To Forget is To Let Die

“If the Holocaust had never happened, we would not exist. They died so we could live,” are the words that first became cemented in my head as I stood in front of the home my great-grandparents had left behind in 1938, in order to escape the largest mass genocide in human history.

I repeated them out loud to my mother beside me, the two of us standing outside of a home in a quaint German town nestled outside of Dortmund, seeing for the first time where we came from.

She only let out a sigh, looking deeper inside through the windows to see a German family enjoying dinner amongst themselves in the brazen winter, light snow continuing to fall. My own survivor’s guilt had begun to build inside of me, and she knew.

Almost two years later the same words continue to ring on while looking outwards to the Polish countryside passing by on the train from Katowice to Oświęcim, widely known as Auschwitz.

My thoughts swirled witnessing the sky grow bleak into the October sky cast down on the villages that led the way to my destination. I pondered upon how lucky I am that my great-grandparents, Heinz and Ruth Rosenberg, landed on a port in Colombia in the midst of World War II, rather than being sent to die in the gas chambers.

Ruth and Heinz Rosenberg pictured on the left, boarding the ship to Colombia in Hamburg, Germany, 1938
Poster for the ship line from Germany to Colombia, a way out for many Jews seeking an escape out of Nazi Germany

My mother (bottom right) pictured with her brothers and cousins at a wedding in Bogota

Our family was one of the fortunate, finding a home in Bogota, Colombia and forming its Jewish community that lives on tightly-knit to this day, with Hebrew schools, synagogues and religious centers spread across different cities in the country.

Yes, my family were a part of the lucky few that left the town of Hagen-Hohenlimburg at the sound of whispers circling around concerning Hitler’s plans for the Jewish people of Europe. Some, like their family and friends, were not so lucky.

Those are the ones I think about as I visit Auschwitz, to be in their shoes, to be sent on a train just like this one, except unbeknownst to where it was headed. I ask myself if I’ve done enough to survive their legacy, if I’ve been proud enough of my religion, or if they’d really just died for nothing.

“Third generation Holocaust survivors choose to make the Holocaust part of their identities, while others choose to completely separate from it. If history is to not be forgotten and repeated, we need more individuals to select the former path and to truly take an interest in Holocaust,” writes Huffington Post contributor Jennifer Shulkin.

And the former path is mine to take, walking through the gates of the concentration camp, reading the German words hanging above reading out in capital letters “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates to “Work Makes You Free.”

As I spend the day in the concentration camp, following along to the guide’s every word of pain, suffering and death, I can’t help but think of the families that could have been, the doctors, writers and artists that never were. Most importantly, I wonder if those in my generation feel the same way, thankful for being alive today when the ones that laid scattered in the ground before us in Auschwitz became a part of the earth far too soon.

“As a third generation Holocaust survivor, it carries tremendous weight and significance that continously shapes my personality and identity. My great-grandmother is a source of inspiration and awe to me. Her stories really show the atrocities she endured and takes a whole new perspective on my problems,” said Aidan Silverman, a first year bachelor student at the University of Virginia in the United States.

His great-grandmother Minnie Osher was liberated by the British from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, and travelled to New York shortly after to start her family, with her husband whom she’d met in a displaced persons camp. Sadly, she was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust.

“I think that my ideas about the tragedies of the Holocaust have greatly been affected by Minnie. As time passes, I think that generations become less connected to the Holocaust,” said Silverman. “I think every person has their own unique connection to the Holocaust and how it has affected them. We have the responsibility to talk with each other about it, listen and hear stories, and share these stories with future generations so that they are never lost.”

I continue to make my way over to the second part of Auschwitz, also known as Birkenau, on a crowded shuttle bus full of somber, quiet faces affected by what they’d seen today. As our tour approaches the second camp, which was quite larger than the first, I begin to think about famed Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote Night, known to be one of the most mesmerizing pieces of Holocaust liteature ever written.

“How does one mourn for six million people who died? How many candles does one light? How many prayers does one recite? Do we know how to remember the victims, their solitude, their helplessness? They left us without a trace, and we are their trace,” said Wiesel during his 2001 Day of Remembrance speech.

The generations before and after us are the trace, leaving the weight of responsibility on our shoulders as I begin to reflect more, standing in front of the destroyed underground rooms in which women and children were forced to undress before entering the gas chambers, unknowingly.

“It is a gigantic responsibility of mine to tell what happened and continue telling it to every person I can. However, generally, I feel that the second and third generations are moving further away from the subject and are not so connected with the Holocaust as they should be,” said Hanna Halstuch, a 20-year old student studying in Vienna, Austria whose family immigrated to Colombia at the dawn of the Holocaust.

