Today I had the solemn duty of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, in Poland. At the end of my visit, I spoke to the gathered crowd about what the Holocaust means to me.
Here is that speech.
I’d like to tell you a story about a young girl before I start. Her name was Roszi. When Roszi was about our age, maybe a little older, she was taken from her home with her older sister Lenke. When they reached this place, this awful awful place, Roszi was put in a queue with one of her cousins, and Lenke another. When her cousin noticed this she suggested that the sisters stay together and cousins stay together – and so they swapped. That young girl, Roszi, was my great aunt, and because of that momentary decision, I am blessed to have known her, her son, her two granddaughters and her two great grandsons.
As we’ve visited sites I’ve inevitably thought about the people in my family who weren’t as fortunate as my grandparents and the handful of relatives they had left after the Second World War. About my grandmother’s father, aunts, uncles, cousins. About my grandfather’s sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins. And I wonder sometimes about how would be best to remember them.
My grandfather survived the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth. He pulled through with more strength and more sheer life than I’ve seen in any other individual ever before. His smile is what carries me through this place, because even though he saw bodies thrown into a pit he could laugh and he could smile with me in the decades after. And when I see places like this, places where it happened, I’m angry.
But I’ve found on this trip that my anger has worked in mysterious ways. I’m angry at the curtains in my bedroom that don’t fit my windows, at the volume of the movies on the bus that block out my music, at the sheer incessant nonsense that builds up around me. I have nothing to do in this miserable place but hate everything and anything, and to be perfectly honest I just don’t want to hate anymore.
When we left the children’s forest on Thursday, I felt nothing but sheer anger. Anger at the whole entire world – but I realized, not after long, that even though I want to destroy something like a visceral panther I can’t. I can’t help anything by being angry, but I can do a world of good by living.
I wanted to take my own form of revenge.
My grandfather once said, “A man is a man. Whether he is a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, if he is a good man, he is a good man.” With that in mind, I urge you to understand that the survivors of the Holocaust didn’t just survive for us to live our lives Jewishly, though I can’t help but agree that they would have loved us to do so. The message I have taken from this journey is not just for us to live as good Jewish boys and girls – but for us to live as bright and shining human beings.
Be resplendent in your existence. Be as disgustingly individual and good and kind as you can muster in your hearts because if anything, the Holocaust has taught us that nobody, Nazi or otherwise, can tell us that there is a perfect way to live and anyone who doesn’t is condemned to death.
Grow up and eat what you want and live where you want and sing how you want and believe what you want and marry who you want and have how ever many children you want and raise them however you damn well choose because Hitler’s Germany and Hitler’s Poland and Hitler’s Hungary and Czechoslovakia said that people couldn’t, and that makes me sick.
My grandfather always wanted to be an industrial engineer, just like his father was. But because war broke out, he had to train to become a tailor. He couldn’t live the life he wanted because other people made that life impossible. He was forced into a cattle car among some 10,000 other people with no food and water and was lucky to be one of the sixty Jews who survived. He was reduced to eating the roots of grass to live. They made him afraid to seek medical attention for a broken arm because if he had he knew they’d shoot him.
Don’t live your life how someone else tells you to – do what you think is right, because at the end of the day, when they’re marching you into a gas chamber before they burn your body like they’re roasting an animal all you can say is that you didn’t let them take what you were, that you were as kind and as loving and as caring and as good as you could find it within your heart to be, and you’ll go with a conscience as light as a feather.