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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Understanding Auschwitz Today Introduction Lessons of the HolocaustThe Origins of Genocide How the World FailedThe Task of JusticeHow the Holocaust InformsWhy It's Crucial to Understand

Why It Is Crucial to Understand and Remember

The Panelists

 

"There's very little that would do justice to the Holocaust short of preventing it from happening again. And, sadly enough, that has not happened yet … because it has re-occurred, time and time again."

–Carmen Farias


What follows is a conversation among a group of students who saw the series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. They discuss themes and issues raised in the series such as genocide, racial hatred, and intolerance-all serious problems facing our world today.

Humera, Carmen, Adam, Lewis, Molly, and Janelle had previously taken a course on the Holocaust with Judi Freeman, Seevak Chair in History at Boston Latin School, which included a trip to Poland for most of them.

These students represent our future, and our hopes.


From left to right: Humera Ahmed - sophomore, Boston College; Henry Connelly - senior, The Crossroads School, Santa Monica; Carmen Farias - sophomore, Wellesley College; Adam Finelli - junior, New York University; Lewis Frank - senior, Boston Latin School; Meredith (Molly) Higgins - senior, Boston Latin School; Janelle Jackson - freshman, Clark Atlanta University; Lydia Ross - freshman, Columbia College

The Discussion

When did you first hear about the Holocaust?

HENRY: I was a big World War II buff back in the sixth grade. I learned about the Holocaust that way.

ADAM: I think I first heard about the Holocaust when there was a textbook laying around the house and I just remember reading through it … I must have been maybe 12 or 13 years old.

HUMERA: I think I was in fourth grade when I read Number the Stars ... But I don't think I fully understood it at that age.

MOLLY: I think around fourth grade there was a big push in our elementary school to make us read … The Devil In Vienna and Number The Stars … and The Diary Of Anne Frank.

LOUIS: I'm Jewish and to tell you the truth, I don't remember hearing about it for the first time, because I kind of knew what it was when school started to talk about it.

CARMEN: What's really interesting to me is...that it wasn't until I moved to the United States did I start hearing about the Holocaust. I lived in Venezuela. I vaguely remember my parents watching Schindler's List when it came out.

LYDIA: My dad's parents were both survivors, so I grew up being very conscious of the Holocaust. I'm not sure at what age my dad or my grandparents told me about it, but I always knew that they had survived some atrocity during World War II.

My Grandmother's Story

LYDIA: [My grandmother] was taken away from her village with her mother and her sisters and her brother. As soon as they arrived at Auschwitz, her brother was immediately taken away from them because there was the male camp and the female camp. She said one of her first experiences there was being separated from her brother and knowing that she would never see him again. She was [then] separated from her mother and her sisters. All three of them died in Auschwitz.

[My grandmother] was sent to live in one of the barracks and she said another one of her first experiences was the way that the Nazis had them sleep. My grandmother was forced to sit against a wall with her legs spread open, another girl sitting in between her legs with her legs spread open, so they were basically seated almost Indian style with thousands of other girls piled in front of them and told to lean back and fall asleep. So she goes from living in her home with her entire family to instantly being crammed like sardines into a box in this barracks separated from everyone that she knows.

Fortunately, she had one friend there, and I think that that made a huge difference, because one of the hardest things for people was keeping some kind of will to live. Most people got there knew that they were going to die and gave up because statistics were so high against them. My grandma was in Auschwitz for a few days, when the SS officers came by and asked the girls in her barracks, "Who wants to volunteer to work? We'll be giving you showers and then taking you to another camp." As soon as she heard the word shower, she thought, "OK, well I know what the showers are; they're gas chambers." But at that point, she was so alone that she raised her hand and volunteered to go.

They took a whole group of girls and she told me that she remembered walking into what she thought was a gas chamber and seeing piles and piles and piles of shoes. They said, "When you come in, take your shoes off." And her friend said, "Oh, well we're going to die now, we're going to die." And she remembered thinking, well, if they were gonna kill us, why would they be telling us to take our shoes off, it's something that just didn't seem right. And so, they took their shoes off, they get into the shower, and it actually was a shower. And then they said, "OK, you can take any pair of shoes that you want." So she put on the shoes and they shipped her off to Birkenau and she ended up working in munitions there. Finally, she was liberated after years, but she was there the entire time.

What was the biggest surprise about the series?

CARMEN: … the fact that there are still people who don't think that the Holocaust was something wrong, that there are people who still think that the Jewish people were a threat to Germany.

HENRY: I was stunned by the economic motivations of it—how Auschwitz really became what it was after a big corporation said it would be great to have a factory here.

LYDIA: I hadn't really thought about how efficient the Nazis were, how efficient their whole system was. It just shocked and disturbed me that the death camps, the concentration camps, everything was worked out so mathematically that the Jews just became numbers and quantities.

HUMERA: I think most people think of the Holocaust as something that the average German citizen knew nothing about, but I think what this series illustrates beautifully is that around most of the camps there were residential neighborhoods where the people actually saw people coming in and never leaving, seeing smoke coming out of buildings. You can imagine that they could have put two and two together if they really wanted to. And just the fact that they knew and they did nothing about it was really troubling for me.

ADAM: I was surprised less by the information presented and more by the point of view through which the story was told: this man Hoss, who was assigned to build the first Auschwitz camp—the business-like attitude—as if they were building some kind of residential development.

I was just following orders—is that an excuse?

LYDIA: In any organization that you're a part of, whether it's your job or just a committee that you're on the board of or anything, you have a duty to educate yourself and know what you're being a part of.

HENRY: You can't just say I was a cog in the machine. [The] Nuremberg [Trials] told us that we are each in control of what we do and what we don't do. No matter what structure exists that tells us otherwise. Ultimately, the decision is ours—and I think the people that said I was only following orders—I mean, we executed them. We said in the most definitive way available to us, that that was not acceptable in this modern age.

CARMEN: There's very little that would do justice to the Holocaust short of preventing it from happening again. And, sadly enough, that has not happened yet, because it has re-occurred time and time again.

What was your visit to Auschwitz like?

LOUIS: As we drove up on this big bus, the first thing you see is barbed wire. And then you realize that it just goes on and on and on in both directions. Then you go in and see this railroad track and you see just how long it really is.

JEANELLE: When we walked in we stood on the railroad tracks to Auschwitz II. There were all these little plaques there, and one read, "To all the babies that were never born and to all the women that were never married, we remember." Our whole class then went and sat in a big circle; we're sitting in the field where all these bodies were burned. Just sitting there and realizing that you are in this place where all these things happened. It was just an overwhelming sadness … and we looked at each other and we said things, but we never really spoke.

MOLLY: I was standing in the women's barracks. It was a beautiful spring day and yet inside the barracks it's really kind of cold and damp and just kind of an overwhelming atmosphere of sadness.

ADAM: What first struck me was in putting my hand against some sort of pillar, feeling the texture and smelling this kind of acrid smell, the smell of people. It's just the suggestive power. It was very ironic to see such a beautiful landscape and imagine that such horrible things happened.

HUMERA: So many unheard screams, so many lost lives, lost potential. I remember just looking around and looking at bricks. And just how much they mean was overwhelming for me. I remember shivering…

LOUIS: It should be remembered as part of our history.

Could it happen again?

ADAM: No matter how secure we think we are, I think it could happen anywhere, because when it starts to happen, it's very hard to tell it's happening.

LYDIA: We think of America as the great heroes of World War II but we forget that while they're saying, "We're pro human rights. We're going to liberate the Jews," at the same time they're looking at the Japanese Americans and saying, "Well, you look a little suspicious. We're going have to ship you off to a work camp." That's a part of American history that people tend to forget.

HENRY: There's plenty of xenophobia in the United States to go around. We're still sort of working to eliminate the specter of segregation and slavery; there's a hatred of immigrants and Muslim people and even antisemitism is still prevalent in the United States. I think the basis is there, so we have to be careful.

ADAM: I think the Holocaust specifically won't happen again in the exact same form with the exact same circumstances. But maybe something else that we really can't form in our heads right now will happen that's just as worse and for similar reasons. This idea that we have Japanese internment camps in our history, and even before that, we had people killing off thousands and thousands of Native Americans. The fact that those things have happened already are a sign. Tthe Holocaust, specifically not, but something else.

HUMERA: I think a huge warning sign is the fact that as a Muslim American, I feel fear living in the United States right now. And my parents really want to move to Canada because they're afraid that we are going to be the next Japanese people. … I think just the fact that I don't feel safe is a huge warning sign.

CARMEN: I just want to touch upon the way that we've been talking about fear. It feels like we're condemning fear, but in truth, fear is just one of the many things that makes us human, and its actually very ironic that fear is something that unites us all. I think it's the way that we respond to fear that really causes problems. When we fear something, we tend to reject it and to expel it from us, but really what we should do is figure out ways that we can cope with this fear, live with this fear, and pretty soon it won't be a fear any more because we will have figured out that there is no threat.