Frida’s Story

My father recently pointed out that everyday is bound to be an anniversary for some world event or human suffering.  It seems statistically probable, that on every day of the year there has been a serious or painful event for some portion of the population.  So celebrating each day of remembrance for each human rights abuse can get repetitive.  Nonetheless I still go through the motions.

I am a cynical optimist and I keep thinking I will grow tired of these mournful acts of commemoration, but I haven’t yet.  Each anniversary serves as a quiet reminder as to why we must be steadfast in the face of injustice.  Yesterday was a particularly significant day for me since it was the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and also the International Remembrance Day for the Holocaust.

For most people Auschwitz brings Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel to mind.  Perhaps they think of plumes of smoke curling out of the crematoriums, or emaciated bodies class in striped uniforms.  Everybody remembers differently and each year I think of Frida Rozmati.

When I was fifteen years old I went to Poland and Israel on a trip called the March of the Living for Jewish youth.  We visited eight concentration and death camps and on the Jewish remembrance day for the Holocaust we marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau- the death march during the Holocaust.  Then went to Israel for a week to reaffirm our faith in the strength of the Jewish people.  In my group I was one of two reform Jews.  During those weeks I learned two important things.  Pain and suffering transcends social groups and that the perpetrators of these crimes were human.

For the entire trip we were required to wear lanyards with our name, hometown, group number, and chaperone.  Then on the back of the lanyard there was the story of a child who died in the Holocaust.  1.5 million victims of the Holocaust were under the age of eighteen.  So each student on my program was assigned a youth who died, and we marched in their honor and memory.  I was assigned Frida Rozmaiti and for two weeks straight I stared at her name.  I read her story thousands of times until it felt like my own.  Frida was born to a working class Jewish family in a small village in Poland in 1940. Her and her parents were deported to Auschwitz.  She was a year and a half old.  She was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon her arrival, as were her parents.  By 1941 the entire Rozmaiti lineage had been successfully wiped from history.

On Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Remembrance Day for the Holocaust, we marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau.  We were given little wooden placards to write messages, then we placed them in the railroad tracks at Birkenau.  We were all trying to reclaim the space, as if covering it with our notes of love for those long lost would over come the hatred and pain that fills Birkenau.  On my placard, I scrawled Frida’s name along the top and then the name of all the Holocaust survivors who I knew personally.  By that point in the trip, her death felt personal and painful.  She was, for lack of a better phrase, permanently burned into my memories.

So every year as various remembrance days roll around for the Holocaust I think of Frida. To me her death is the worst thing about genocide.  Its not the fact that she could have been the next great scientist, or artist, or political leader.  Instead its the idea that she should have lead a life of memories and experiences.  Not only was her opportunity to be great taken away, but her chance to be human was stolen.  Im not talking about changing the world, but I am talking about all the other little things that our society and culture are made from.  Her chance to play, learn, grow, to feel joy and pain, and continue the lineage of her family were taken away simply because she was Jewish.  To me this is the greatest casualty of genocide.  The millions of moments of normality and humanity that disappear when people are killed for inalienable aspects of their identity such as their race, gender, nationality, religion, or ethnicity.

Frida’s death and the death of millions of Jews like her, hurt Polish society.  Diversity in our lives does comes from both macro and micro perspectives.  One day the Rozmaitis may have chosen to share their Passover dinner with their Christian neighbors.  Then these Poles would have been brought into a new, different, and equally beautiful culture.  They would have learned through their human connection with others.  The death of Jewish life in  many parts of Europe prevented people from connecting with “the other.” As we can see today, humanizing those that are different from us is incredibly important.

Genocide and mass suffering does not just harm the targeted population, but it damages the whole society.  The definition of the word genocide says that it is the intentional destruction of a group, but it is more than that, genocide is the murder of millions of individuals.  Each with their own story.  On the Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, I think of Frida.  I think of her mother clutching her in her arms as they were led to the gas chambers, where they were suffocated with Zyklon B, and then burned in the crematorium.  When I think of the plume of smoke rising above the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, I think of Frida rising and I think of the millions of stories like hers that have been forgotten to history.  And every year it is for those I remember.



Teaching Justice

There are certain types of reverence that we inherit from our family members.  Whether it be religion, family traditions, or certain other practices, when we grow up watching those we love respect certain parts of life, we mimic those behaviors.  For many of my friends Sunday mornings are their familial reverence.  Their families taught them to show awe and respect at the altar of God and his teachings.  For each group it is different, but we find ways to honor the things that we collectively care for and respect.

