[Zim’s Note: This is a story I shared, in part, on Pinterest and thought I would do a longer and more in-depth write-up here. It was one of those “Aha!” moments in my life. It motivated me to look at history and people differently.]
In 2004, my high school class embarked on our senior class trip to the east coast. Being that the trip was “history-centric” we stopped at the usual places like Gettysburg, Mount Vernon and Washington D.C. While my friends and I had many memorable moments, which I will not discuss since my mother reads this and I want to be kept in the will, there is one that I will never forget. Its impact is simply immeasurable.
When the buses pulled into Washington D.C., we were given the freedom to explore. Only told to stay in groups and be back at an appointed time, my group of friends, along with a large number of other classmates, went straight for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Upon entering, we were given identification cards baring a story of a random victim or survivor. In my group of 7 or 8, all were “survivors,” I was the only who “died.” A nearby worker chided me for my chuckling reaction and reminded me that these were real people. Feeling a bit embarrassed since I had not meant to react as if it were all a joke, I merely chuckled that I would, of course, realistically or unrealistically, always pull the short stick. Let’s just say that my nickname will never be “Lady Luck” and, if anything, my sad and shocked chuckle was a reminder to myself that, if given another life, there would always be that constant.
No, my life-altering memory is not about a mortifying mishap. As we toured the museum and watched videos and viewed photos detailing the “who, what, where, and why” of the Holocaust, we came across an older woman standing next to a railing. She was just finishing up talking with a group as we approached; initially we were unsure if she was a tour guide or some expert giving additional information.
She turned out to be an expert, but not the usual “tweed suit with a Ph.D” scholar. I noticed the numbers before she spoke one word. My heart dropped to my knees when I realized that she was a real life, reluctant, expert. If I passed her in the street, I probably would not have given her a thought. She may have been just someone’s grandmother or great-grandma. Perhaps, like mine, she had a drawer filled with gum and a patient, sweet disposition. Instead, she was someone dragged from her home and forced to exchange her name for a tattoo.
She volunteered at the museum and came in occasionally to tell her story. Not everyone who passed stopped to talk with her. Maybe some didn’t realize she was a part of the tour while others just wanted to get through the heartbreaking experience as quickly as possible. The small cynical side of me thought that perhaps some knew who she was and the story she would tell but walked right by, not wanting the experience to become too “real.”
I wish I could tell you that I remember her story by heart or even just her name. But I can’t. What I do remember is that in those few minutes she talked with us, it seemed like everything around us stopped. Sadness combined with a hint of numbness washed over me. I’m not sure if she said the same thing to everybody, or if she seized up the group and tells them what she thinks they should know.
The thing I do remember, as if it happened only seconds ago, is what she said to me. As she reached the end of her story she turned to me. With tear-filled eyes that held memories of a lost and broken childhood and possibly the quintessential meaning of receiving the “short stick.” She looked me straight in my eyes and said, “You can’t forget. You must never forget.”
It was not until years later, in college, that I really started thinking about those words and their implications. Initially, I could have been too young or a bit unwilling to process how those words affected me. As the years passed I realized with certainty that history was my passion. Not because I was good at memorizing dates or the order of the presidents, because honestly, I mess up dates all the time and we really had a president named Millard Fillmore?! That sounds like Daffy Duck’s cousin… In my mind, by studying history and people’s stories, I would honor that small lady next to the railing who possessed far more strength and courage than I ever could.
History tends to focus on the larger-than-life characters. She was not that kind of person, but she had the power to move me far more and in ways that none of those larger-than-life characters ever could. She made me remember her. Not her exact story or her appearance but the underlying message. She reiterated in me that humanity has the power to do great good, but it also has the ability to destroy. It may be easier and far more pleasant to reminisce about the good things, but it is essential to remember and continue to tell about the bad. Once we stop making people accountable, we start to accept, and perhaps indirectly, condone their actions. I can not change the events that turned that woman’s eyes teary. However, I can keep my promise to her by remembering. I owe it to her to never forget.