Emerging from Silence:
Reflections on the 2008
March of Remembrance and Hope
|Everyone has a story to tell.
Having embarked upon the March of Remembrance and Hope, I am now a witness to the greatest calamity mankind has ever inflicted upon itself: The Holocaust. As I stood in Auschwitz over sixty years later, no one could have described the anguish and profound sadness that I felt standing in front of the execution wall, a place where so many prisoners had taken their last breath. There was nothing that could have prepared me for the shock and vulnerability I felt standing alone in the gas chamber in Majdanek. My eyes traced the streaks of blue-colored Zyklon B layered on the ceilings and the walls –this was the poison used to kill the hundreds of people that had been herded into this tiny, gray cement room, again and again. Even today, you can see how their fingers had dug into the white paint - their one last attempt to escape. There are no words to express how I felt stepping out of that gas chamber alive.
Through our journey, the Holocaust has become more than hackneyed statistics and worn pages in a history textbook; it has become a collection of experiences, stories of history that each one of us should learn and re-tell. Every story symbolizes a small triumph over tragedy and brings us one step closer to understanding the demons that lurk deep within the heart of humanity.
These stories have been captured in grainy black and white photographs of families being torn apart, confused children with their arms out-stretched, their anguished expressions frozen in time. These stories line the corridors at Auschwitz, row upon row of prisoner mug shots. This endless sea of images depicts a wide range of human emotions: some faces are angry, others sad or resigned; some terrified, most vacant, and a few with nervous smiles. Looking into the eyes of each prisoner I met along my way, I wondered what stories they would tell, if they could lean out of the photograph and whisper in my ear.
The stories sit silently, eternally forlorn, in the barrack in Majdanek that holds thousands of shoes taken from those who were killed: 500,000 pairs or more. Each pair of shoes is unique, a different size and shape: a sandal, a high heel, shoes so small that their owners could not have been old enough to walk, and running shoes like mine. I knew that each pair of these shoes had walked a path all its own, guiding their owner through life – and ultimately to their death.
Each child’s toy, each set of eyeglasses and each mass grave: everything I witnessed in both Germany and Poland is only a tiny fraction of the stories that create the whole. The photographs, the shoes, and all the other belongings confiscated at the camps are a testament to the lives of people – people just like you and I – and only because of hatred and prejudice were they forced to endure such unspeakable suffering.
Walking through each of the camps, all that can be heard is silence - a silence that remains deafening, even after all these years. To me, silence has become a dangerous theme, one that is entrenched in the history of the twentieth century and that has become an eternal weight on humanity’s shoulders. Standing with my eyes fixed on the mound of human ashes in Majdanek, I realized that the victims have no tombstones, no names; more tragic, perhaps, is that nobody sat shiva for them, said Kaddish, observed yarzheit for their forgotten souls. For many, there was silence; there was no one to speak for them, no one to remember them as individuals.
As we marched through the gates of Birkenau, ninety students from across North America, we were, once again, in silence. The feet of my row, and all the other rows, moved together in unison, in the same direction, for the same reason. That day we were marching as a testament to the lives of those who marched this route over sixty years before us – those who perished. As a willing representation of human unity and triumph, we marched in silence, to remember, drawing strength from each other with every step in the hope of creating a future different from our past.
We now have a duty, as witnesses to the Holocaust, to cross the borders that no one else can see, to grasp hands over oceans and mountains, through language barriers and social boundaries. It is our responsibility to spread the stories we have heard and the part of history that we have seen with our own eyes. We must continue to remember the lives of the victims and their deaths, their suffering and their pain. We must remember them, for they are us: mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends, wanting to live and to love, but caught up in a virulent hatred that resulted in humanity’s darkest moment. It is up to our generation to share the stories of the voiceless – to teach, to warn, and to inspire others to do the same.
As stories of genocide continue to unfold around the world, particularly in places like Sudan and the Congo, the weight of our inaction lies heavy on the human conscience. We must remember not to stray too far from our past if we hope to inspire new endings. If we continue to look away, we will never learn from our mistakes and break the legacy of silence that we have inherited. Above all, we must assume a global responsibility for these new narratives of genocide. In the end, that is all we can do – for ourselves, for future generations, for the eleven million voices long ago silenced, and for the countless others being silenced today. It is our responsibility to make sure that we are remembered not for our silence, but instead for our actions.
We each have a personal choice to make in the face of genocide: we can either stand by silently, or we can act. My experience on the March of Remembrance and Hope has challenged me to ensure that I am always willing to speak out against injustice, to provide a voice for the voiceless. Inspired by the passion in the hearts of those around me, since my return from our journey, I have facilitated the creation of a program called Education for Change. The goal of our work is to overcome the silence by preserving the past and educating future generations about the consequences of inaction. I believe that it is only through education and remembrance that we can safeguard the lessons of the Holocaust; and only through generating dialogue can we work toward securing universal human rights.
Stepping from history into the rest of my life, I have a different sense of myself because the Holocaust has become my story too. Yet unlike so many others before me, I have a choice – and I have chosen not to be silent. While these are only the first steps, I believe that together we are marching forward on yet another journey – this time to ensure that our voices are heard over the silence, so that the world never forgets.
Caroline Cormier participated
in the 2008 March of
Remembrance and Hope Mission, a dynamic educational
leadership program that brings together students of different religious
and ethnic backgrounds on a journey to Germany and Poland. The program
works to educate students about the dangers of intolerance through the
study of the Holocaust, and to inspire students to become active global
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