The man in the picture is Elias Fieinzilberg, the sweetest 101-year-old man. He is also a survivor of the Holocaust, of which today is the National Day of Remembrance. He came to speak to my class in Jerusalem and when he was done there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He told the story of living in Lodz Ghetto in Poland with his family when the SS took a group of young men to go build roads. After three years, he returned to Lodz Ghetto only to find his home empty. His father had died of starvation and his mother and seven siblings had been taken away to the Chelmno extermination camp. He went on to tell the story of how he eventually was taken to Auschwitz and a few of the other camps. When he was finally liberated by a squadron of Black American soldiers, he was taken to Feldafing where he worked on an American military base in the kitchen where he eventually met his wife a year later. They then moved to Guatemala to be with one of his uncles. They had three children in the twenty-two years they lived there and eventually Elias felt drawn to Jerusalem where he currently lives, feeling the need to be with his people in a Holy Land where there is a sense of hope. Hope. This is a theme that rules his life and thus inspired mine. He told us many horrible stories that left us all in heartache, especially when he made mention of his family and missing his siblings and parents. That being said, through the whole of his story he would include small funny things that happened, saying those were the things he clung to. He did have a hard time telling his story to us, but this precious smile hardly left his face before and after. He finished his story by telling us not to cry, but to hope. Even when days seem impossible, hope is always there. The fact that this man, having had one of the hardest lives is able to smile through everything and cling so tightly to hope gives me hope for better days to come in this world.
It is not just Elias Feinzilberg who had hope, either. Yad Vashem is the National Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. The phrase Yad Vashem comes directly from Isaiah 56:5 which states (in the KJV), “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” Yad Vashem literately translates to “A place and a name” and that is the entire intention behind the museums creation, to ensure that no one who was lost is ever forgotten. They memorialize these people in many different ways.
The first area we went through at the museum was a hall to commemorate the children who were lost. The entryway to the exhibit is a long corridor of stone, rather narrow, so the eighty-four of us were quite packed as we waited for our turn to go in. I’m unsure if this was intentional or not, but I couldn’t help but stand in this packed walkway and wonder if this is what it felt like while waiting your turn to enter the gas chambers. The second that thought arrived, all my breath left, and I couldn’t contain my emotion. With tears I could almost imagine the feelings mothers felt as they stood in line with their children who likely did not understand what was happening. Nazis told them the line was for showers, but surely the mothers and fathers and older children knew better if they had been at the camp for a while. Or perhaps they were a freshly arrived batch of people who had just been unloaded from a train and sorted and they still believed they were going to shower. And only upon arriving in the chamber did the reality set in that these were their last moments. Imagining the fear and the helplessness was nearly too much to bear as we finally walked into the children’s memorial. It was pitch black in the beginning and we were instructed to hold onto and follow the arm-rail on the side. Each wall was a mirror or two-way glass, behind which were candles. They reflected endlessly off each other, making it feel as though we were walking through the stars, as a speaker read out names, ages, and birthplaces of children who were killed. This exhibit, we were told, was designed to represent the promise God gave to Abraham in Biblical times that his posterity would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. It was so touching to know that the creator of this exhibit still retained hope in an ancient promise given to his people. That even though they were creating a memorial for those small people who were taken from this world too early, they chose to focus on hope. The hope of eternity and the hope of God’s plan. Each of these lost children were just as important and beautiful as a star in the sky.
There were many other striking things to be seen and things to be felt in this museum. As we walked through the historical part, I again found it hard to keep my composure as I watched videos of survivors tell stories of being captured or tortured by Nazi soldiers and extermination squads, themselves narrowly escaping death yet watching all whom they loved be destroyed. There were collections of books, combs, shoes, glasses, clothes, and many other precious things once owned by Jews and others sent to the camps. There was a recreation of a ghetto to walk through and actual pieces of the tracks and a train car that carried people to Auschwitz. All of these deserve to be recognized and discussed, but the feelings one has while looking at history cannot be adequately described. However, there are some things that speak for themselves.
The museum itself is a long building that guides you through chronologically, and it ends with the liberation and saving of many Jews. The battle for them did not end after the concentration camps were liberated, and there were still many stories of struggles, but the last notes were ones of hope. There were bios of good people who harbored Jews in their homes and protected them from those who would do them harm, and some of the quotes from them are incredibly powerful, two in particular. Photos are not allowed in the museum and I did not have something to write on, so these quotes may not be perfect, but the points are still made. One quote comes from a solider who went into a remaining ghetto and rescued the people. He said, “We know not what a Jew is, only what a human being is.” The other I cannot recall who said it but the quote itself stopped me in my place and struck me deep inside. It says, “At the last day when I face God, he will ask me, as he asked Cain in times long ago, ‘Where were you when your brothers blood cried for God?’ and I will have to answer, and I do not wish to be ashamed.”
These are two phrases that have impacted me ever since I read them. It reminded me yet again how shallow the differences among humanity are and reminded me of the power that I have to make a change. Each of us has the power—and the responsibility—to be there for our fellow beings. To stand up when no one else will, to comfort when changes aren’t quick enough, and to give hope to those who feel abandoned by the world. Because someday, history will look back on us and ask us “Where were you when you heard your brother’s cry?” And our actions will answer. Will you be ashamed or proud?