What Holocaust Education Means to Me

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.

Descriptions · Disability

The Stigma Hurts Us All

          When I was ten years old, I started feeling depressed and having suicidal thoughts.  I was frustrated because my disability, Transverse Myelitis, had impacted my life so much that I felt like I wasn’t “normal” anymore.  Since I was so young, I didn’t completely understand the magnitude of this situation; I thought there wasn’t anything wrong with wanting to die since I was so sad.  But as I matured, I realized that I was so wrong—it wasn’t normal to feel this way, but I didn’t know how to fix it.  All I knew was the last thing I wanted to do was tell someone.

          The obvious person to share my emotions with would’ve been my mom.  We have an extremely close relationship, and I know she loves me more than anything else in the world.  But I didn’t tell her anything. Although I wanted her to know how much emotional pain I was in, I couldn’t ever bring myself to say, “I’m depressed and have considered killing myself,” out loud.  I feared she would worry too much about me and that she wouldn’t know how to help me, because an announcement like that is a lot of weight to put on a mom’s shoulders. I thought she might think of me differently or not understand.    

          It’s a problem that I was only comfortable (and even still a little hesitant) sharing that I was depressed and suicidal after I recovered.  When a family member or friend of mine asks to read my article in the latest issue of J-14, I still get nervous when they come across the section that discusses my mental health.  It’s so, so wrong that I have to feel this way—why should I be ashamed of something I couldn’t help?  Something I didn’t want to be a part of me just as much as my family didn’t? The thought of being judged is scary, especially when it’s over something you can’t help.  There’s such a strong stigma surrounding mental illness—so strong that it stops people from speaking out. The stigma hurts us all. Without the stigma, fewer families and friends would be grieving, and a lot more people would be alive.  If people treated mental illness like they do physical illness, fewer lives would’ve been lost, and more people would be willing to speak out. It’s incredibly worrying that, even though I know my mom loves me with her entire being, I was still too scared to speak out because of people’s ignorance.  I just hope that my choosing to speak out about my past depression and suicidal thoughts in various magazines, articles, blog posts, and dances I’ve choreographed and letting myself be vulnerable makes a difference. Being vulnerable isn’t easy by any means, but the stigma will slowly be defeated the more those of us share our feelings.  It’s time the stigma comes to an end and the anxiety over speaking out is lifted off our shoulders.