This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and my social media feeds have been alive with remembrances of those tragically lost in the Holocaust. I have read each and every one of them and considered making a comment or two, but did not. I did not feel I could.
I did not write anything because there simply are no words.
Nothing I could write can possibly express my absolute revulsion and incomprehension of how millions of Jews and other groups of people the Nazis considered ‘undesirables’ could be so systematically and horrifically murdered by their fellow human beings.
In some ways, I didn’t feel I had the right to say anything. I am not Jewish. I have no family members lost in those atrocities. What do I know about being a member of a culture that has been so unjustly vilified for centuries? Sure, growing up in New York, more than half of my friends were Jewish, and I had been to a number of their bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings over the years. Yet despite always being warmly welcomed into their homes, I was still a shiksa. What could anything I wrote about their history make any sort of difference? But then I remembered.
I must have been about 15 when I took a trip into Manhattan one warm spring day to look for special dress material in the garment district. I was going to my first 19th century ball and wanted the gown I was making to be special. Nothing I could find in the shops near home fit the bill. So I took the bus into the city and hopped on the subway down to 42nd Street. There were dozens of fabric shops concentrated within about 8 square blocks, with every conceivable type of fabric; some cheap, others exorbitant. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for there, it likely did not exist.
After perusing about a dozen shops I finally found one that had the exact fabric I wanted, and at a reasonable price. I carried the bolt of fabric over to the cutting table and handed it to the man standing behind it in a yarmulke, who must have been in his mid-60s at the time. He smiled, took it from me and asked how many yards I wanted, as he deftly pulled the fabric from the roll. I told him, and he measured it generously, then reached for his scissors, humming a little tune as he did so. As I watched him begin to cut the fabric, I suddenly noticed the numbers tattooed on the inside of his forearm.
He asked if there was anything else I wanted, but I was barely able to stammer a response. I had been struck speechless. He smiled again as he handed over the cut fabric and wished me a good day. I had never before encountered a survivor from the death camps. Although the day was warm, it was not too warm for long sleeves, and I wondered why he had not chosen to cover the tattoo or have it removed. The pain of being confronted with this reminder of those horrors every day of his life must have been unimaginable. Yet he still had the ability to give a warm smile to a young woman and sing as he worked.
Over the years, I have slowly come to realize that perhaps that was his way of helping to ensure that such atrocities never occur again. If we are reminded on a regular basis of the evil that can lurk in the heart of even the most normal of people, maybe we can prevent it.
As the last survivors become ever fewer, it is now up to the rest of us to keep the memory of those people and what they went through alive. Especially now that the specter of genocide is once again (or still) rearing its ugly head, not only for Jews, but also for Muslims and other groups of people around the world who far too many people view as somehow less than human.
That Jewish man, whose name I never knew, and now long gone, remains with me to this day.