"My father was an extremely smart man. In the cattle car, sitting there, I
talked to him. 'Daddy, what's going to happen?' And he always assured me,
'Don't worry. This is the twentieth century. They're not going to kill us.'"
Survivors of the Holocaust documents the effect the Adolf Hitler and his followers had as they applied their ideas about "race" to the Jews of Europe. Almost from the start, the Nazis waged two wars. One was fought openly on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa. The other took place in secret and its victims were not soldiers, but civilians - children, women, and men whose only "crime" was their "race."
The stories of the survivors provide a glimpse into the death camps, where as Professor Lawrence Langer reminds us, moral choices as we know them did not exist and "the inmates were left with the task of redefining decency in an atmosphere that could not support it." The survivors who tell their story in this documentary were children or young teenagers when the war began.
How can I forget Auschwitz, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, Buchenwald...and so many others? How can I forget Moshe, Yankel, and Rivka...and so many names? And I hear so many "Sh'ma Yisroels, Adonai Elohenus, Adnoi Echnods." How can I forget the sound of Shabbos in the wind that carried the endless sound of "Yisgadal, Ve'yiskadash Sh'mey Rabbo"? It is so much pain to remember, so much pain, but it's so hard to forget.The places he lists are places where Jews were murdered. The names represent individuals who died there. He also recites passages from two prayers. The first is said twice each day by religious Jews to affirm their faith in God. The prayer begins with these words: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is one." The second prayer is recited in memory of loved ones. It too praises God and reaffirms a belief in our God.
Then for the first time, we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower that this: no human condition is more miserable, than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage so that behind the name something of us, of us, as we were, remains...Levi believed the Holocaust altered the very meaning of even everyday words:
Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced in suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death will be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of pure judgment of utility. It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term "extermination camp," and it is now clear what we seek to express in the phrase: "to lie on the bottom."
Just as our hunger is not the feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say "hunger," we say "tiredness," "fear," "pain," we say "winter" and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and without suffering in their homes. If the [camps] had lasted longer, a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind with the temperature below freezing, and wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, hunger, and knowledge of the end drawing near.Among the words that took on a new meaning was the word bread. One survivor describes a son who killed his father over a piece of bread. Another recalls the tiny slivers of bread he and his father saved to keep themselves alive on an upcoming death march. He says that he cried the day he learned that his father had traded the bread for a prayer book. A few days later, the father used the prayer book to hold a Passover seder. A seder is a ceremony held in Jewish homes to remember a time when Jews were slaves in Egypt and recall how they acquired their freedom.
Professor Lawrence Langer refers to those decisions as choices made in the "absence of humanly significant alternatives-that is, alternatives enabling an individual to make a decision, act on it, and accept the consequences, all within a framework that supports personal integrity and self-esteem." He calls them "choiceless choices."
"Of course, in the camps I saw men conquered, weak, cruel. I do not hesitate to admit I hated them, they frightened me; for me, they represented a danger greater than the Germans...But, though they played the executioner's game, they died as victims...What would have become of me had I stayed in the camps longer, five years, or seven, or twelve? I have been trying to answer that question for more than twenty years and at times, after a sleepless night, I am afraid of the answer."
My Yiddishe Mama
O, how terrible when she is gone.
How beautiful and bright is the house
When my mother is there.
How sad and dark
When God takes her from the world.
Where shall I go?
Who can answer me?
All doors are closed.
To the left, to the right.
It's the same in every land.
How do the words also explain the feelings of another survivor? She says: "I shelter in my heart any little thing that was done for me, and I don't mean materially or financially or anything. A kind word meant so much to me. They're so nice to me. And that's something that stays with you all the time."
On the fortieth anniversary of World War II, President Richard von Weisaecker, of the former West Germany, said of the Holocaust: "It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made not to have happened. Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection."