A year later: Remembering Auschwitz

Mon, 01/25/2016 - 11:09am

In January 2015, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Poland with other students from across the country for USC Shoah Foundation’s and Discovery Education’s Auschwitz: Past is Present program, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We toured various sites in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland, with teachers and our friend Paula Lebovics, a survivor of the Holocaust. Each point in the trip was remarkable and extremely inspiring. However, the visit to the Auschwitz-Birkeanu Memorial Museum impacted me the most.  

Remembering Auschwitz

We had been alone thus far. The camp seemed empty like a painting hanging on the walls of a museum, a frozen portrait of the past. When we turned down the narrow corridor, however, we encountered another group of students, teachers, and tour guides. Backs to us, they stood huddled around a structure made of wood and straw stretching up to the sky. Before we approached, we were told the story of this infamous wall. With the knowledge of imminent death, Jews and other prisoners were marched to this spot day after day. The Nazis, cruelly displaying their power over the fates of these people, expected them to cry, to beg, and to break down in the face of the firing squad. With one last chance to show the soldiers who they really were, the prisoners would approach in song. A song of hope for the future and a song of forgiveness that would ring throughout the camp. They looked into the eyes of their killers and sang.

With the story in mind, I tentatively approached the wall. I could feel my socks beginning to harden as the melted snow froze inside my boots. My gloves no longer served their purpose as the wind picked up and found its way to the bare skin of my hands. The silence was deafening. No one spoke and no one moved. All was still. By then, I had made my way to the front of the group. I ran my fingers along the straw wall and smelled the sweet fragrance of the flowers that were left behind to honor the victims. Suddenly, what seemed like a single voice rose up from behind me. The prisoner’s song of hope and forgiveness echoed off the walls of the corridor and floated throughout the camp. The cold was no longer the cause of the goose bumps that formed on my arms. The students of the Polish group sang together and each individual voice blended into a chorus of one.

In that moment, it all became real, the characters came alive, and the stories unraveled themselves into the world around me.  I finally understood the importance of the past, its effect on the present, and its lessons for the future. The bravery, love, and sacrifice of the millions of people during World War II deserve to be more than a distant story, their lives deserve to be remembered, honored, and cherished. They deserve to live on until the end of time. 

Connecting the Past to the Present

From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring these stories to my own community back home. I began drafting and sending emails to schools in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas asking whether they would like to bring in “The Survivors Speakers Bureau.” Initially, I managed to organize three different survivors at three different schools to talk about their personal experiences before, during, and after wartime. It turned out to be an incredible success.

When the first speaker, Edith Lowy, concluded her talk at St. John’s College High School, a line of students began to form that stretched from one end of the auditorium to the next. Each student proceeded to hug Mrs. Lowy and offer a few words of gratitude for her willingness to share her story. The last boy stepped forward and said one sentence that struck a chord with both Edith and me; “I hope that when I grow up, I will become half the father your father was.” Edith’s dad made numerous sacrifices for her during her early childhood and was one of the main reasons she was able to live through the war. Mrs. Lowy began to cry and held on to the boy’s hug until the next bell rang for class.

Testimony in Action

Teachers and textbooks can only take you so far. The stories of survivors still alive today deserve to be shared, remembered, and learned from while we still have the privilege of time.

It is no surprise, then, that I decided to continue my work with USC Shoah Foundation as a junior intern this year. I am able to serve as a mentor to some of the newer and younger students joining the program. We work with the Institute’s IWitness website to watch various testimonies and gain more background knowledge about Holocaust and other histories. Testimony and this program mean so much to me and I am honored and beyond privileged that I have had the opportunity to learn so much from this once in a lifetime experience.

Charlotte Masters