I have long advocated experiential learning, but how does one experience World War II firsthand when the war is over? The answer is: through the eyes and memories of one who was there …one who can impart not only the chronology of events but, more importantly, the emotions and feelings of one who lived the horror, terror, agony, and grief of the war. Such was my children’s experience with Mike Jacobs, survivor and founder of the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies, on our visit to the memorial.
The entrance to the memorial center is through a train boxcar like those used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. Cramming your standing group into the corner square marked on the floor of the boxcar, you can barely breathe amid the crush of bodies. You begin to sense the Nazis’ utter disregard for humanity. Inside, pictures of victims’ bodies piled high, efficient death showers, smoking ovens, and hollow-eyed survivors make your heart weep.
In the circular memorial room, there are two walls of white marble stones carved with names of perished family members on one wall and names of Gentiles who risked their lives to save the persecuted Jews on the other wall. We read the names of Corrie Ten Boon and Oskar Schindler. I ask the children, “Had you been in Germany, would your name be on this wall?” Thinking of the ovens, we are silent and privately pray that we would have been courageous.
In the center of the room, a slab of black marble memorializes the murdered. Fourteen marble pillars surround the slab, each bearing the name of one of the infamous camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and so on. Six lights at the head of the slab signify the six million Jews killed, while a bronze hand reaching out from under the lights signifies hope. Above the hand, we later learn, is a box of bones taken from one of the camps after the war by Mike Jacobs, so he and others will never forget what happened there.
When we enter the memorial room, Mr. Jacobs is talking to another family group. He invites us to come closer and listen. He has a story to tell. At age fourteen, Mike saw the Nazis march all the Gentile schoolteachers out of town to the cemetery and shoot them. Nazis eliminated any thinking, influential people. Shortly thereafter, all Jews were required to wear the Star of David on their coats for identification. Then, they were restricted to one area of the city known as the ghetto. Finally, they were loaded into boxcars and taken to face the gas chambers.
Mike tells how, because he was young and strong, he was assigned to clean out the ghetto after the Jews were removed. He saw Jewish babies, left behind by parents who hoped they might be saved, thrown from apartment windows. Once, when Mike and two other boys were digging, he heard a shot ring out, and the boy to the left of him fell dead. A second shot and the boy to the right of him fell dead. Mike kept digging. “Somebody up there was looking out for me.”
After an hour of numerous stories, culminating with our speaker’s liberation at nineteen-years-old and seventy pounds, he rises to lead another tour. I take his hand and thank him for sharing his story with my children. To the children he says, “Take my hand and shake it, so you can tell your children that you shook the hand of a survivor of the Holocaust. There will not be any of us left when your children come. It will be up to you to never let the world forget the Holocaust, for if they forget, it can happen again.”
In the car, I reminded the children that the first people murdered in the concentration camps were not the Jews, but the homosexuals, criminals, and gypsies. As humans, we speak volumes about our character by the way we treat the undesirables in our society. Though homosexuality is wrong, and criminals deserve punishment, never should we tolerate wholesale extermination of any human beings. I reminded them, also, that the Jews were not immediately gassed. First, they were marked, then separated, and then they were systematically exterminated. Christians must ever be vigilant to any government repeating such an atrocity against any people. The key to watchfulness is to know history and to recognize that great atrocities come in small increments, little by little.