For over a million people, there was no "after" Auschwitz. But, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their freedom, some of the remaining survivors traveled there again, most for the last time. A few were interviewed for a CNN "Voices of Auschwitz" program. My friend, Ruth Treeson, died a year ago. But her book, "The Long Walk," and personal conversations with Ruth about her years in Auschwitz between her 12th and 15th birthdays made Auschwitz more than just a chamber of horrors for me.
Like the survivors interviewed in the tv program, Ruth had also come from a warm and loving family. Although she had no particular talent or skill that kept her alive, she had an amazingly well-developed ability to daydream that helped to keep her alive. Like the survivors interviewed in the tv program, Ruth not only survived the death camp, but had to figure out how to survive without family after the war. Where to go? What to do?
Each of them had to renew their physical and mental strengths to once again add vitality and direction to their lives. Grieving was necessary, but so was pushing beyond the grief to a life they had never dreamed of without their families. Like the others in the tv interviews, Ruth pulled herself together and fashioned a new life for herself. I was stunned when she once said to me that she had had a "good life." Education, marriage, children, grandchildren, and the skill of writing made her life worth living.
Although she used her poetry to describe many aspects of her life, it also searingly expressed the pain of such experiences as a child's terror of what she feared was coming, and the footsteps of the freezing, endless forced march that killed so many not long before the war ended.
"The Long Walk" was written toward the end of her life. I never asked her why she waited so long to write it, but she used the last years of her life speaking to groups about her book. Her favorite listeners were troubled high school youth who felt alienated, alone, and humiliated. Her message was that each person was in charge of how s/he thought about him/herself no matter what the conditions one lived under. Certainly the Nazis had done their best to make her feel worthless, but she kept her dignity and humanity. And, amazingly to many of the teenagers who listened to her, she harbored no hatred or malice toward anyone. The Nazis not only lost the war, but also lost in destroying her sense of self-worth and tolerance. She treasured the many thank you letters she received from those high school students.
The survivors left behind their stories to be preserved and heard by the rest of the world. The importance of first-hand accounts of anything historical are to be honored and studied. Unfortunately, those words, pictures, images, don't stop such things from happening again. Anti-Jewish sentiment is once again strong in the world. The term "never again" is an unachievable dream against the many forms of racism and hatred in the world. But still we humans continue to read and listen to the voices of the witnesses of inhumanity. Why?