Have two strangers ever changed your life?
Each of us physically interacts with about 80,000 people over a lifetime. (1) Most of them don’t make your contact list or a repeat appearance. Some you’ll love or at least like; some you’ll find irritating and may even grow to hate; most fall into a group of forgotten names and faces.
Lillian and Walter* were two of my 80k. They walked into my office on separate days, and yet, my memory links them.
Lillian was strikingly beautiful and spoke little. During my exam, I discovered an offensive tattoo on her arm. She didn’t want to talk about it, so I continued evaluating her health.
Despite her silence, Lillian’s body and medical history told her story. Multiple rib fractures, healed and then broken again. Previously dislocated joints, scars all over her body, several miscarriages, and a history of brutal rapes—too many to count.
Except for her face, almost every area of Lillian’s body had suffered a broken bone. When asked, she admitted that pain was a way of life for her.
A few days later, Walter walked into my office. The creases around his eyes were proof of frequent smiles and made his humble, kind, and witty demeanor even more charming.
Part way through his exam, I spotted a tattoo similar to Lillian’s and was once again appalled. However, Walter was more talkative than his friend.
Both Lillian and Walter had been prisoners of a concentration camp, the only member of each of their families to survive. Their tattoos were an attempted theft of their humanity, and I found them offensive on the part of the giver, not the wearer.
Walter shared that when he and his younger brother got off the train, his brother was sent one direction and he another. Walter told me that he often wondered what he’d have done if he’d known what existed in each direction and was allowed to pick.
“I don’t know which direction I’d have chosen for us,” he said. “It’s an impossible choice.”
During his time in camp, he stayed alive in the hopes of reconnecting with family. Afterward, when that hope was gone, he lived because they didn’t get a chance. Walter has a wife, kids, grandkids, friends, and smile lines from the life he created after being freed. Still, so many years later, he wasn’t sure what he’d have picked.
Lillian, because of her beauty, was kept alive. Not because she was a person with the same human rights as all others, but because soldiers wanted her body and refused her death even when she begged for it.
Can you imagine surviving the torture, the heartache of that much loss, and how alone and forgotten they must have sometimes felt? I suspect that no matter how good your and my imagination, we can’t come close to understanding the atrocities they saw and experienced.
Lillian and Walter have frequently been in my thoughts this last year. Not just them, but the millions of people like them who are deceased and can no longer tell their stories.
We need to tell their stories. We need them all to be unforgettable people. We need it because if we don’t—if we forget and aren’t vigilant against it—history will repeat itself.
The last time that a large group of people—folks who meant well, wanted positive change in the world, and were genuinely good souls—supported a leader who condemned a particular religion, sought registration, and wanted to build a wall, things got bad.
were the result.
Are they troubling pictures? Yes. Look at them anyway. It’s okay to feel sick, to be speechless, and to feel great disgust that anything like the Holocaust ever happened. In fact, it’s a lot more troublesome if you don’t feel the horror.
Estimates put the loss of life at over 12.5 million people (2)—the equivalent of every resident of New York and Chicago or the combined population of Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa. That number doesn’t include the survivors who were tortured and maimed or active military members who lost their lives in battle.
6.5 million of the dead were not Jewish. The others were some of the same people who supported Hitler’s rise to power and who never dreamed that the hateful things he said were anything more than a ploy for attention.
Let me be clear. In the previous paragraph, I am not saying that it would have been okay if just Jewish people had died. I’ve included that statistic for the people who tell me that even if the worst-case scenario happens during the next decade, I’ll be safe because I’m not a Muslim.
They say it as though religious discrimination is okay as long as it’s not your religion or that senseless torture and murder is okay as long as it’s not you going through it.
It’s not. Nor is discrimination based on skin color, country of origin, sex, sexual preference, sexual identity, the absence of religion, or any other factor people come up with to create division.
The pictures of bodies don’t show the subtle shifts that allowed the Holocaust. For most people, it’s like thinking that you’ll be able to identify a serial killer because you’re used to hearing scary music on TV. It’s not that easy to judge intent in real life, and scary music doesn’t emanate from those who mean harm.
When a tyrant like Hitler rules, no one is safe.
We must all join together with the commitment of “Never Again” in our hearts and minds. And we must do it for now and every future generation, because anger, hatred, misogyny, bigotry, racism, sociopaths, and psychopaths are likely always to be present. The best we can do is constantly work to outshine the darkness.