Remembering Those Lost In The Holocaust

Seeing as yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 71st anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, it is only fitting that we take some time to remember those whose lives were so tragically taken away, all too soon. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to listen to Michael Marder, a Holocaust survivor, share his personal story yesterday afternoon. This incredible man was able to survive nine different concentration camps, but unfortunately, no one in his immediate family had such luck.

Hearing Michael Marder tell his story reminded me of just how important it is to continue to share such stories so that we never forget about the atrocities that took place not too long ago. And with that, I’d like to introduce you to part of the Gottheim family. The woman in the photo is my great aunt (my grandmother’s mother’s sister), and pictured alongside her is her husband and three children. Unfortunately, they were never given the opportunity to tell their names, so all I have is a last name to go off of.

The Gottheims lived in Poland, but upon hearing of a potential German invasion, they made the necessary plans to make the trip to America by boat. When they arrived to the docks, each member of the family was inspected to make sure that they were in good enough condition to travel. However, as it turns out, one of the children had an ear infection and wasn’t allowed to board the ship. The father told the mother to take the other two children to America, and he would follow shortly after, once the child recuperated. The mother refused, and instead suggested that the father take the other two children to America, and she would follow shortly after, once the child recuperated. The father also refused, and the general consensus was to wait it out together, and make the trip as a family, once the child got better.

Unfortunately for the Gottheims, the German invasion came sooner than they had expected, and the family was murdered in their home before they were able to escape to America.

11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, 1.1 million of whom were children. 6 million of these individuals were Jewish, and others who were targeted and murdered include persons with disabilities, people from the LGBTQ community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Slavs, political opponents, and plenty others. So many of these people died without their stories being told, which means to us, they will sadly forever be nameless and faceless. Like the Gottheims, millions of lives were cut short, and who knows what kind of greatness these people could have gone on to achieve?

One would think that we have since learned from the Holocaust, but it was not the first act of genocide to take place in the world, and unfortunately, it was not the last. If we do not remember the atrocities that were carried out just a few decades ago, we will be bound to have history repeat itself. We must never forget the Holocaust, and we must always speak up whenever we see any one person or any group of people being targeted by others. We owe this to the Gottheims, to all of the people who perished during the Holocaust, and to the survivors like Michael Marder who have dedicated their lives to spreading the word about the inhumane treatment they endured.

Martin Neimöller, a well-known pastor once exclaimed:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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End of the Year Appreciation

With today being December 31st, it is no secret that people nationwide are making last minute attempts at creating New Years Resolutions and fine-tuning their goals for the upcoming year. What I find interesting (even though I’m guilty of it as well) is that so many of us wait until January 1st to begin to follow through with ways we believe will better us. If our resolutions don’t work, or if we simply cannot stick to the plan we set out for ourselves, well, there’s always next January 1st for us to try again.

If we could move past the concept of New Year’s Resolutions, we could work on continuously trying to better ourselves. Moreover, we’ll have an entire year to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, rather than just waiting for a “re-do” twelve months from now. What is important for us to remember during these upcoming weeks of “resolutioning” (a new verb that’s quite fitting for this time of year) is that one minor setback is not a failure; we must not allow ourselves to get discouraged if things do not go according to plan. There is always tomorrow to wake up refreshed and begin from where we last left off. If we can view New Year’s Resolutions as the Year’s Resolutions, maybe we won’t be so harsh on ourselves. And maybe we’ll realize that our goals can be fought for at any given moment of any given day—not just for the first few days in January.

With that being said, one goal that I set for myself this past year was to continue blogging, since I had taken an extended break before the year began. Just this year alone, individuals from all around the world stopped by my site to read what I had to say. To me, there would be nothing more rewarding than knowing that one person (not including my mother) occasionally glances through my site. However, to find out that more than 2,000 visitors from sixty-nine different countries read my thoughts, experiences, and stories throughout the year is beyond overwhelming.

Just this year alone, my blog has had more visitors than the last three years combined. To my fellow bloggers, readers, and friends from 2015, I extend my sincerest appreciation and gratitude for your support. (In the tag section of this post, I’ve included the country of each visitor throughout this past year as a special way of saying thank you since it’s much easier than hand-written notes).

May 2016 be a year to remember, and may all of our resolutions come to fruition, regardless of any potential setbacks we may experience along the way. Happy New Year to all of you, and thank you, once again.

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Holocaust Remembrance Day

Seeing as yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to post about my experience traveling to Auschwitz in Krakow, Poland this past summer, in addition to meeting a Holocaust survivor in Budapest just a few short days after. I already wrote about this a few months ago in my blog, but seeing as this important day is designated to remember the atrocities that occurred years ago, I thought it would be appropriate to repost some of my experiences.

When my tour group arrived at Auschwitz, the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

Throughout our tour, we saw hundreds of suitcases, personal belongings, and family treasures that countless people were stripped of. And as we concluded the tour with a viewing of the gas chamber and crematorium, we saw where many of these people were stripped of their lives. It is crucial that we do not forget about this devastating time in history so that such atrocities do not repeat themselves. Genocide has occurred all throughout the world, and with such unspeakable acts of horror continuing to this day, we must speak on behalf of those who lost their lives and advocate for those still alive today before it is too late.

A few days after touring Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my tour group arrived in Budapest, Hungary, where we walked through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue. After walking through the beautiful Synagogue, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.

There are countless stories of heroic Holocaust survivors, but we must listen to them and pass these stories on before there is no one left to share such experiences.