In my family we were taught to honor justice, as bizarre as that sounds.  We watched my father celebrate the life of Dr. King every year.  My mother passionately spoke about education and food inequality each time we forgot our own privilege. We watched my grandmother preach the plight of the Jews on Passover. Instead of learning our lessons from the Good Book, my brother and I were taught the parameters of morality from the pages of history.

My dad loves Martin Luther King Jr.  For him, MLK is the pinnacle of non-violent, strong willed, charismatic, and effective social change.  Back in the day, my dad was a community organizer in a majority black neighborhood in Boston.  He also ran for city council under the slogan “Jim Walsh in the Neighborhood.”  As a result of these two activities a MLK day tradition was born.  Long before I was alive, he would organize MLK day parties where him and his likeminded social justice friends would get together and celebrate the life and teachings of Dr. King.  The highlight of the day, was when my dad would take out his old record of Dr. King’s speeches and everyone would listened in rapt silence to crackling sounds and deep voice as they bellowed out of the turntable.

In the following years, as my brother and I came on the scene, these gatherings stopped, but the lessons did not.  My first memory of Dr. King, is not from school, but hearing his voice vibrate through our living room shouting “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I have been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.”  I remember my parents telling me where they were when King was killed and how that felt.  And I remember that every year on MLK Day, my friends would have free time to run around and play.  Instead my brother and I would sit in the church of Dr King, gathered around that same turntable, listening to same speeches. Then we would discuss and dissect those messages with my father.

At the time my brother and I lamented the activity and complained.  Even though we were given most of the afternoon to play, we couldn’t understand why we had to pay homage to the altar of King and remember his work.  At the time it didn’t make sense.

Since then the lessons of King keep coming back to me.  I have a respect for this day that has been engrained in me since birth.  Its not just a national holiday, a day for supersales at department stores, or rehashing favorite quotes.  Today is a day of reflection and tradition, where I like to look at the world and look at what my family has taught me to value.  I reflect on how I am fulfilling and disappointing these expectations.  I remind myself how I can do better.

Perhaps the most important thing for me about Martin Luther King Day is how it is a catalyst for memories. I remember the story my mother used to tell me, from when she worked in the development office at a food bank, and how every month they would receive a $5 check from an elderly woman on welfare.  The large checks from families who could afford to be charitable, were also important, but this was different.  This woman, even though she could not afford it, knew she had more than others, so she kept giving.

I remember, although were not very religious, hearing my grandmother talk about the Jews fleeing Egypt.  Every year she holds my grandfathers hand with conviction as she tells us about the suffering and the pain of our people.  How we went forth to the promise land in search of safety and freedom.  As she discusses the Seder plate, each item has its own meaning.  When she speaks of the bitter herbs, which we dip in salt water to remind ourselves of our ancestors tears, she is not just talking about “our people.”  My grandmother uses her place as the matriarch of the family to propagate the importance of justice and equality for all groups- not just our own.

My family has a long list of our own sayings and growing up I used to hear two phrases on repeat.  1. People are people, and thats all that matters. 2. Help each other we can do it.  The doctrine of our family is to protect and support each other, to talk through problems peacefully, and to speak loudly when we see things that are wrong.  I am so grateful for Dr. King, his impact on society, and on my upbringing.  His words continue to echo in my conscience as I try to decide what to do with my life.  And today I am reminded of that unwavering voice coming through the speaker and saying “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

2015, a Year in Review


2015 began with violence that persisted through the year.  Issues hit close to home (like the murder of three students in Chapel Hill) and all around the world (like the refugee crisis).  I could list each atrocity one by one, but we would be here for a while.  Suffice to say, in 2015 the big issues were terrorism, hate speech, muslims, refugees, race in the US, Syria, clean energy, and gender.  It seemed that everyday there was an attack on on our freedom and our safety, each one more brutal than the last.  There were many times this year when I felt like that was it, all hope was lost.

When I saw the Hungarian reporter trip the young refugee boy, or the shootings in Copenhagen, or the shootings in Charleston I wondered if we as a people, were broken.  I wondered if we could recover from this kind of violence.  In my own life, I stood in the remains identification facility in Bosnia, surrounded by the remains of 3,000 unidentified persons from the Srebrenica genocide.  Then in Rwanda, I stood in Nyamata, where the tour guide described the brutal torture of civilians, saw the blood marks on the walls where babies skulls were cracked open, and looked at the unclaimed clothes of 50,000 people who were murdered in the church.  Hope is a tricky emotion, in the midst of such human suffering.  I had to keep reminding myself of all of the good that happened too.

