Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Flickr Credit: Jared Polin
I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond. He was my AP Euro teacher, and he was awesome, but the nature of my query could be taken in different ways. But I needed it.

Every semester we were to write reports on historical or historical fiction media. Books, movies. Something that took at least two hours to read.

“I was wondering if you knew any short books I could read for my book report.”

He walks over to his bookcase like it’s nothing and hands me a book. Less than half a centimeter in length. Gray. Yellowed pages. Red Words.


He signed it out for me, and I thanked him. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I read it. You should. I’m not even going to spend a lot of time telling you why, just this: it really happened. We should know about it.

I read it. I moped. I walked around the house, feeling different, feeling pain. Why didn’t the people around me feel this kind of shock? Why didn’t they care? There was death, there was pain, there was destruction.

And somehow, I think, I was caught up in a sense of mourning for every single person mentioned in that book. That they had suffered, and that they had done so until their dying breaths. I had to write a report about it… And I stumbled through it.

But it felt wrong, because it was about something so wrong. But I expressed myself. I assume my teacher read it, and didn’t think I was totally weird.

I passed the class.

Upon reading an essay R.R. sent to me over the weekend, I suddenly thought of my report. Huh. And I reread it. Not terrible.

With your permission, I thought I’d share a little of it from the end. Yes, Heather is a little bit crazy, but even now I still mean every word.

~ ~ ~

Regardless, many of the events Nyiszli recorded really stuck out—his descriptions offered a transparent image of Auschwitz in all its desolation. It’s funny, though, because even though he makes it exceptionally simple to imagine ash boiling up in the air, or bodies laying lifeless on the floor, there’s still a long jump to really understanding the circumstances. A few men came to Nyiszli with a friend who had attempted to commit suicide, begging him to put the man out of his misery. I like my friends alive, as a rule, and to be reduced to a state where I would rather see them die than wake up again is beyond my comprehension.

It would be easy to dismiss Auschwitz as a depressing book, filled with the crimes of the past and horror stories we should never wish to repeat. And yet, to deny the fact that, in its own way, Auschwitz is as much an inspiration as a memorial would be a terrible crime in itself. Throughout the book, thousands of people die, bodies are prepared so that one day small children can go to museums and look at the “extinct animals,” and the price of life is reduced until it is next to worthless. Through all that, there are times when the sun shines through the clouds—what I came to think of as “moments of mercy.” I think my favorite part of the book was the day when the young girl was found alive after the gassing, and she was immediately taken under the wing of the doctors like a daughter. She was killed a few hours later, but the kindness she was shown still told me one thing: those in the Sonderkommando had not yet been broken. Despite every injustice still being done within the gates of Auschwitz, there were still people who would do what they could with what they had for someone else.

Prior to reading Auschwitz, I read a pair of books on the World Wars by Terry Deary. I have utmost respect for Deary as an author, because he conveys the monstrosities of war in such a way that children can understand it and even respect it, and yet make it humorous at the same time—even though the World Wars were decidedly not funny. On the penultimate page of Woeful Second World War, Deary related the story of the “gentle German”:

“A Jewish mother faced a Lithuanian soldier, working for the Nazis. The Lithuanian raised his gun and pointed it at her head. His finger tightened on the trigger. He was about to kill her for the ‘crime’ of being Jewish.

“Suddenly a German Army officer stepped forward and rescued her. He turned to the soldier and explained: ‘One day history will judge us.’” (Deary 254)

That woman ended up surviving the war with her three children.

In a weird way, World War II acted like the serum which gave Captain America his powers. As Dr. Erskine said, “[It] amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse” (Captain). The corruption which infected so many people during the war only made those who could resist it shine a little brighter. It doesn’t justify anything that happened, or even necessarily make it better. But that there is evidence showing, against all odds, there was still basic human kindness and mercy in those bleak days gives me confidence that it will still be there through future trials. If it isn’t, I’m pretty sure the world is screwed.

The Sonderkommando, Nyiszli said, kept going for one reason: to make sure their story was heard, and never forgotten. Nyiszli took those words to heart, as he documented all he had seen within the death camp and made sure that others could read it. As a reader, Nyiszli’s purpose would be lost on me if I simply stopped reading at his book. Books fade fast from the memory, and their essence is only really captured when the act of reading is ongoing. I’m definitely going to read more about the time period, if not because WWII should never be forgotten, then because I still have a lot to learn about the world and the things which have been left behind for my sake.

And if my Junior year has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn.

Flickr Credit: MrJamesAckerley