As the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, the horrific reality of death camps, forced labor and mass murder were never an abstract concept for me. I was able to touch the numbers tattooed on my grandmother’s arm, hold the pictures of the countless relatives I never got to know and hear the stories of struggle and survival straight from the mouths of those who lived them. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust, or about the ‘bad people’ as my grandmother euphemistically called them when I was a kid.
As a kid, the story of my grandmother’s survival of Auschwitz (at the tender age of 13 nonetheless) and my grandfather’s time in the labor camps, was always told in broad strokes. As I got older, it became more detailed. I learned about how she was snatched away from her family, how she survived the harrowing eye of Dr. Joseph Mengele, how the kindness of Austrian strangers saved my grandfather from starving to death, how my grandparents fled the Hungarian Revolution with my 10 year-old uncle in tow and my 9-months-pregnant grandmother giving birth to my dad as they were about to take off on the plane to the states. But no matter how much the story – or I – grew, the last line always remained the same. “We survived so we could have you and your father and your uncle and your cousins.” I think that last line of the story probably bears most of the responsibility for my drive and ambition. How could you not want to make the most of every opportunity when you’ve got that sort of legacy to live up to?
Like I said, the Holocaust has always been all too real to me, if anything. I never needed books or school or museums to know how profoundly tragic of an event it truly was. And, especially after my grandmother died – decades after surviving the camps – from Hepatitis C she contracted from the dirty needles they used to tattoo that gray-blue number on her arm, I never needed any extra help to know that the horrors of the Holocaust are still very much with us today.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but I’ve always known that particular part of my history well enough to know that it must never be repeated. “Never again.” That’s the rallying cry of every memorial, every museum. But those are just words. And with Holocaust survivors aging out of the population with every year, I’m not sure words are going to be enough. Antisemitism – both implicit and explicit – is still very much alive and well in all corners of the globe, not to mention the horrors of genocide, mass scapegoating and wholesale intolerance. As human beings, I’m not sure we’ve evolved enough to truly guarantee that events like the Holocaust don’t get repeated.
Which is why I absolutely endorse what the group behind Henio Zytomirski’s Facebook profile are doing. The group, which includes his cousin, are using letters, photos and memorabilia left behind by the 6 year-old Polish boy – who passed away in the Holocaust – to create an ongoing, interactive profile on one of the most popular social networking sites in the world. The page already has 3,000+ fans, all of whom are getting the chance to interact with the boy’s story as intimately as they would with their high school classmate or college roommate. It puts ‘knowing’ history on a whole new level, and it’s one of the smartest uses of an educational social networking page I’ve seen.