One day in the orange glow of a late afternoon in Los Angeles, my mom backed the car out of my grandparents garage where we had just visited after I had gotten out of kindergarten that day. She mentioned to me that my grandparents had lived in China. I wanted to know if they were then Chinese. She said that no, they were not Chinese, they were German, and left Germany due to World War II, but would tell me the rest when I was older.
When I was around twelve her and other educators had us visit a holocaust museum, and watch films on the subject. Black and white films where they showed proud Nazi’s raping young nine year olds in bushes, strip down crowds of adults and line them up along ravines, before showing equally disturbing imagery of the bodies lined up, one on top of the other, naked, while a narrator's voice described the horror of it as she was on the bottom of the pile and not dead, but all her neighbors and relatives were naked and dying or already dead lying above her in this ditch. All this, while other German’s sat on picnic blankets, eating and watching on as if summer theater in the park.
The films and stories went on to talk about the soap the Jews were given before being made to strip down and enter showers which were gas chambers, about families lined up into cattle cars that were dark with their entire villages, and then lined up at the end of train rides and told to go this or that way; children separated from parents and fathers. Fathers calling their daughers stupid cows and insisting their children go in the other line, the one where they wouldn’t be placed in the gas chambers or crematoriums to be burned alive.
I don’t know that a person can listen to and watch the horrors of the Jews plight, or anyone standing in the Nazi's way, and not be affected deeply by it.
My own mother went to work for Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation later in her life, and helped to catalog some of the over fifty-two thousand testimonies survivors and liberators gave to videotape and posterity. I had an opportunity to intern there one summer and enter in survivors five page PIQs into the system, flagging those of the extremely elderly as well as stories that were more unusual than others, if there could be such a thing.
I know my grandparents had a terrible time starving in the ghetto in Shanghai for nine years, yet managed to survive the experience and come to America. They were 19 and 24 when they arrived with nothing but the clothing on their backs. My grandmother will tell you that the Japanese who were in charge of the ghetto in Shanghai always treated her personally with respect, and she never saw or heard of females who she knew of being treated poorly around her. That, while horrors were occurring just miles away in Nan King.
It was cathartic for me to be able to work at the Shoah Foundation and enter in the survivors information. It taught me that there were civilians who did try and help the masses of Jews and others who were treated as side shows and town horrors to live next to or near. It showed me that people did resist and fight back and hide in the woods and shoot Nazi’s, even women. And it taught me that even my grandparents, had they been on the other end of the chopping block, would have faced some enormous moral dilemma’s in choosing to stand up and do what is morally and ethically right.
I have always stood up to authority and bullies as a result of those stories, and my dad’s stories of his own father running around in a 1930’s Berlin trying to warn others what Mein Kaumpf said and what would rain down on the people if they did not listen. For his efforts, he was put in Nazi prisons and tortured, and never the same after, so the family legend goes.
I have grown up with a mother who would sneer verbally if she heard someone speaking German, especially anyone older, everyone suspect to being a murderer or bystander of such atrocities. I do not think I will ever personally visit Germany. I am one of few people I know of who will not watch horror film or violent movie, and does not participate in Halloween, will not go to horror nights or haunted houses that exploit death and the like.
World War II has left an indelible mark on my soul and personality. What I realize about the world around me, where such things as wars and atrocities are still occurring, is that I can help at a grassroots level. I can meditate, and center my own thoughts. I can help and be kind to people around me, and stand up with my voice and being when wrongs occurs. I know how to be a good person, and the weight it takes to be one.