But ignoring the history in Jerusalem is like going to Paris and not drinking any wine. I went to Paris once. I drank more than enough.
The following excerpt is this book's sole history lesson. I had second thoughts about posting it here. It's not particularly representative of the book as a whole, but it tells an important story that I think needs to be told as often as possible. The best people to tell the story are dying every day. Soon enough, even the rest of us will be gone. Like all stories, this one will dim and get muddled over time.
Marta lived in Latvia when the war started. The Soviet Union gradually took over the country, fully absorbing it in late 1940. Life got harder for Jewish families until Germany invaded Russia in 1941. Then it got far worse.
Some of Marta's uncles and cousins were killed during the invasion while most of her family was shipped to the Riga Ghetto. Marta described life in the ghetto as if it all happened yesterday and almost laughed when she told the audience how she and her family thought things could not possibly get any worse. If they only knew.
Too many of her relatives and friends were killed in various massacres in the ghetto. Most of her neighbors were killed to make room for newly arriving German Jews. The German soldiers had already stolen most of their possessions when everyone was sent to the ghetto, and then they lost whatever they had left when they were relocated.
Men and women were segregated into separate ghettos, but Marta kept in contact with her father through smuggled notes when he joined the resistance movement. During one operation, he left the ghetto with several other fighters. She never heard from him again.
In winter 1942, Marta, her mother and younger sister were shipped to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Eastern Germany. The other women in her family were shipped to Auschwitz. Men and boys were sent to various camps or killed in the ghetto.
Almost half of the women and children died in the freezing cold on the train. Ravensbrück did not have a crematorium since it was still considered a forced labor camp at the time, so Marta and her mother had to help move the dead bodies to the nearest facility three hours away.
Most of the prisoners at Ravensbrück were women. They were forced to build ammunition and V-2 rocket parts while the few men worked at the gas chambers. Marta said that she was happy when she got a job cleaning the camp latrines. It was disgusting work, but the guards usually stayed away from her since almost everyone who worked in the latrines developed typhus or other infectious diseases. She had a certain amount of freedom to move around without as much harassment.
Marta's nine-year-old sister was killed when the SS discovered one of the secret schools within the camp. There were hundreds of tiny schools where the adult women did what they could to educate the younger girls. Whenever a school was discovered, everyone involved was punished. In her sister's case, most of the class was shot. The teacher was tortured to death.
Among other acts of defiance, prisoners made trinkets, toys and small pieces of costume jewelry just to have something that reminded them of their former existence. Marta's sister had a small doll that Marta struggled to hide and somehow kept in one piece. When she showed it to the audience seventy years later, we could all tell purely by the look on her face that it was the most important thing in the world to her.
Marta and her mother managed to survive together for about a year before most of the Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz. Ravensbrück was in Germany and the Nazis were making an effort to get all Jews off of German soil, one way or another. Marta was sick in the infirmary with one of those infectious diseases when her mother and thousands of others were sent to Poland. It was assumed that Marta would die, so they simply left her where she was.
When she recovered, somehow, she was moved to a different barrack and worked in the factory that sewed socks for the military. For the first time, Jews were a minority in the camp, but no serious effort was made to send them elsewhere.
For Marta's fourteenth birthday, she was gang raped by five of the female SS guards. She did not go into any detail, but she said that most of the guards carried truncheons and riding crops for regular beatings of prisoners. It was explained to her that a thirteen-year-old was too young to be abused sexually, but fourteen was old enough. Marta felt that she was lucky. Anyone who was raped by male guards was usually beaten to death on the spot or killed soon afterward.
In early 1945, the Russians were making their way to Berlin and Ravensbrück was evacuated. The gas chambers were too small to kill everyone, so prisoners were sent to another camp. Marta arrived by train, but left on foot. The German army no longer had the resources to ship prisoners by rail, so a forced death march was the most destructive solution. The good news was that it was spring, so most of the prisoners would survive the march. The bad news was that they were being sent to a death camp where everyone was scheduled for murder on arrival.
The Soviet army intercepted the march, killed most of the German soldiers and some of the prisoners, and essentially liberated everyone else. They were in Soviet occupied territory, but at least they were free from the camp. Some people have traumatic stories about being lost in the woods. This was the happiest part of Marta's story.
Life gradually carries on. Families attempt to find each other. Millions of people mourn. Adjusting to the aftermath of war takes years. Some never recover. Eventually, monuments and memorials are built. Some want to forget it all and move forward. But enough people understand the importance of remembering the past. As time passes, fewer witnesses are alive to remind us. Soon, there will be no one who was there.
Marta never saw any of her family again. Her mother was murdered at Auschwitz. Everyone else died in death camps or disappeared. She eventually escaped the Soviet Union and made it to Israel. She now lives in Jerusalem and visits Yad Vashem occasionally to talk to people about her experience.
Oral history is an integral aspect of Judaism, but when people like Marta are no longer around to tell their stories, the next generation of storytellers might not be able to tell them as well. There will come a day when Nazi atrocities are far enough in the past that they become more legends than lessons of history. Some day, children will happily dress as Nazis for Halloween just as they now dress as pirates. The impact of what pirates actually did is lost on today's children. Some day, there will be movies with likable actors showing madcap and historically impossible Nazi adventures.
Millions of people in East Asia are already ignorant of what happened. It is simply not something taught in their schools. Hitler is an advertising icon in Thailand and Indonesia, selling soap, comic books and fast food. These people are hardly white supremacists or admirers of Nazi ideology. Hitler means as much to them as Ronald McDonald. Genghis Khan killed millions to build his empire, but is nothing more than a page in history books in most of the world today. Sooner or later, the Holocaust will be remembered just as much.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is one of the greatest museums in the world. The Louvre and Minneapolis Institute of Art are not too shabby, either. But those tell thousands of different stories from a wide variety of artists over a span of several centuries. The Holocaust History Museum tells the story of a race of people who refused to die.
“The overall message is positive. Humans can be horrendously evil, but they can also persevere and help each other out. The museum talks about genocide, but also how there is always hope for the future. It's kind of an optimistic place. But depressing as hell.”
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