Today, January 27, 2020, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. 75 years ago, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. Here, I share with you a reflection on how one class, one teacher, and one very important part of history shaped me into the person I am today, and will forever influence who I have yet to become.
“What we learn is what we become” – my teacher, Mr. Murphy
A set of train tracks runs for miles, meandering through the desolate, bland area. Walking along those very train tracks is a little boy, his arms outstretched, balancing on the uneven surface. His parents watch as he frolics about, playing without a care in the world, giggles escaping his mouth. He is only around six years old, naive and inquisitive; yet, he has no idea of the unfathomable tragedies that took place on these very train tracks.
A man in the building above watches the way he laughs, taking note of the way his shoes land on the ground as he lands his jump. The boy’s presence enthralls him, drawing him in, making him unable to turn away. Before he misses the chance, he pulls out his camera and takes a photo of him, capturing the little boy’s innocent, toothy smile.
This was the picture my teacher showed me on the very first day of my History and the Holocaust course. He didn’t even have to explain why he took the photo; I immediately understood. The image of the little boy playing on the train tracks—the very place where millions of innocent people were brought to their deaths—was so incredibly poignant tears welled up in my eyes. This class was the last class before the school day ended, and I struggled to hold in my tears as I walked to the car. I could only get out a quick greeting to my mom before I burst into tears and told her about the picture. It was my first day of class, and I had already left the room in tears.
Learning about tragedies is unbelievably tough, but I firmly believe in the quote by George Santayana plastered on the wall in one of the blocks at Auschwitz: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I first learned what the Holocaust was when I watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas when I was ten years old. As a child, my first reaction to the movie was confusion. I wondered why the Jewish people were hated so much and how human beings could be so cruel to one another. Even now, I still withhold the same sentiments. I struggle to comprehend how people could treat other human beings with such indignity and injustice. My attempt at trying to comprehend how this tragedy could have happened was taking the Holocaust class, which was the greatest, most informative class I’ve ever taken. I came out of it a changed person—just as my mom said I would.
After learning about the Holocaust in depth, I developed an even larger sympathy for the Jewish people than I had before class. It quickly became my mission to “bear witness”—as my teacher said—to the victims of the Holocaust. I wanted to visit the places where the tragedies occurred to pay my respects and honor the victims, because, although facing the reality of the horrors is unbelievably tough, I tell myself that, just because the tragedy didn’t affect me directly, does not mean I should not have to face it. So, over the summer of 2019, I spent two weeks in Germany and Poland, on a mission to bear witness to the victims of the Holocaust. I visited several sites relevant to the Holocaust, but the most prominent was, of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking towards the front gate, I was consumed with emotions; it almost didn’t feel real to be standing in front of such a horrific, infamous site. And when I stood on the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Krakow, Poland, 5,014 miles away from my classroom where I learned about the Holocaust, I could not stop thinking about the little boy who stood on those very train tracks.