Thou Shalt Not Kill

Posted: December 9, 2013 in Creative Nonfiction
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Inside the United States Holocaust Museum is a three-story room where grainy black-and-white photographs of a Jewish community hang from floor to ceiling.

Serenity marks the depicted daily routines, and the discolored images do not question or show fear. The immobilized faces stare, completely unaware their exhibit looks out of place in a museum that has death lingering over its artifacts. The dark-haired, dark-eyed features have preserved themselves in various expressions, but to see all of the countless poses, I have to look up, up, up until the back of my head rests awkwardly against my shoulder blades.

The panorama is dizzying. A picnic, a wedding, a play production, a swimming outing. A doctor assists a patient, a violinist practices his instrument, a farmer works in a field, a relative mourns at a gravesite. Scattered in between are portraits—grandparents, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers—a family tree dressed in its finest. My gaze falls on a giggling girl holding a serious-faced baby. The picture reminds me of my two cousins, and I smile.

Emily and cousins

Emily and cousins

According to a plaque on the wall, an SS squad entered this Jewish community numbering more than 5,000 people and shot them, leaving only 720 survivors.

Tower of Faces

My heart wrenches open. The Holocaust’s gruesome history stretches beyond the picture frames, and the horrifying realism causes the unmoving scenes to come alive. A government’s regime of twisted principles forces Jewish families to live behind ghetto walls or hide behind false names. Next, cattle cars loaded with Jews travel towards ominous-sounding places such as Dachau, Buchenwald, or Auschwitz where their fates were limited to either survival or death.

Holocaust Cattle Car

Circumstances may prove favorable, but this is the Holocaust. Human hands hold a systematic guide to annihilation. Human hands take, reducing other human beings to nothing. Human hands shove and torture, making human beings witness a hell undefined by the ticking of time or the spinning of galaxies. Human hands pull triggers, and in an instant, human beings become numbers without names. This is no logic when human is against human, so I begin to count.

Six million. Six million lost identities. Six million forgotten ashes. Six million pairs of vacant, eerie eyes filled with traumatized anguish. Six million frail shells of skin pulled tight over bony frames. Six million faces. Six million voices. Six million stories. Six million deaths. Six million becomes a garbled, babbling chant. Six million is unfathomable, and the count still continues. Six million does not include the other five million people who were not Jewish but were killed because of their race, creed, disability, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. All told, eleven million. Eleven million dead.

Out of these eleven million voices, one takes me back to when I was seven years old. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was in my hands, and each poignant entry was an inspiration. Not only did this witty, inquiring, self-assured young woman want to be a writer but she also found words crucial to her maturing identity. The voice on the page had a dramatic, outspoken disposition, and so connected was I to her personality that I was convinced she was my long lost twin sister. Naturally, when I reached the final page, I became disconcerted at the unexpected line printed in all capital letters.

ANNE FRANK’S DIARY ENDS HERE.

ANNE FRANK’S DIARY ENDS HERE.

The conclusion was sudden and abrupt, leaving me wondering if there would be a sequel. All I got was an afterword informing me Anne Frank had been arrested by the Gestapo, transported to Bergen-Belsen, and died there at age fourteen because of a typhus outbreak.

This information was not enough to give me closure. To get it, I needed a detailed, dissertation-length report complete with dates, footnotes, and annotations. My morbid curiosity as to why Anne Frank had been silenced was my initiation into researching the Holocaust. Strange-sounding phrases such as Final Solution, Third Reich, Kristallnacht, and Einsatzgruppen began to enter my vocabulary. I could identify Oskar Schindler, Adolf Hitler, Elie Wiesel, Josef Mengele, and Miep Gies as easily as if they were pop culture icons.

Yet the reason for Anne’s death continued to elude me, and the larger issue of why the Holocaust had to have happened was still beyond my grasp. This was not to say the history lesson was enigmatic. In fact, the information was well within my level of comprehension. The basic facts were clear. I understood who killed eleven million people and how the murder had been performed. I saw the overarching themes: discrimination, prejudice, anti-Semitism, propaganda, genocide, persecution, hate. The brutality, though, remained inexplicable.

At the age of seven, my conclusion was that the world was mad, insane, and unbalanced. True, global affairs had improved since the Holocaust, but crimes and atrocities still happened around the world and would continue to happen. Humanity would never learn, and nothing could be done except rant about it. Since then, my worldview has changed. Close-mindedness does not make humanity collectively deranged, just certain people. Deluded, they hold fast to their opinions because doing so gives a sense of security in a topsy-turvy world.

The juxtaposition of their view and mine creates two opposing perspectives. Argument becomes circular; debate shifts into a series of fallacies, and senseless bickering is the result. The fact is there, plain and simple. One perspective is right, and all others are wrong. Rather than become outraged when I encounter this kind of blind intolerance, I calmly acknowledge that they have their stance; I have mine, and the two will never coincide because theirs is one of perpetuating injustice while mine is one of activism against it.

For me, activism does not mean a fist punching the air, a symbol of angry rebellion seeking out vengeance. Activism is a salve, enabling me to enfold myself in remorse and internalize the emotion. The effort compels me to listen to eleven million hushed, urgent whispers, and when I do, I empathize; I hurt; I grieve, but most of all, I learn so I can remember. The word “remember” leads to other words: words that raise awareness, words that educate, words that evoke compassion, and words that bear witness. While I may never fully understand the rationale behind the Holocaust, detachment or isolation from the event is out of the question. I am a human being, and therefore, I am connected to this macabre history. Forgetting is impossible.

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