The last wave of survivors teaches lessons while they heal, writes Amani Saini
Pinchas Gutter stands at the Majdanek concentration camp, on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, looking at a mausoleum that contains the ashes of cremated Holocaust victims. Before the 77-year-old Toronto resident begins to sing a Hebrew prayer, he looks to the ashes, then to the 60 students accompanying him on this incredible journey, and says: “Here lays my mother, my father and my sister.”
There is not a single dry eye. Even the clouds seem to be crying. We look through our tears to the right, where the crematorium still stands. The barracks and showers built by the Nazis to eliminate Jews population are also still there. It’s impossible to make sense of what happened 64 years ago in this place, this hell on Earth.
Mr. Gutter was just 10 in May, 1943, when he and his family were deported after having spent 31/2 years in the Warsaw Ghetto, including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Majdanek was the first of several stops for the boy, including Buchenwald and a death march to Theresienstadt, but “essentially my entire family was killed the day we arrived in Majdanek,” he says. Although he tries, he cannot remember his twin sister’s face. The last image he remembers is of her running to their mother in the selection line, a long golden braid swinging behind her.
Now he is back at Majdanek with the March of Remembrance and Hope, a program that brings professors, educators, university students to Germany and Poland, along with the last wave of Holocaust survivors, in order to witness the Holocaust through their eyes and learn from the mistakes of the past. This is the fifth time Mr. Gutter has been back to Poland. When he first went back in 2002, he was still grieving.
“For over 50 years, I found I was unable to contemplate going back to Poland because the memories and the nightmares were so disturbing and disruptive that I was terrified that it would create such havoc that I would not be able to cope. There was, however, another emotion that was going through my being and that was the need to visit Majdanek, which was where my parents and my twin sister were murdered and where their remains were, to be able to say the memorial prayers, which I desperately wanted to say, and also to be able to somehow properly take my leave of them.”
Walking into Majdanek, you can smell the Holocaust, feel the Holocaust, taste the Holocaust – touch it, breathe it and see it. You know you are walking on previously walked ground, and that shakes you. Walking into the showers, the barracks and the gas chamber, you think of the countless number of men, women and children whose footsteps you are retracing, innocent lives deprived of dignity and worth. You can feel the presence of life inside the chamber: elderly people, strong men left defenseless, terrified children clinging to their mothers. Then you touch the ovens that once burned bodies, and come back to the present. You feel intense guilt as you walk out, knowing that 64 years earlier, there was no exit.
This program, which includes students from all regions and backgrounds in Canada and elsewhere, has helped Mr. Gutter heal. The relationships he has developed have given him new strength and made it possible to keep going back, although it is still isn’t easy. “Despite the pain that I experience being in Germany, I still feel that you can’t disown a whole country and future generations for the deeds perpetrated by their ancestors. But the emotions are still there,” he says.
Standing at Wannsee, Berlin, in the room where the “Final Solution” was sealed, then at Majdanek with Mr. Gutter, one cannot fathom how all this could have happened – how a country could commit such atrocities against a people because of their race and religion, how a 10-year-old boy could have watched so many marched to their death. You know this must never happen again.
I ask Ms. Gutter what his message is for generations after him. People, he says, “should be educated from infancy to regard every other human being as an equal and to tolerate the differences amongst us. This, I believe, would create a world where you would not have to pay the supreme sacrifice and be endangered to the extent that you, or your whole family, or your whole village, or town would be punished for trying to save another human being. I can only repeat that education and tolerance is the panacea to solving the problems that plague our planet.” Looking to him, I smile. Even in this hell, I feel hope.
Amani Saini graduated from the University of British Columbia in May with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Canadian studies.
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