Two years ago, I decided that I wanted to take a Holocaust history class. I don't know why, but I've always had an interest in the Holocaust. In some ways, it feels morbid. How could I be fascinated by something so... indescribably horrible? In other ways, I feel like it's a part of history that should intrigue everyone. How can we claim to be just and civilized and yet allow ourselves to descend so far into hatred? As awful as this sounds, and is, I think in many ways, it was the ultimate human experiment. Put under such extreme circumstances, how long will our morals, ethics and superiority hold up? I find myself being horrified and curious at how an ordinary, generally well-meaning, generally kind person can invert their values and commit actions they may have never considered under different circumstances.
Since then, I haven't really pursued my studies in this area. I've written a few pieces within that time period, but I haven't actively studied, researched, questioned.
Today in my history class, I got to do something I've wanted to do for the last decade. My professor arranged for a Holocaust survivor to visit and speak to our class. Throughout my studies, I've posed a number of questions, most of which I don't think anyone can answer. I guess I thought that the best answer would come from someone who actually experienced the atrocity.
We listened to a brief presentation on some of the factors that led up to the Holocaust. It was very interesting but more of a review for me. One of the people who works for the organization my professor went through did that. We had a quick break and then finally, the room was rearranged and an 86 year old woman sat at the head of the class. She was pretty much what I was expecting. She was small, thin, well dressed. I think what I found most surprising was the amount of... confidence and strength she projected.
She spoke for a little over an hour. She answered a lot of questions that I'd had. I could have listened to her talk for another three or four hours. We got a question period at the very end of class. I still had questions. I know I still had questions. But I couldn't think of a single thing to say. What can you say? What comment could I possibly make that would add to what she'd already so simply explained. What could I ask that could be answered in two minutes or less? Here was this woman, sitting quietly, staring out at us, almost smiling, waiting for questions and I had nothing. What do you ask a person who has survived not just physically, but mentally and spiritually, all the things that should have crushed her? What do you say to someone who has lived through arguably one of history's worst moments and come through it able to speak about it and still be able to smile? Maybe that should have been my question. How can you smile? I can't even begin to imagine how I would pick up the pieces, let alone put them together again in a such a way that I could still look out on the world and find good and happiness.
I suppose I was... humbled. I can never describe this feeling. This feeling of feeling something but not being able to articulate it. It's angry, it's sad, it's admiration, it's awe, it's relief, it's frustration, it's confusion. I never knew what to do with this feeling and apparently, I still don't know.
I guess that feeling is what draws me in and keeps me coming back to this period in history. I like believing that people are good. It mystifies me how good people could act so cruelly to other good people. I've been through some stuff and I find it difficult to trust the people who didn't even wrong me. What would it be like to live through the Holocaust? How do you trust in anything? In anyone? It must be the lack of answers... my lack of understanding. Maybe that's what brings me back.
The weird thing is, I realize that I'm never going to have those answers and somehow, that doesn't bother me in the least. I just want to know...
Morbid? Curious? Little bit of both? I don't know.