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.