On Sunday, the Jewish community in the Lowcountry observes Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day.
We tend to focus most of our attention on the killing aspect of the Holocaust. How many died? How did the Nazis create this horrific kingdom of evil? How did they use technology and the sciences for such evil purposes? How did they pervert the law and even hypnotize their people and other allies in Europe so that the people waved enthusiastically for Hitler and Germany? It appears to me that we tend to concentrate our attention on the mechanics of Nazi genocide.
What about the victims? What about the children?
A young teen named Pavel Friedman who was taken to the Terezin concentration camp outside of Prague wrote a poem entitled “The Butterfly.”
The last, the very last
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
Against a white stone...
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
Kiss the world goodbye
For seven weeks I’ve lived here
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly,
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto.
After the war they found a hidden cache of children’s drawings and poems inside Terrizen concentration camp from 1942-1944. They were published and the world can read their poems and view their drawings. All of them met their death in Auschwitz, including Pavel Friedman and the famous Anne Frank who was sent there as well.
The hopes and aspirations of a child locked up in a concentration camp ghetto who can still dream and imagine even in the worst of circumstances? The butterfly is free but he is not. How can we fathom the millions who died in the concentration camps? We can’t. At the same time we can identify with Pavel Friedman and imagine him standing in front of the barbed wire and staring up at the sky simply watching a single butterfly.
What people forget are the stories, especially those who survived.
We remember Anne Frank’s diary. And Nobel Prize Winner, the late Elie Wiesel, and his book “Night,” which is his reflection on being a 16-year-old kid in Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
The Nazis and the German people took away humanity from the Jewish people and these books and poems restore it to us. They are sacred scripture and an eternal reminder of what it means to live in a Godless world.
Their accounts remind us, despite the unfathomable cruelty of the Nazis and their allies, that the children never gave up on their own humanity. Even inside a world gone insane spurred on by a people addicted to a cocktail of psychological opioids consisting of nationalism, bigotry and anti-Semitism, the Jewish youth living inside concentration camps never lost hope for the future. Their poems, dreams and diaries reminded us that God was not dead in Auschwitz.
There are many lessons from the Holocaust for us.
One of them is to read the stories of the survivors. So many have written their life stories of how they lived and survived in the camps or in the woods only to rebuild their lives once again after the war.
There are many great films produced that explore different aspects of those years. One recently released called “The Invisibles” narrates a true story about four Jewish teens who survived the war years hiding in Berlin with false papers.
It is important to understand how hate transformed Germany and the world. We need to study how it poisoned the world and the consequences of the world’s silence at that time.
We should learn of the killing machines and the gas chambers, as difficult as that is to bear. We can walk through the gates of a concentration camp gazing at the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free.”
All these aspects are crucial to our learning and education.
It is also equally important that we read the surviving fragments of writings that reveal the different dimensions of resistance, and that not losing hope was the greatest form of resistance. Furthermore, to learn that inside the deepest darkness of incarceration inside a death camp, there was a glimmer of light is a reminder to us about the goodness and strength of the human spirit.
The Holocaust comes from the Greek word burnt offering. The word Shoah means destruction. This is how we have chosen to name this experience. Let us not forget such names do not capture the other side of evil, which is heroism, sacrifice, and hope.
The individual child or adult who never gave up on life is a lesson to us about the sacred nature of humankind, and that the spark of the Divine Presence can survive even inside a death camp.