Her grandmother and grandfather hid from the Russians during the invasion of Poland, and soon heard that the Nazis would be returning. Originally intending to seek refuge in Palestine, due to the plans of a new Jewish state fueled by the Zionist movement, an uncle who had already emigrated to Bogota arranged for them to cross the Atlantic for a new beginning instead. 

Sigmund Halstuch, showing a picture of his family left behind in Poland
(Photo courtesy of Erika Diettes, photojournalist and creator of Silencios, a collection of stories and photos on Colombian Jewish Holocaust survivors)

“I do believe that for third generations it is easier to talk about it, because when my father was growing up, the Holocaust was a forbidden subject. He heard my grandfather’s story almost at the same time as me,” said Halstuch. “He grew up unable to talk about it, without knowing it, but I grew up learning about it and listening to my grandfather’s story.”

Though the Holocaust may be in the past, anti-semitism however, is not. I thought about my own childhood as we walked down the train tracks where the Nazis would bring in wave after wave of thousands of Jews, 50-100 all cramped up in each railcar. I would come home crying, ashamed to be Jewish after bullies would throw pennies at me and call me derogatory Jewish slurs. 

My grandmother had also experienced this, visiting another concentration camp in Germany, Dachau, supposedly the destination for Jews from her parents’ region in Germany, perhaps the ending for many of her long-lost relatives. She once told me, walking amongst the camp, she overheard a young German teen who resembled a skinhead, muttering in German to his friend that “they should’ve finished the job.” 

Our past, present and future is in our hands, a responsibility passed down from generation to generation. Out of my grandparents’ three children, only one married inside their religion, that being my mother. As I continue to focus on my life, career and studies, I feel that my faith is eluding me, rendering me far more guilty as I take a final glance at Birkenau before stepping on the shuttle bus to return. 

Myself at 13 years old on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, accompanied by my grandparents Gloria and Murry.

Have I disappointed those that died for what I can freely do today, to simply walk the lands of Europe and call myself a Jew? I hope to pass my religion down to my children, to see my future sons and daughters read from the Torah on their day of Bat/Bar Mitzvah, break the afikoman on Passover and light the Hanukkah candles, as my own parents did with me. Yet a hope is not always promised, however I believe someday I will find the chance to reconnect. 

In contrast to my choices, within the Colombian Jewish community, many young adults my age make the journey to Israel, to join the army, learn Hebrew, study and connect further with their roots, such as Alan Kirschberg, who went to study at Reichmann University in Herzliya, in addition to becoming a member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

His grandfather, Maximillian Kirschberg, survived Auschwitz, later migrating to Colombia to start a family.

“It is a true honor for me to be the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. Thanks to him I am a Jew and could not be more proud of it,” said Kirschberg. “I feel like my responsibility is to tell his story, to keep it alive so that the Holocaust is never repeated. I have always told his story and will continue to do so all my life.”

Maximillian Kirschberg, showing his number tattoo from Auschwitz
(Photo courtesy of Erika Diettes, who shared a few words on Silencios in the audio interview below)
Clip from interview with Erika Diettes on photographing Maximillian Kirschberg for Silencios

Maximilian Kirschberg first lost his father, who never came home on the ‘Kristallnacht,’ (Crystal Night) where Nazi officials carried out a pogrom against German Jews. Shortly after, along with his mother and sister, they were deported to Poland to live in the ghettos. After three years, they were sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where he was told to go left by the SS officers after arriving off the train, while his mother and sister were told to go right.

Left meant those chosen to work and live, while right meant those sent to the gas chambers to die.

“Logically we are less connected to the Holocaust but only because we do not live it, but to be a grandson of a survivor is to be responsible for educating ourselves about the Holocaust and knowing what our people had to go through,” said Kirschberg.

When asked whether his grandfather, who recently passed away earlier this year, was affected by survivor’s guilt, Kirschberg maintained that this was never the case.

“My grandfather was able to keep moving forward, have a large family, be able to live, be an entrepreneur and most importantly be happy,” said Kirschberg, who also visited the Buchenwald concentration camp with his grandfather, where he was held for 3 months after Auschwitz.

“I am very grateful to have been able to go with my grandfather together because I know it was very difficult to return there and he had rejected many invitations there before as a survivor. Finally he had agreed to go, because I was accompanying him,” added Kirschberg.

As I take one last look at Auschwitz before I walk back to my hotel, I look at the sky and down to my feet again in a moment of clarity. I realize it doesn’t truly matter in the end how ‘Jewish’ someone is, or if I’ve ever done enough to fulfill the legacy of those that passed away for us. By being successful, a well-rounded individual, and proud of my faith is all I ever need to carry on the names of those that died for our religion.

“My great-grandma’s famous quote was ‘Where there is life, there is hope.’ I hold this weight with such a high bearing in my life, and I am proud to consider myself a part of the Jewish people,” added Aidan Silverman in the last parts of our interview.

And I couldn’t agree more.

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