Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
I vaguely remember the first time I learned about the Holocaust in school–the concept was so huge that the numbers were unfathomable to my elementary-school mind. 6 million Jewish people. Over 1 million children. I looked around the room. My class probably had around 20 students. Numbers like this were beyond what I was capable of imagining. They were more like math, not people.
It wasn’t until I read The Diary of a Anne Frank that the horror really sunk in. Stories tell us what statistics cannot, which is why it is so important to share ours with one another.
Reflecting on the importance of today led me to think about the idea of our collective identity.
Sometimes it still knocks the wind out of me–the idea that we live in a world where such a horrific event took place. That some humans felt that they were so superior to others that they starved them, tortured them, raped them, and murdered them. Treated them as less than animal.
It can be hard to acknowledge that these things happened–and are happening–in our world.
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Humanity’s violent past has its place in each of our individual identities. It is something we can’t ignore, but can hopefully come to terms with and become better for it. Our civilization was based on the conquering on others. When I deeply reflect on this, the history of human misery makes me sick. I am sure that I am here today because others have suffered during some other time. It is one of the many reasons why I feel a deep need to eradicate prejudices in myself and work for social justice.
“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”
Can we overcome our origins and build a more peaceful and accepting future (even while violence still ravages parts of our world)?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I find inspiration and pockets of hope almost every day. The eternal optimism of Anne Frank has been an inspiration throughout my life. Throughout the two years living in the Annex, she had fears and doubts but she never lost her faith that humanity was ultimately good.
Last summer, I backpacked through Europe on a sort of soul-searching quest and was able to visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.
It was smaller than I had imagined–the rooms cramped and dark. The magazine and newspaper clippings that Anne had glued to the walls were still there, as were the pencil markings that recorded the girls’ growing heights.
Anne was about as tall as me when the Nazis came for her.
She was real. Just like the millions of other people murdered because they were different from the approved norm.
Hearing the floor creak under my feet gave me a renewed sense of the horror that was WWII–not just because of the violence but because of the necessity people felt to hide their identities. Freedom is being seen. Freedom is the ability to be yourself. Have we created a truly “free” culture yet? No, but I hope we are getting closer.
My experience also instilled in me this deep sense of hope, as if Anne and her optimism still inhabited some part of the place. Optimism nowadays seems to be rare. After all, there is much wrong with the world.
But that day, I left feeling grateful for the world as we know it. For the progress humanity has made and for my presence at this point in time.
Anne stole glimpses out the window and pined for freedom. Then, when she was finally given the sky, everything else in the world was taken from her.
“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
Her experiences inspire me to stay present in the moment, appreciate small joys, and have big dreams. She helped shape my identity for the better. Today, let’s honor her and all who were taken in the Holocaust by remaining optimistic and striving to build a better world.