow perception of beauty that we mock people who are intellectually or physically unique. Parents are routinely encouraged to terminate a pregnancy if possible birth defects are detected. If they choose against it they are often criticized for allowing a “burden to society” to be born, and are called cruel for sentencing their child to what others deem a poor quality of life.
Is such a world really better? Is it safe for all the glorious diversity of peoples that exists? As I think about these things I am reminded of my own encounter with a Holocaust survivor.
I was shopping with my small child and I first noticed her, as she spoke with a companion, because of her lovely accent. She made eye contact with my son and commented how beautiful he was. During our conversation I noticed a tattoo on her forearm, and a chill ran down my spine as I recognized it as a serial number from a concentration camp. Tears filled my eyes as I gazed at such a genteel lady, wondering at the horrors she must have endured. Before I could help myself I reached out and brushed my fingers gently against her arm, and then sorrowfully pressed my hand to my heart. “Yes,” she replied, “I was in Auschwitz when I was a child.” History was standing in front of me, and I was humbled.
I wondered how long she had to sit and endure such torture, and I could not help but visualize how terrified she must have been. The tattoo gave some indication: the first few numbers were even, but as they continued they became more and more crooked. Sometimes the Nazis had utilized a stamp, but her numbers were obviously done free-hand with a needle… slowly, one dot at a time. In my mind I could see her as a small child; frantically fighting more and more with each agonizing number, trying to wrench her arm away to escape the pain. It would be a natural reaction to such horrors, but it was also very strong and brave to stand up for herself against such men. The upward slope of the tattoo and the unevenness of the numbers were a startling illustration of both their savagery and her resilience.
I gazed at her arm, barbarically scarred by such cruel hands, and I wanted nothing more than to bring it to my lips. As if somehow by taking her into my arms I could comfort that terrified, crying child from her past and keep her safe. Instead I simply made a sort of praying gesture and managed to choke out the words, “Bless you.” I didn’t know what else to say to her; words seemed both inadequate and an invasion of her privacy. Still, it was hard to walk away from her that day.
Almost ten years have passed, but my heart still breaks as I think of her. I wish so much now that I had more time to spend in her presence. I wish I had asked if it would be possible for her to share her story. All their stories should be told. She was such a lovely, gracious woman, but she also symbolized to me all the countless, precious lives that were lost. Men, women, children. Senselessly, callously lost. Bright lights extinguished by men who were blind to their radiance.
Though I may not know her story, I will never forget her. Let us not forget any of them, nor the lessons they can teach us. Let us strive to do better, and to treat all our fellow humans with love and kindness and dignity and respect. Let us not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.
(This post first appeared on this page in January of 2015 on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.)
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