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The Little Nameless Boy (The Holocaust)

I don't even remember the first time I saw the picture of the nameless little boy standing with his hands in the air behind a barbed wire fence, but it is the first image that comes to mind whenever I heard the word Holocaust. For as long as I can remember, I have been exposed to images from the Holocaust. Be it through photographs, movies, stories or drawings, I have always felt a certain sadness and connection to those portrayed. I thought through the media I had encountered, I understood all the feelings there were to feel about the event and its terrible repercussions. I thought the media did an adequate, but not incredible, job of depicting the event. Four years ago I learned I was wrong.

I remember the principal of my Sunday School coming into my fourth grade classroom and telling us that we were about to hear a woman speak to us about some terrible experiences she had as a child. We were to give her our undivided attention and respect, and we should ask her any questions we may have. I couldn't imagine what I was about to hear, and at the time probably didn't completely understand what I ended up hearing. After all the kids from grades four through eight packed into the small area of the multi-purpose room, we were introduced to an older woman named Nessie Godin. I have heard her speak numerous times since, which is probably why I remember her name and story so clearly. She described to us her experiences during the Holocaust, including being taken away from her family, watching her mother be taken off to the gas chambers (although she didn't know that was where she was going at the time), and the terrible conditions she lived and worked through. Mrs. Godin showed us her uniform, a blue and gray striped gown, and the identification numbers permanently branded on her arm. I knew I didn't completely understand everything she was telling us, but I understood enough to know that some people were very mean and unfair to her. Sitting still and keeping quiet were still very difficult tasks at the time, and somewhat took precedence over listening to and understanding everything she said.

As I continued to be taught about the Holocaust in both regular school and religious school, I slowly began to understand what it was Mrs. Godin was trying to convey to us. Although I could never fully understand what she went through during her times in the camps, I began to learn and comprehend the many elements that led up to and constituted this horrible event. I began to take on learning as much as I could more as a personal challenge, and less of a task I was assigned in school. I remember going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. with my mother and sister one Sunday afternoon about six year ago. We invited my grandmother to join us, however having lost immediate family members in this tragedy, the museum was more than she felt she could handle.

I walked through the museum alone, leaving my mother and sister somewhere out of sight; this was something I needed to experience on my own. I looked at all the pictures and watched every movie they offered. I read only some of the news clippings on the walls, thinking that they were subjectively written and the pictures, whether moving or still, told the real stories. I remember walking through a cattle car they had recovered from Germany. There was a sign outside telling of how the car still maintained its odor from packing hundreds of people into a tiny space. I thought there was no way this smell was real, it had to be helped a little bit along the way, here too I later learned I was wrong. We spent the afternoon at the museum, and as we left we were all silent, no one knew what to say, no comment seemed appropriate. My mom simply hugged both me and my sister and somehow silently said what we were all thinking.

Shortly afterwards, during my junior year of high school, Steven Spielberg produced Schindler's List. The movie told the true story of how one man saved over a thousand Jews from being killed during the Holocaust. The film showed his transformation from a member of the Nazi party without a compassionate bone in his body to a caring man who risked his own life to save those of others. The story I knew, I had read the book, but to see the movie, knowing it was filmed in concentration camps and how graphic the film was, I was scared. I went to see the movie with a group of my friends from United Synagogue Youth (USY), a youth group for kids in high school I was an active member of. The movie was more frightening than any horror movie I have ever seen. The movie was so realistic, filmed in the actual locations of where these travesties occurred, it was as if we were watching an old news reel. The movie was so arresting a few in the theater even got up and left, viewing such appalling acts was more than they could deal with. The total lack of respect for humanity was evident, and although the nameless little boy from the pictures was not in the film, I kept seeing his face.

That summer I embarked on the trip that would change my life forever. I went on a nine-day seminar in Poland followed by five weeks in Israel. In these nine days the group did an intensive World War II historical study of multiple cities in the country, as well as five concentration camps. I remember walking in the gas chamber at Auschwitz, and being able to walk out again with just as much ease; knowing that so many before me walked in just as I did, but never saw the sunlight again. I remember three children no older than eleven, sitting on a wall in Krakow throwing berries at us while shouting, "Go home Jews!" as we walked by. I remember finding my name engraved on a wall of remembrance in the Warsaw Ghetto. I remember seeing my grandmother's home town on a list of those annihilated during World War II. I remember picking my friend up off the floor of one of the barracks in Maidanek after she thought saw herself in a photograph of a teenager killed during the Holocaust. Most of all, I remember thinking that all the things I was seeing and feeling at that moment were things that everyone should know and experience for themselves. I remember thinking that the media, while they did a fair job of portraying the events to the general public, they left out so much that people needed to know. I also felt that I now knew and understood all that was possible without actually living the event. This was the beginning of when I realized I was wrong.

We then traveled to Israel for five weeks with the conclusion of the trip being at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance museum in Israel. I expected that after being in Poland, I would be able to walk through the museum quickly with no problem; however I was very wrong. It was harder than I ever could have imagined, more real than ever, because I had been to all the places on display. When we walked in, the first picture I saw was the one of the little boy that has been with me all my life, only this time I saw it differently. I looked at all the elements of the picture, not just the boy in the forefront. This time when I looked at the photograph, I saw a boy in the background, a boy who looked almost identical to a guy I was traveling with. I also take greater notice of the barbed wire and railroad tracks on which the boy is standing. As we walk through the rest of the museum I am scared and sad. I see pictures of places I was standing in one month before. Looking at the pictures, I am now more moved by the pictures of places instead of people. It used to be that looking at faces affected me more; now I look at pictures of places and envision myself standing there. I realize I am lucky, that it could have been me just as easily standing in the that little boy's shoes if the timing was different.

Yad Vashem had a very different effect on me than I had anticipated. It was these feelings, along with those I felt when I re-visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington and saw Schindler's List again that I realized how wrong I was about the media portrayal of the Holocaust. I realized that the general mainstream media do a more than adequate job of informing the American public on a basic level. Though that is not adequate coverage for my personal interests, for the majority of people, sources such as the film industry, television, magazines and newspapers provide insightful information. However, for further study and to understand more thoroughly not only the events of the Holocaust, but also its repercussions, we must turn to alternative sources of media. Most importantly using the survivors as a medium is critical while they are still alive; it is these people that served as the cameras and journalists for the event. I also discovered what an important medium a museum can be. Not only do the museums serve as a umbrella for all the media contained within them, but they also display the photographs and stories in such a manner that sheds even more light on such. It is through these more abstract media that I am able to continue to learn about a subject for which I am passionate, a subject for which I feel extremely close to and almost lucky in a way to not fully understand. I can thank the media, however, for allowing me to be a student of this time period and to teach others from what I have learned and experienced. Through this I am able to pay tribute to the nameless little boy in picture by remembering him and thereby preserving his memory.

October 22, 1997

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