Her name was Rebecca Pissirilo and I knew from the moment I saw her that I wanted her to live. In fact, I wanted desperately for her to live.
The want was so strong, so fierce that I could feel it throughout my entire body. It was the fight or flight response, but knowing that you would fight for this. It was that feeling you get when your team has five seconds left to make the play that would win the game. It was the tenseness that takes you over when you’re watching the end of a movie, hoping the underdog protagonist will overcome his or her obstacles. It was one of those moments where for some reason we think that if we throw enough good energy at it and repeat the phrase, “You can do it,” enough in our heads, that we can change the entire outcome of an event. It’s one of those feelings that are the reasons we all want to believe in goodness at the core of humanity. In fact, it’s the strongest evidence I have that allows me to believe that the world can still be a good place. It’s the ability to overcome, to want better for others, and to simply believe that good will come.
Rebecca was born on March 16, 1923 in Kastoria, Greece to Ladino-speaking, Sephardic-Jewish parents. Her face smiled up at me from the identification card I was handed as I entered the permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I made my way through the three floors of the exhibit, I would turn a page in Rebecca’s booklet, learning a little more about her as each of the devastating years of the Nazi regime passed. I didn’t know Rebecca, but with each page, I knew that I loved her, and that strong feeling within me was determined to have her live when I turned that last page.
One thing everyone should know about the Holocaust Memorial Museum is that unless you get there right when it opens and have no other plans for your day, you will not be able to do it in one visit. The intensity and emotion and history that coat every inch of that exhibit take time. I saw the exhibit over the course of two visits, probably for a total of about six and a half hours. And although I learned about the Holocaust in school, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for everything I would learn here. It is a truly remarkable place. It is a tribute to the survivors and to those we lost. It is a strong reminder that this is an event we can never let be forgotten.
The images I saw disturbed me to my core. Hours after leaving the museum, I can still see the face of one little 8-year-old boy in particular. He was mentally disabled, placing him amongst the population first targeted by the Nazis. The photo of him at which I looked was taken moments before he was murdered. He stood, naked, on a table with soldiers on both sides. His face said everything. It was the most heartbreaking combination of fear and innocence. To type this right now brings tears back to my eyes. I never even had the chance to ignite that feeling in me that I know has the ability to save other lives, that human goodness, because as I stood there looking at his sweet face, I knew he was already gone. And that is devastating.
The words I read written upon the exhibit’s walls left me speechless.
I know, of course; it is simply luck
That I have survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me: “Survival of the fittest,”
And I hated myself.
— Bertolt Brecht, German poet and playwright
The relics in the museum haunted me. As I walked through a dark and stuffy cattle car, I looked around and tried to imagine it packed with people. I attempted to understand how human beings could be transported like this and how hundreds could exit dead upon arrival. When I looked at the car’s one tiny window, I shivered, seeing desperate eyes trying to remember what freedom felt like. The car had a pungent smell of painful history.
The oral histories I watched formed plump teardrops down my cheeks. I probably sat for a good hour and a half just watching these. There is something about seeing a grown man break down in tears, unable to even get out what he’s trying to say that is incredibly powerful. There are also those stories of a mother’s love that are unmatched. Several of the survivors who spoke shared stories of their mothers. One mother convinced her daughter that she wasn’t hungry because food rations at the concentration camps were so small that to give up her own life through slow starvation was the only way to save her child. Another survivor told the story of her mother taking her daughter’s baby into her arms upon arrival at a concentration camp. She convinced her daughter that she would be taken to the group where older women just take care of children and that this would be better for both of them since she was too old for hard labor. She actually did this because she knew that the women holding children would be taken directly to the gas chambers. Therefore, taking her daughter’s baby was the only way to save her daughter’s life, to give her a chance in the labor camps. To see real people sharing these stories is like nothing you can read in a textbook.
“We were keenly aware of the preciousness of life.”
Quotes like this, from individuals who at 21 years old weighed only 68 pounds with hair that had turned white, bring an understanding in a way nothing else can.
A couple of weeks ago, a flyer was left on my car. I began to read the flyer because the title had something to do with job opportunities. Since I had recently quit mine, I was inherently intrigued. After the title, the flyer contained some of the typical jargon used to express the public’s concern for our nation’s current unemployment problem and economic issues. It wasn’t until about two-thirds down the page that I read a line that stopped me in my tracks. The flyer quickly changed to a capitalized statement about the need to protect a future for America’s white children. Below this statement was the contact information for the American Nazi Party and the promise that a five-dollar donation would supply you with an informational packet on how to get involved with their movement. I was floored. But what made me the angriest was not that this was a flyer from the American Nazi Party, but more so that they had used the public’s widespread fear and uncertainty, a relatable woe like unemployment, to promote and encourage hate.
In one of the short historical films I watched while at the museum, the narrator remarked that Hitler’s rise to power came from the power of bread and work. By manipulating the public’s most basic concerns of having jobs and enough food to eat, Hitler was able to fuel extreme injustice.
I had a conversation the other day with someone about the Occupy movement and how some individuals were trying to use it to fuel anti-Semitism, claiming that the majority of the notorious “1%” is Jewish, meaning the Jews are clearly behind our country’s inequities and problems. Like with the flyer that appeared on my windshield, this topic caused me pause. It caused me pause because of the immense importance that we do not allow fear and uncertainty, unemployment and unrest, to fuel targeted hatred. The goal should always be something to better lives everywhere, to build each other up, to love, and never something to divide us, to blame certain groups, to hate. We cannot allow the economic climate to fuel injustice when it really should be making us all more aware of and determined to do something about the injustice. We cannot let the movement get muddled and manipulated into targeted interests and hatred.
On the second to last page of Rebecca’s booklet, I knew she was going to live. I was so optimistic. In the early 1940s, Rebecca had married Leon Franko, a Jewish refugee from Yugoslavia, and later became pregnant. When the German forces eventually occupied Rebecca and Leon’s town, the Red Cross interceded on Rebecca’s behalf, as she was about to give birth. Rebecca brought a daughter into the world on April 1, 1944, the same day her town’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Rebecca hid in the hospital with her new daughter.
I was so happy for Rebecca, so excited. I felt as though my deep desire to save her life had shaped history. At the end of the exhibit, I turned the final page. Although a nurse saved Rebecca’s infant daughter, she had been betrayed and was executed by the Germans on September 8, 1944. All I could do after reading this was sit down. I was so upset. All I could do was imagine Rebecca’s life had she lived. I couldn’t fathom the fact that her life had been lost simply because she was a Jew. However, I also realized that I still couldn’t fathom the fact that the Holocaust had ever been allowed to happen in the first place.
In another short film in the museum, the narrator discussed America’s initial response to news about the atrocities occurring in Nazi Germany. The narrator’s concluding statement remarked, “Disapproval and the will to act were not linked in the American mind.”
At this point, I’m going to steal something from my brother’s blog, which he got from one of the protestors’ signs at Occupy Irvine. The sign read, “Don’t Just Honk.” It is simply not enough to see someone holding a sign that says, “Honk to end homelessness,” or “Honk to end injustice,” or “Honk to stop genocide,” and to just honk. It is not enough. To disapprove of something, but to not link that with action is to allow the horror to continue.
For Rebecca and for all of the others, dead and living, torn apart by the Holocaust, we have to promise to do more than just honk. Our lives are precious and they each carry the potential to better the lives of others. We have to take action, to do something, to do anything, for the causes that better the world, the causes that let that human goodness shine through. I think we all find ourselves looking up at the stars sometimes because we all know that we can do more, and we know that beneath the stress of the everyday, we all set out hoping to do just that.