Friday, January 27, 2017

Every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany.
There's a part of me that's always been missing. Sometimes it feels like there's a hole in my side. A small one, maybe just the size of the eraser on a pencil. But it's there. And I can't seem to get rid of it.

I grew up in several different worlds. One was Southern California, that sunny place of suburban neighborhoods, beach bums and Hollywood. Another was my Japanese grandmother's home, where I'd go to reconnect with my Asian identity, scooping up bits of language, culture and food. The other was my Jewish grandparents home in Florida, where I learned a smattering of Yiddish, tasted homemade latkes for the first time and was taught how to play Mahjong and Rummikub (which I swiftly forgot).

Little moments of family were the pieces of my life's puzzle, held together by quality time and self-reflection. So when I realized there was a missing piece, I just could not move past it.

Genealogy research can feel like digging through sand. You push past grain after grain to find a record that may be about your great-great-great-grandmother. Yet for all you know you could actually be building someone else's family sandcastle instead of your own (forgive me for the weak extended metaphor). Names are mis-transcribed, documents are lost and multiple people were named Sally Smith and born in 1909 (just an example).

I learned around 11 years old that one of my great-grandmothers immigrated to the United States from Europe. Unbeknownst to her, the timing of her relocation saved her from one of the largest mass genocides in known history. Her family's fate, however, neither she nor the rest of our family would ever know.

While it was unclear whether I would find anything, I set out to learn more about her and her family using my amateur sleuthing skills. Several years later, I have little to show for my efforts. Names of possible great-great-grandparents and great-great-aunts and uncles. Still, each of them is just a name on a page. Just a distant, ephemeral memory of a person.

Today (January 27th) is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, "the UN urges every member state to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides." I was reminded of the fact this morning, when a series of names began popping up on my social feed:

The @Stl_Manifest Twitter account began posting remembrances of Holocaust victims this morning - specifically those who traveled on the St. Louis transatlantic liner and were "turned away at the doorstep of America in 1939." Though some were able to seek refuge in Europe and survive the war, many lost their lives over the next several years at the hands of the Nazis.

These people have names. They had lives and stories. The former we know. The latter are less certain. And for some, even a name is hard to find.

While we fancy ourselves intelligent and forward-thinking as a species, humans have a history of treating each other's lives as simply disposable. Seeing the young faces, the familiar names that could belong to a neighbor or a friend from school, how can we not see these people for what they were? Us. They were us.

Each one of them left a hole in someone's heart. They are missed even when they are forgotten, because they live in the void of lost history. Their stories cannot be told.

Though the Holocaust may be the most famous genocide in history, it is not the only we should be thinking about. The reality of genocide is it is an on-going crisis that plagues us at this very moment. Right now, stories are being destroyed with every lost life. Simultaneously, a loud and rampant xenophobic minority serves as a constant threat to the collective safety of men and women worldwide. These truths cannot be ignored.

This is a time to reflect on the past, to consider the shattered potential of every lost soul. If you're like me, that reflection will become a daily thought, even if it's just a small one in the recesses of your mind. Do I have a long lost cousin in Poland? Hungary? Austria? How did their grandparents survive? Is this all just a pipe dream?

We can't fall victim to this us vs. them way of thinking. If you're reading this, then you have eyes. You have ears. You have a nose and a mouth and a heart and lungs. You speak a language, you might even speak many. You write, you ride a bike, you make dinner, you sing in the shower. You are a person. You. And them as well.

I feel a little piece of myself is missing because the people I lost - though I may not have known them personally - mattered. Just like you matter. They inform my life like my friends do, like my family, my pets, my teachers, my coworkers, that person who smiles at me as I walk down the street does. In their own unique way, they create potential even in their absence. Their stories are a mystery, they're hope, they're compassion, they're what has not been but can be.

This is a day of remembrance, but it should not be the only one. Our equality, our humanity and our lives depend on remembering our past and taking that knowledge into the future. Listen to the stories of survivors. Read the names of those who were lost. Reflect. Repeat.

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