Last week, the kids and I were in Los Angeles over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and decided to spend the afternoon at the Museum of Tolerance.
We started at the Holocaust exhibit, where each visitor is given a photo card with the story of a Jewish child living in Europe during the second World War. We inserted our cards into computers throughout the exhibits to find out what happened to us during the Holocaust.
Katie was forced into a ghetto that was eventually sealed off and then destroyed. Megan was rounded up and transported to a concentration camp. My twins, Ryan and Paige, somehow survived.
Although we were museum guests, I actually shuddered when we walked up to the entrance to the “shower” room where the kids were separated from me to walk through the door marked “Children and Others” while I had to walk through another entrance for the “Able-bodied.”
Inside the room, we sat on cold, concrete slabs and listened to Holocaust stories in what the museum calls the Hall of Testimony. One Jewish woman talked about the birth of her niece.
Her sister-in-law had given birth six days earlier and was now ready to come home with her baby. The woman’s brother was an ecstatic first-time father. He had gathered the baby’s grandparents, his sister, and other relatives to meet his wife and baby at the hospital. But when they reached the building, they were blocked behind chain-linked fences, unable to get to the entrance.
Outside the hospital, several trucks were lined up, and the family watched helplessly as German soldiers marched the patients, the sick and the infirmed, from the hospital and loaded them into vehicles. The woman saw her sister-in-law herded from the hospital, saw her frantically scanning the crowds behind the chain-linked fence, but she didn’t see her husband and family helplessly watching her as she was transported away.
Every truck drove off, except one. “We wondered why that one truck remained parked by the hospital,” the woman said. And then a window opened from the third floor of the hospital and an object was tossed out of the window into the trailer of the truck below. Then another bundle. “They were throwing newborn babies out the window into the truck three stories below. We stood and watched and knew that one of those babies was our baby.”
I’ve thought about that story several times this week. Every time it comes to mind, I cry. I cried walking out of the Hall of Testimony that day and wasn’t sure how much more of the exhibit I wanted to see. But we walked out of the room and immediately outside, an entire wall was filled with stories of those who dared to make a difference. An old nun, suffering from cancer, gave refuge to Jewish families hiding from Nazis. A businessman employed Jews to keep them from being sent to concentration camps. Some forged papers to help Jews leave Germany and Poland.
There is darkness. Babies hurled from windows and smashed on a truck bed below. And then there is light. Ordinary people willing to do brave and courageous things on behalf of others.
It doesn’t require extraordinary power — X-ray vision, Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s shield — to care for people. It requires that we see needs and meet them. We speak up when it would be tempting to remain silent. We exert the effort when it would be easy to do nothing.
I was driving home from class tonight and feeling a little ineffectual in my world. I was thinking of friends in high-powered careers; I was thinking of those who have achieved fame and recognition. And then I remembered the wall of largely nameless people who reached out and made a difference.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I hope we remember…and take the time to see and do that thing which liberates and brings light to a sometimes dark world.