Last week we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, for our field trip. We were lucky to have our Judaism and Israel class professor, who is Jewish, as our guide. Every time I learn more about the Holocaust it’s a sobering, humbling, and thought-provoking experience, and this was no different. I fought back tears as we made our way through the guided pathway of photos, videos, and artifacts, telling a tale that few have survived to tell.
Near the end of the museum, I felt like I was starting to be able to internalize everything. I had my emotions under control, and I had an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the life I have been given. “Here we go, moving into the liberation section of the museum. Things will brighten up,” I thought. I wasn’t prepared for the next thing I would see.
As I turned the next corner, a sharp photo hit me like a brick wall and my jaw dropped. It was of a young man, standing on skin-and-bone legs with knobby knees, an emaciated frame with protruding ribs, and arms that couldn’t have been more than 2 inches around. He was wearing nothing more than a single piece of fabric to cover himself, and I was shocked he could even be standing upright. The most striking feature of the photo was: he was smiling.
As I stood, staring, like a gaping fool, tears filled my eyes once again. I marveled: how could he be smiling? I guess he was smiling because he knew he had survived something impossible, and that now he would be free to live his life. But still. Did he realize that nothing would be the same? That he would have to start over from scratch, and that it would take the world years to know what he and his family had endured? Did he know that millions of people had been slaughtered in the name of ethnic superiority? Whether or not he knew any of that, he chose to smile, and that is moving.
Sometimes I simply wake up on the wrong side of the bed and it takes a small miracle for me to work up a smile. How ridiculous is that?
I’m extremely grateful for the life I have been given. I have been blessed by the sacrifices of others in my life, and I shouldn’t take that for granted. In light of recent events, having a positive outlook on life is more important than ever.
We should be strong. We should be kind. We should stand up for goodness.