I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things. The world is wonderful. It’s full of beauty and full of miracles.
–Optimist, Pianist, survivor of the Holocaust, Alice Herz-Sommer
The forties really weren’t all that long ago. I know this from the stories from during World War II my oma used to tell, sitting in her little basement, in her favourite chair. I used to listen and to imagine.
Wars continue and suffering goes on. We hope we don’t repeat the mistakes or the horrors of the past, but still violence and hatred and mistreatment of our fellow human beings persists.
On this day of remembrance and memorial, January 27th, it is important to mark the day: 70 years ago today the most notorious of all the Nazi concentration camps, where so much suffering and death happened, was liberated. this came after years of senseless brutality and straight-up cold-blooded murder on such a vast scale, hard for my mind to wrap around.
How do I balance all these images of man at his worst with all the good and the decency I know exists?
I am highlighting just such goodness over the coming days, here on my blog, for an initiative known as
I know I would be so much worse off if it weren’t for all the compassion I myself have been shown by so many. I have no idea what it is like for so many poor souls, still today and during times of such cruelty as mentioned above.
I use days like today to reflect on how lucky I am in my own life. Such “weakness and birth defects”, as a disability such as blindness would have been counted to those as callus as the Nazis, means I would have been seen as a mistake or a freak of nature, something to be hidden from view and worse, eliminated. I shiver every time I ponder this unsettling thought.
When I traveled with my brother and my parents to Germany as a teenager, visiting family for the first time, I had a chance to examine my feelings on what Germany meant to me.
So often, during a history lesson, the country and its people are attached to something so horrific. This, of course, does not mean the country deserves the stain that such a dark period in history often leaves.
People are decent and people are good. I have seen it. I have witnessed compassion of all kinds. I felt it in the people I’ve been lucky to meet here in Canada and when I met family for the first time there in Germany.
I want compassion to be a repeated topic we all discuss, not just the terrible stories we see on the news each night, but in today’s modern climate of this new century the stories heard on the news may be involving different groups of people, but the danger remains.
One Holocaust survivor summed this up: “It might be somewhere else, it may not concern Jews. It might be some different type of holocaust, but when you have people that are unsatisfied, frustrated, who lack a lot and have no goal, and someone comes and provides them with a goal, some sort of goal, they can unite in hatred.”
This sounds a lot like what’s going on right now, in the world, with ISIS and other radical groups.
I stood on the spot of a concentration camp, outside Dachau, Germany. I was fourteen and I felt the gravel under my feet. I felt the cool June air of that dreary, cloudy day. I heard birds chirp.
I stood at the gates of this historic site. I walked through the buildings, full of photographs and plaques with dates and details for the site’s visitors. I listened to the information, but I thought about the human lives lived and lost there.
I stood in model versions of a barrack and of a gas chamber. I absorbed all I could of what took place, so I could leave and never forget, but I knew I never could.
These places truly do help you hold onto your feelings of compassion for others. I know it is difficult to let yourself think about these things and, in many cases, visiting the locations of where the worst of humanity was allowed to triumph, if even for a little while, is an uncomfortable notion. The two quotes from survivors I include illustrate the two things I am trying to get across in this post: the existence of compassion and the need to remain vigilant for the opposite of compassion that can and will still spring up if we let it.
I wonder still, all these years later, if I will ever make it to Poland and if I would be brave enough to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau site.
Death and suffering happened both at Dachau and certainly at Auschwitz.
I know people lost their loved ones in these places, now the grave sites and final resting places. I respect this and want to write about memorializing this as I write about all the compassion we must never stop feeling for one another.
It’s hard for me to speak about such outrageously cruel things, all at the same time as I try to speak about a movement for compassion through blogging. The latter is something I am finding comfort in and somewhere I feel I can use the most powerful weapon for positive change I have at my disposal. However, it is the best time to line the two up next to one another, to best show the contrast that can be seen and felt from horror to hope.
My oma was not Jewish and she did not speak on an experience she herself did not have. She spoke of “The Russians” in not such a warm way, not having been one of those prisoners to feel what it was like to be freed from hell on Earth in a concentration camp by their troops.
There are good people everywhere: English, Polish, Czech, Russian and German. I can’t quite grasp why people of any origin, anywhere could hurt another human being. It keeps happening and people who have suffered through a moment in history such as World War II will soon be gone and unable to relay their own experiences. They don’t want us left here to forget.
I listen to first-person accounts of a place like Auschwitz, a place of my nightmares, but once so real for so many. I know my sense of compassion is strong and growing stronger all the time, but I have to believe this feeling will grow elsewhere too.
Today… and when 2020 arrives and with it the seventy-fifth memorial, I will continue to write about such memorials so this world never forgets the horrors. Hopefully this allows that to increase our collective compassion for our fellow man.
For more on the seventy-year memorial and on the camp at Dachau that I visited, see below: