I believe in remembering.
As a high school freshman, I entered a national essay contest on the Holocaust. It was a long shot, but I like to write and I knew a fair amount about the Holocaust. I was like many students, motivated partly by a possible boost to college applications. By the time I accepted the top prize, including a generous scholarship, it was no longer about college, money, or my own victory. It was about honoring the bravest souls I will ever know—Holocaust survivors—preserving their memories.
I, along with nine other finalists, spent a week in Washington, D.C. with Holocaust survivors. For one week, I listened and learned. Each day a survivor told his or her story. These intensely painful and inspiring sessions were followed by fun and educational outings. Every minute with the survivors was precious. I was drawn into their experiences and marveled at their feats in not simply surviving, but thriving.
And so, I remember. I remember Ella, who performed in a children’s opera at Theresienstadt—forced to pretend that this “camp” was a haven for Jewish children and artists. I remember Alice, whose parents made the wrenching decision to put her on a train—hoping to give her the gift of a full life as her mother whispered, “Tell your children we would have loved them.” I remember Henry and Sam, who spent harrowing years in death camps. I remember Leo, who escaped from a train transporting him to Auschwitz by spending hours soaking a sweater in urine on the floor, so that he could grip the window bars and, with Herculean effort, bend them just enough to slip through and leap from the train. And finally, I remember Dario—who lives with a crushing guilt, having been ordered by the Nazis to help operate and collect bodies from the gas chambers. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when Dario recounted his unsuccessful plea with the Nazis to spare his cousin who was entering the gas chamber—able only to tell his cousin where to stand for a quick death.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel spoke with us on our last evening. We, ten eager and happy high school students, were being honored at a grand dinner. I walked to the podium when my name was announced as the top essayist–thrilled, of course, but also wondering…why was I being applauded? I had written an essay, while my new friends—my new surrogate grandparents–had suffered the most horrific atrocities and then, with indomitable human spirit, survived. They were heroes, yet I was receiving accolades.
Now I not only remember, I understand. As time marches forward, I will never forget. I am a witness to the witnesses. I treasure their stories. The simple act of remembering connects me to something more important than my next exam or term paper. Cherishing my friends’ memories raises me up because I feel honored when I honor them and I am proud to be a link in their chain.
I believe in remembering.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.