As the sun fell on the town of Łódź, Poland, dozens of people crowded inside a cattle car. Among them was Manny Buchman, who had been forced to do this when he was 17 — and now, at 92, he was doing it again. This time willingly.
Seventy-six years ago, Manny experienced unbelievable suffering and survived. He hid in Hungary, was captured, jumped out of the cattle car into a snowbank, was subjected to forced labor, and endured several death marches. Eventually, Manny was liberated and made it to Israel. This April, he retold his story at the very same sites where he had lost everything. I feel privileged that I was there to hear him speak.
At Auschwitz, Manny had to reimagine the massacre of his family. But this time, he had his daughter Diane, his grandsons Aryeh and Joey Strobel, and 17 other high school seniors to shed tears with him. I was there too, as one of the those seniors, participating in the annual Asher Strobel Leadership Program. It’s sponsored by Diane and her husband, Ron, in memory of their son Asher; we went to Poland after spending the academic year working on our leadership skills.
Manny uses a cane to walk. He often has trouble hearing. The Nazis believed this to be weakness, and that weakness in a Jew made him useless to the Third Reich. At the selection lines, these traits would have spelled Manny’s doom.
But Manny, it is obvious that you were the strongest person on the Asher Strobel Leadership Program. To return to such a dark place, to relive the horrors you suffered, was extraordinarily brave. It’s the sheer force of selfless willpower one could only expect from a Holocaust survivor.
At a museum inside the Auschwitz labor camp, a photograph on the wall shows several SS guards making “selections” from the newly arrived Jews. The man at the front of the line has gray hair and a cane. The guards’ body language in the photograph shows them simultaneously making the same decision: One guard pushes the man forward to the right, before the commanding guard has even finished pointing in that direction.
When I saw this picture, something inside me began to churn. I stumbled through the rest of the exhibit, trying in vain to process the kaleidoscope swirling around me. The piles of eyeglasses, shattered and twisted off innocent faces. The mountains of millions of shoes, stolen from once-active feet. The pillows, sewn and stuffed with heaps of Jewish hair.
I have always had a personal attachment to the events that unfolded in Poland and Auschwitz. My father’s parents both survived the Holocaust. My Babi’s brother and Zeidy’s entire family were sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Their shoes could have been in that pile, and their hair used to sew that fabric. But somehow, for me, that particular photograph encapsulated the total magnitude of the Holocaust.
When that old man stood before the Nazis, they did not feel the light behind his eyes, the wisdom in his face, the weight of his spiritual presence. Nazi ideology blocked that off, and supplanted it with a different perception. The SS guards saw a weak, parasitic, wrinkled, and (worst of all) Jewish organism that needed a crutch to walk. And they all instantly knew where to send him.
This picture is not only evil, but alarming. Hitler had mastered the ability to manipulate basic human cognition. If the perpetrators of the Holocaust had only an ideology of racism, they could not have carried out their monstrosities. Even if a man absolutely hates his neighbor, he cannot cause him harm — unless he no longer perceives the neighbor as a conscious entity, a living soul, fundamentally his equal.
But each propaganda poster, each rally, each public shaming, subtly changed people’s perceptions. So when the atrocities began, perpetrators did not merely believe their actions were justified — they saw vermin, and treated them like vermin.
This tactic to control people has been used for millennia, and the Nazis perfected it. Certain ways of thinking can undermine the way we experience reality itself. If the Nazis could deny fundamental truths about human worth, how can we avoid falling into the same trap? It should terrify us that our beliefs can so readily skew our perceptions, crippling our ability to discern reality.
We all perceive each other through different lenses. Truth comes to us by working to see the nuanced whole of each person — not just one fragmented perception or fleeting idea.
As Holocaust survivors age, each generation perceives them differently. The children of survivors know them as complicated parents, powerful family builders, and community leaders. Non-Jews usually pity them as victims. My generation hears the incredible stories — and some of us are lucky enough to have surviving grandparents — but unfortunately, we will remember survivors as elderly.
Therein lies another layer of tragedy. We are the last generation to know these heroes, but we know them only as old men and women. It’s difficult for kids to see that survivors once were outwardly vital, young, and exceptional — and inside, that’s still who they are. Thanks to my experience on this program, I have learned how to see past the surface.
My generation is the last personal link to these stories. It is our responsibility to learn them, and to truly know the people behind them. I hope we can bear witness to more than a vague tale and an old wrinkled face. And I pray we can convey the strength of the survivor to our own descendants, so that their light shines brightly through the ages.