Passing By Slovakia to Get to Budapest

As our time in Poland had come to an end, it was time for us to embark on our next journey to Budapest, Hungary. The bus ride took over six hours, so we made a few pit stops along the way. Our first stop was to the oldest Roman Catholic church in the upper Orava region (consisting of northern Slovakia and part of southern Poland). Orawka, built in the mid-1600s and featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is covered in beauty every which way you turn. The paintings, sculptures, and the history behind this church were beyond impressive to gaze at. And when I didn’t even think it was possible, upon seeing the breathtaking scenic route outside of the church is when an even bigger impression was made on us.

While passing through the remaining parts of Poland, we came across an array of magnificent houses which we were told are owned by farmers. The farmers want to make their property as enticing as possible so that their children will stay at home and help them with the farm, as opposed to moving out and working elsewhere. As the bus ride progressed, we had to say “do widzenia” (goodbye in Polish) to Poland, and hello to the Donovaly Ski Resort in Slovakia, where we stopped for lunch along the way. Both the inside and outside of the restaurant we ate at made for great pictures, so when all the patrons were finished eating, they had to compete with one another to take pictures in all of the prime locations.

It was already evening time when we arrived to our hotel in Budapest, so after dinner, we took a walk around the city. We came across an incredibly elegant coffee shop (where of course we had to take some picture), and then spotted the Budapest Opera House. Franz Joseph I (Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary) built an opera house in Vienna but his wife Elisabeth, more commonly known as “Sissi” insisted that he build one in Hungary as well because of her love and fondness for Hungary. Franz Joseph agreed but only under the condition that it couldn’t be bigger than the opera house in Vienna. When the newly built opera house opened in the late 1800’s, he attended an opera but left during intermission because the outside of the building was more beautiful than the one in Vienna, and he never returned.

We concluded the night by walking through the city, which led us to an area filled with local food carts alongside a music festival where a guitarist was playing the guitar behind his head. We then spotted the Budapest Eye and found a hangout park where locals were enjoying the company of one another, sitting, listening to music, and drinking. It really brought my attention to how lively this city is, and I couldn’t wait for our tour to begin in the morning.

Day 1 in Warsaw, Poland

Happy New Year! I’m surprised to say that I’ve made it on my blog past New Year’s Eve, so maybe this whole New Year’s resolution of writing more is working out. Then again, it’s only the first day of the year, so I shouldn’t speak too soon. Anyway, as those of you who have been following my blog might already know, I am a huge advocate of traveling. I love trying new foods, meeting new people, and learning about other culture, so whenever I get the chance to go somewhere, I’ll always try writing about my experiences. This past summer I was fortunate enough to have traveled to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria, so  over the next few weeks, I’ll be documenting my trip, so feel free to read along about my experiences in each country.

My mother, sister, and I flew on a Thursday morning in mid-August from Miami to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Poland. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to leave the airport in Amsterdam or spend any time there, but who knows what the future has in store? We landed in Warsaw, and took a shuttle to the hotel which was around forty-five minutes away. When we arrived to the hotel, it was dinner time, and after that, we went to sleep because our organized tour would begin early the following morning.

The following day, Saturday, happened to be Polish Army Day, which is a national holiday. This didn’t affect our plans, and if anything, it was perfect timing since it made traveling on the roads to each destination much quicker. We essentially drove throughout the city, and at each major tourist attraction, we would get off the bus with our tour guide, as he explained the significance of the monuments before us. Warsaw takes pride in the fact that Frédéric Chopin, a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist during the Romantic era was born there in 1810. So it was no surprise that the city built a statue in 1926 to commemorate his life and work, but the statue was destroyed during the Second World War. It was later rebuilt in 1956.

We then went to Umschlagplatz, which roughly translates to “collecting point.” In the beginning of 1941, many Jews from surrounding communities, west of Warsaw were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, and in 1942, Jews from surrounding towns to the east of Warsaw were sent there as well. “At its height, the total population of the Warsaw ghetto exceeded 400,000 people. Miserable conditions in the ghetto, deliberately exacerbated by German policies, worsened over time. In 1941, one year before mass deportations, over 43,000 people died, more than 10 percent of the entire ghetto population” (http://www.ushmm.org).

Between July and September 1942, nearly 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka II extermination camp. Jews were forced to march to the Umschlagplatz (concentration point), and from there, they were to board freight cars bound for Malkinia, where they were then diverted along a special rail spur built by the Germans to Treblinka (a small town, northeast of Warsaw).

After passing the site of Umschlagplatz, we went to POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Outside the museum, there is a two-sided monument. On one side, you can see the Jewish people on their way to Umschlagplatz. The other side is dedicated to the heroes of the war and commemorates those who took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw ghetto uprising began after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Seven hundred and fifty fighters fought the heavily armed and well-trained Germans. The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month, but on May 16, 1943, the revolt ended. The Germans had slowly crushed the resistance. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to camps” (http://www.ushmm.org).

The last notable statue that we saw was of Nike, the goddess of victory. This monument was erected in honor of the heroes of Warsaw who fought for their home, and symbolized the rebuilding of the country as a whole. The statue represented a sign of positivity and really showed the strength that the city of Warsaw had to rebuild itself after such a difficult time in history.

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Chopin Memorial Statue

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Jewish people on their way to Umschlagplatz

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Memorial commemorating the heroes involved in the Warsaw Uprising

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POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

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Memorial Site of Umschlagplatz

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Inscription plaque inside Umschlagplatz Memorial