Today is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’m sure many young people out there are reading various news venues and wondering what the heck Auschwitz-Birkenau is. Well, it has been 70 years. And let’s face it, the numbers of those who lived during that time in history are dwindling. So much has happened in our world since then, and school history books are getting more and more full. I guess some things have to be eliminated to make room for others. However, I don’t think that means we all just start forgetting about stuff. We should be teaching our children on our own, and keeping those historical moments “alive.” Because once you start forgetting about them, that’s when you risk repeating it.
The summer after I graduated from high school, my dad introduced me to a wonderful man that he had recently met; his name was Klaus. I worked for the park district in my hometown and during the summers you could have found me in various locations throughout the parks. My dad also worked for the park district, part time as a park ranger, so we would run into each other often. One evening when I was just about to close the concession stand, my dad pulls up with Klaus and his little dachshund sitting in the front seat of the squad car. They had met at a downtown restaurant, while picking up some coffee; apparently Klaus had noticed my dad’s obviously German last name on his uniform name badge. After a lengthy conversation, probably standing at the back door of the restaurant, for some reason my dad mentions that I had studied German in school. So, he brings Klaus over to the park where I was working and introduces me to him. For the rest of the summer, my dad and I would run into Klaus and his dachshund off and on, here and there. He would sit on the bench and speak his native tongue with me, gently correcting a mispronounced word from time to time. Klaus was a very tall man with a booming laugh and thick head full of white hair. He was widowed, and at some point had moved to my hometown from Chicago. He would tell me stories about various things, but he only spoke to me in German. It was challenging sometimes, but I appreciated his encouragement in keeping up with the language skills.
With the coming of fall, I started college and my park district work moved me indoors, so I didn’t see Klaus very often. But I knew he was still around because my dad would see him, usually at the same restaurant getting coffee. The next summer we resumed our “conversations” on the park bench, despite the fact that I no longer was studying German and had a heck of a time keeping up with him! One day, he starts telling me about when he was young.
Klaus had grown up in Germany, in the years after World War I. That was a lean and desperate time for Germany, making it very easy for Hitler to rise to power. Klaus had been a member of the Hitlerjugend, the youth organization organized by the Nazi party. Despite the fact that he and his family were not necessarily in agreement with the beliefs of the Nazi party, fear of being called out caused his father to place Klaus in the organization. When Hitler invaded Poland, Klaus was barely out of his teens. As other countries began forming what would be the Allied Powers, and war was in full swing, Klaus enlisted in the German army. He made the point of saying that he enlisted not because he supported Hitler and the Nazis, but because he was a German citizen and felt it was his duty to protect his homeland. He was sent to the eastern front and eventually was part of the German invasion of Russia. The invasion never was successful, and Klaus found himself, along with several thousand other German soldiers, taken prisoner. Klaus was a POW for more years than he actively served in the German army. Even after the war officially ended in 1945, it would be a couple more years before he was released. He married, but never had children, and left Germany with his wife in the early 1960’s, landing in Chicago.
I learned a few years later that Klaus had passed away. Even though it had been quite a while since I’d actually seen him, I was sad to hear about it. I honestly enjoyed being able to sit and talk with him, despite my often incorrect language skills. I appreciated him telling me his story. It was a story of things that occured before I was even born, but it had shaped the world I lived in.
And he encouraged me to remember.
Last summer, Steve, the kids and I took a whirlwind trip to New York City and Washington D.C. One of the places we visited in D.C. was the National Holocaust Museum. We arrived later in the day, and soon discovered that there was more to see than we had time for. So as announcements of “the museum is closing soon” came over the speakers, we quickly moved from one area to another. Despite our brisk viewings, there were some things that we had to just stop for. This was one of them:
It was the shoes. I had to explain to my kids what it was exactly that they were looking at. But once I did, and their eyes went from me and scanned across what laid before them, I think the reality of it all finally hit them. It was a difficult museum to go through, and actually I’m thankful that we didn’t have time to go into the part dedicated to the children. I don’t know if I could have seen that, to be honest. My own kids were kind of unsure if they were glad to have seen that museum or not; I think seeing what man is capable of disturbed them a great deal. But I also think they needed to see it. And they need to remember it. Because like the rest of their generation, they are our future. And if the future generations begin to forget, then they risk repeating the past.
While I do have a couple other nationalities running through my blood, I am for the most part, German. My family was already in America by the time Hitler rose to power, but I wonder what it was like for them during those years, having such an obvious German name and heritage. Did they ever feel self conscious of it? I never knew.
A lot has changed in the world since 1945, and countries that were once enemies are now allies against another threat. But as the years continue to go by, I pray that we never forget those who were the victims of such hatred. They were mothers and fathers. They were children. And they were God’s.
(One hundred thousand blessings)