Today marks 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces in World War II. As a third-generation survivor of the Holocaust, today I wonder: how am I supposed to feel?
I inherited the history of my grandparents' survival. From a young age, I heard the horror-stories second-hand through my mother's words. As I grew, I became increasingly obsessed with the topic, this word, this Holocaust, and I read and learned as much as I could, trying to make sense of it all. I eventually heard the unfathomable tales distilled down to individual stories told to me by my grandparents; stories of unloading rotting corpses from cattle cars, sweeping up ashes of the dead from large crematoriums. Tales of being chased, persecuted, lied to, beaten and starved, of eating out of trash cans to survive and working through malnourishment and exhaustion to avoid being murdered. In the devastating poignancy and matter-of-factness of my grandparents' telling, I came to the only rational conclusion I could about the Holocaust: that there is no making sense of it. That human beings are capable of literally creating the nightmares that they imagine is not up for debate. History has proven too many times that people are capable of terrible things - and history continues to prove its point, over and over again.
I came to another conclusion about the profound impact that my heritage had on me in my life: I'm alive because my grandparents survived. Had they not managed to beat the odds and survive the camps, if they hadn't then chosen to continue living their lives and create life despite the fact that the world had robbed them of them of the only lives they knew, then myself, my parents, my aunts and uncles, brothers and cousins, my nephews, and who knows how many countless generations to come would never have existed. We're alive because they survived.
So today, knowing what I know about what happened, knowing that what happened seems to have made little difference in altering the course of history and preventing modern genocides from recurring, fearing that the only living survivor I personally know is nearing the end of his life and that within the next few decades there will be no first-generation Holocaust survivors left - how am I supposed to feel?
I feel sadness and trepidation. I feel optimism and hope. I feel a bottomless despair and an insatiable yearning to make the world a better place in any way that I can.
I don't think I'll ever fully come to peace or make sense of the existence of a place like Auschwitz. I don't think that what I write at this moment will offer me any relief, nor do I think I will necessarily provide any sense of life-affirming contextualization or resolution for the reader. But I guess it's better to feel something than to feel nothing - to care enough to read or write or simply remember than not to. It's worth feeling the pain of the millions of unlived lives for even just a moment if it makes us more grateful to live the lives we live today, if it makes us better parents, lovers and friends, or if it makes us think twice about how we treat the strangers we meet on the paths we traverse in our lives.
Here's a song I wrote about the Holocaust at the age of 15: