“Never again”? The massacre in the Charleston, South Carolina, church, the killing at the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the shooting deaths of the 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh can make that phrase seem hollow. That demoralizes and frightens me. Yet I’m not turning to the pundits and speech givers for sustenance and hope, but instead to some ordinary people I’ve met along the way …
“The Stairs of Death” at the former Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria are 186 in number: steep, worn and misshapen. They lead into the bowels of a granite quarry. To walk them now is brutal. It’s unimaginable that on these same stairs, thousands of people, mostly Jews, were forced to carry 100-pound granite blocks on their shoulders coupled with threats to either push you or force you to leap off the cliff if you faltered or begged for rest or water.
Visitors are allowed but not encouraged to walk “The Stairs of Death.” Ed, the self-appointed patriarch of our small group, does. He limps down to the quarry floor and on the way up he must stop often, exhausted, gasping for air in the July heat. At the top, he sobs, “god-damn Nazis,” “god-damn Nazis …” in the arms of his daughter.
Betsy and Harlan Hartmann grew up and still reside in a small Wisconsin town. Betsy proudly tells us she loves to polka and hunt with her husband. Harlan is a recently retired crane operator. With an odd mix of apologetic and genuine curiosity, they explain that I’m their “first Jew.” (“Oh, oh,” I remember saying to myself.) But their barrage of questions about Judaism is obviously sincere and predictably leads to this one: “Did you have family who died in the Holocaust?” I tell them what we think happened to my great-grandparents’ family before, during and after their final terrible days and hours and moments at Auschwitz —our group’s next destination — and how their daughter, my Grandmother Ida, was the only survivor.
Colleen is her 20s. She’s cantankerous, chain-smoking, loud and crass. Her behavior is grossly out of line with the sober nature of our trip, but no one in our group has the nerve to confront her. She wears Play-Doh-colored T-shirts silkscreened with provocative, in your face, smart-alecky patriotic sayings about America. Between inhales on her cigarette, Colleen tells us she doubts that Auschwitz (She pronounces it “Ashwitch”) “… was as bad as they say.”
When we’re escorted to a wooded outskirt of the camp, we distance ourselves from Colleen and her antics but are near enough to witness this: A grim-faced security guard appears out of nowhere. She admonishes Colleen for smoking and grinding the butt into the soil. “This is a gravesite,” she reminds Colleen sternly, pointing into the “Pond of Human Ashes.” Colleen glares at her for a moment but picks up the butt and pockets it. From that moment and for the remainder of the tour, her demeanor does a 180. It seems to us she has her answer.
We leave Auschwitz, wordless, including Colleen. All through our group dinner back in Krakow, it’s impossible to think beyond the bombed-out ruins of the “shower rooms” and crematoriums, the eerily intact rows of communal toilet benches, the dank torture cells, the impossible but true mounds of eyeglasses, prostheses and terribly beautiful shorn hair – some still braided — and those ubiquitous, nightmarish railroad tracks ending inside the camp.
Cor Suijk, a Dutchman, is our escort. At 83, he also conducts seminars for school kids around the world on how they “… can and must avoid the consequences of hate and indifference with compassion and tolerance.”
“Bullying and ignorance are the how it starts” he repeats often, obsessively even.
After dinner, Cor tells us this story:
“As schoolboys, my friends and I bullied our classmate, Erik, unmercifully.”
Cor pauses. How and why he can’t or won’t say.
“When the Nazis came, they caught me red-handed smuggling forged papers to some Jewish neighbors. No matter that I am Christian. They stripped me naked outside and beat me, then took me to the camp. At the gate I was forced to run a gantlet of SS soldiers with their bayoneted rifles. I recognized one of them. You can’t imagine how relieved I was and managed to whisper, “Erik. It’s me, Cor.” Erik looked at me and said, “Don’t count on me, bastard.”
Cor tells us he vowed that if he survived the camp he’d make lifelong amends for his hand in “Erik’s moral destruction” (and eventual death at the Eastern Front). He says he will always believe he “acted too late, doing too little.”
On the day of our departures for home, our group promises to stay connected. For a while we do. I even get a Christmas card from Fred and Betsy. (That’s OK. They meant well.)
Eventually the cards and letters stop coming. You know how that goes.
But one day Cor writes to encourage us to attend an anti-bullying workshop in Denver he has been invited to keynote. It’s called ”Rachel’s Challenge,” named for Rachel Scott, one of the students shot and killed at Columbine High School.
It’s disheartening to have to say “Never again,” again and again. And now, again. But we have to. Remembering is essential. Or all is lost.
Dick Schwartz of Minneapolis is a retired teacher.
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