The eyes captured me first. Their stories evoked deep grief and profound sadness, weakening and quieting my body. The inexplicable sensations that befall me when I encounter other realms overtook me. “Pay attention! The ancestors are crying out!” Though not my biological ancestors, I felt the presence of three-year-old Sara Livshitz and her four-year-old brother Daniel. The image of my own grandchildren, who the Nazis would deem unworthy of living, flashed across my mind and interrupted my breath.
Sara and Daniel, I see you. You are worthy and remembered.
Thirty-year-old teacher Edith Frank was there, too. She reminded me of the many young women who were my teaching colleagues when I taught children.
Edith, I see you. Your gifts were lost to this world, yet I see you and remember you.
There was a photograph of a priest who refused to bastardize the church into a tool of Aryan supremacy. (Too many churches were complicit with the Nazis.) This priest, however, practiced the teachings of Jesus despite personal risk and the ultimate loss of his own life. He was there, too. I thought about my many clergy colleagues who work for justice for immigrants, transgender youth, and others targeted by fascism in the US today.
Father, I see you. Your faith and love of neighbor mattered. I see you and remember you.
Forty-year-old Hannah Joskowitz and her ten-year-old daughter Zhunia were present at the museum, too. They died at the Chelmno death camp.
Hannah and Zhunia, I see you. You are remembered. I will not forget your horror.
I looked into the eyes of the two young brothers posing with their parents in the photograph. They cried out to me! The Nazis deemed them imperfect specimens and unworthy of life. Thinking of the many loving, amazing children I knew over twenty-five plus years of teaching who would have been unworthy of life under Nazi genocide, I trembled.
Boys, I remember you, too. You are worthy of love and life. I see you. I remember you.
As I read each story and looked into the eyes of adults and children, of Jews, Roma people, people who were LGBTQ, and collaborators (who defied Nazi policies and genocide), they were not alone. Lurking behind and beside those in the museum display were millions of others. Non-biological ancestors calling out to be seen and remembered and reminding me of my obligation to speak and act against forces in our world that dehumanize, diminish, and destroy.
Though I had not sought an ancestral encounter, I looked at each face and read every single story pausing after each one to acknowledge their humanity and horror and worth. Our charge in this age is to see the signs of the looming holocaust on the horizon. Pay attention. We are the proverbial frogs in the slowly heating pot of water who fail to perceive the danger we are in. If we saw where our nation is headed, of course, we would jump out of the pot, but it is easy to delude ourselves when our personal lives are unscathed.
Listen to the voices of our transgender neighbors, people of color, blacks who have never known full equality, women who have lost bodily autonomy, those who are unhoused (and in my own “progressive” Oregon, relegated to tent cities reminiscent of depression-era Hoovervilles), and so many others targeted by wealthy and power-seeking demagogues.
The ancestors are crying out! Remember. See the humanity of your neighbors!
The New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum is located in Albuquerque. Learn more here.