Going through the annual and arbitrary process of New Years reflection, I realized that 2015 was a banner year for me.  It began with my semester abroad in Denmark, where I visited ten new countries.  While living abroad I had the opportunity to take classes with members of the Danish Military, Refugee Council, and renowned genocide experts.  I gained a European perspective on my other wise American-centric education.  My professors challenged me to look at the actions of my nation and fellow citizens in a new light.  My time studying abroad, served the absolute purpose of education, to learn information and challenge the boundaries of ones known reality.

In each new country, I found new cultures and new experiences.  The Danes taught me about Jante Law, a societal rule of class equality. Hamburg and Bosnia brought me back to the reasons I study genocide in the first place. In Spain, an elder frenchman bought me a meal with only the expectation of conversation and in Portugal I met two men who argued my independence. Norway was the most beautiful place I had every seen.  In Prague I stayed up till three in the morning, discussing American Visa rules with people from five different countries.  In Budapest I met an Alaskan troubadour, making her way around Europe.  In Brussels I rediscovered an old friend that I hadn’t seen in years.

These new countries were nothing without the people I met: both travel companions and strangers on the road.  Some of my best nights in Denmark were spent sitting in my apartment over a meal and a lifetime of stories to exchange.  Then in May, I made my way back to Boston, for my father’s wedding.  I watched him marry the woman he loves and then headed out to the next adventure.

My next stop was Kigali Rwanda, where I was working on my thesis research.  I stayed in the “most well reviewed air bnb in Rwanda,” where I met an incredibly kind family who was more than happy to explain their culture.  I spent two weeks visiting genocide sites, archives, NGO offices, and finally seeing the Gorillas.  All the while accompanied by a quiet and empathetic cab driver who chose to look after me.  I then packed my bags and headed to Paris for the rest of the Summer, where I worked for a scholar who I have admired for years.

At Science Po, my approach to genocide studies was flipped on its head.  I found a mentor who was patient with my french and ready to teach me the ins and outs of the “trade.” I also reconquered Paris.  I met a group of fascinating students who showed me their city.  The days were filled with work I cared about and we spent the evenings along the Seine drinking wine and discussing every subject available.

The dream ended when I came back to the US for the fall semester of my senior year.  I have kept relatively quiet on the blog, but this semester my health and my condition went under a number of misguided changes.  A doctor changed my medication and routine, meant to take away my pain.  Instead he gave me brain fog, persistent exhaustion, and constant pain.  I was finally back at UNC, working on my thesis and preparing for the “real world,” but I was not my real self.  This semester, after nine months of adventure the year came to a trying end.

2015, like any year, was not perfect.  It was filled will challenges and successes, both my own and on the international stage.  As we enter the new year conflict looms.  South Sudan is unstable; Uganda is up for elections; the Burundian peace talks are deteriorating; police brutality continues; and many new cases of sexual assault emerged here in the US. We were not given a clean slate, instead this year inherited the struggles of the last.  And yesterday, January 2nd, the first refugee of 2016 died.  An unidentified toddler, was killed when his boat capsized against sharp rocks.  He is without a doubt the first of many.  He is a christening of violence that will echo through the year, and I wonder what we, as individuals can do, to combat this.

In the face of this ugliness, I try to find the joy and the hope for the new year.  2015 may have been crippled by violence, but people rarely report the positive.  The majority of our world is peaceful and it never makes it to headlines.  As I look back, I am convinced that we are moving forward, that we are making progress, and that the best we have is our relationships with one another.

A quote from the Rwandan genocide stuck with me in 2015, “If you knew me and you really knew yourself you would not have killed me.”  I think thats the point of it all, thats the point of my nine months of travel, of meeting new people, and seeing new cultures.  When you meet “the other” first hand, they are no longer foreign, no longer blindly hate-able, but instead they are human. It is so unreasonable to hate people because they are member of a group, because they’re gay, Muslim, black, Jewish, a police office, or an immigrant.  These are arbitrary categories. So there is my prolific and self-involved lesson from 2015.  In the face of violence the best thing we have collectively is kindness, patience, and empathy.

Heres to 2016! To the challenges and difficulties we will face as individuals and as a society.  My New Years resolution (as cliched as it may sound) is to be steadfast in the face of hatred, violence, and discrimination.  Neither you nor I can “save the world.” I gave up on a that a long time ago.  Instead I will do my best, failing at times, to get to know people and treat them with relentless kindness.

On to the next adventure!