By Ilana Drake
I wrote this piece after visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site last summer and attending the United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony on January 27, 2020. Seventy-five years have passed since the liberation of Auschwitz.
On January 27, 2020, we held up signs near the gate to the United Nations. Our hands were cold, and we were mentally preparing for the morning. When my grandmother and I sat down together in the auditorium, I realized that everyone in this room was affected by the Holocaust. I saw elderly men with military badges on their jackets, people wearing the infamous yellow star with “Juden” written on it, and I heard people speaking many languages. As I brought the earpiece to my ear to listen to the speeches, I wondered how the people in Bad Reichenhall were commemorating the day.
Last summer, I participated in a homestay program in Southern Germany. When I arrived, I was shocked to realize that I was the only Jewish person in the town. I decided to go to church to try to fit in and observe the culture. The first time I went to church, I didn’t take the Eucharist. People gave me weird looks as I stood alone in the pew. I felt uncomfortable and different. The next time, I took the Eucharist. I prayed on my knees and took the cookie from the altar without knowing what I was saying or doing or even what the cookie was called. It tasted like chalk. At home, I think through the pros and cons of every decision I make, but now I was just following the pack. Is this what it means to be complicit?
I asked my host mother if we could visit Dachau, and on my last full day in Germany, I traveled there with my host family. The bus ride through the town of Dachau gave my spine chills. It was a functioning town with Italian restaurants where people lived and had families. I could not process the idea that people lived in the same town as a concentration camp.
While my host family and I waited for our tour, we sat at a picnic table outside in the middle of the visitors’ center and I looked around. There was a café that sold refreshments and ice cream. I always thought ice cream was for happy occasions, for normal summer days. I would never have guessed I would see ice cream in a place where so many people perished.
My tour guide bragged about giving Mike Pence a tour, and he barely mentioned the Jewish people who were sent to Dachau. He told us about political prisoners and the different color triangles given to specific groups. At one point, we were free to explore part of the memorial site on our own and I learned about some of the people who ended up in Dachau. Seeing the manicured grounds made me feel like I wasn’t in a place built for extermination. The pebbles on the ground made it seem like this wasn’t real, like nothing could have happened here. As the tour guide rambled on about political prisoners, I came up with the courage to ask about the Jewish people who had entered the gates. He dismissed my question. I knew that was wrong.
The rain started to fall as we walked to the multicultural centers and I felt splattered with so many emotions. My mom visited Auschwitz a few years ago and came back changed at the age of forty-seven. I was sixteen and scared. I was in a foreign country with no Jewish friends and no one to understand how this experience had woken me up. The history I had read about in memoirs and books had become a reality. When we passed the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to the camp, all I wanted to do was cry. I had seen photos of this slogan but now I wasn’t looking at it through a screen. This was real.
Sitting in the chair next to my grandmother at the United Nations, I listened to speeches from Holocaust survivors about anti-Semitism. I didn’t know most of the other people in the room, but we were united that day. This was my community.
That morning, Fred Heyman, a Holocaust survivor, gave me a card about being an upstander. An upstander is someone who acts when they see injustice. When I travel, I will discuss my religion, even if it is uncomfortable. I will not tolerate anti-Semitic remarks. I will not pretend that everything is okay. I will speak up and try to never allow an event like this to happen again. Irene Shashar, another survivor who spoke at the U.N., ended her speech with the words: “Don’t let Hitler ever, ever win.”
Before the U.N. commemoration, I stood up at the podium and looked out over the huge auditorium. I was overwhelmed looking out at the crowd. In ten years, there may be no Holocaust survivors left. We must carry on their stories. Otherwise, their stories will fade and the Nazis will win.
Ilana Drake is a high school senior in New York City. Her work appears in Blue Marble Review, Bright Lite Magazine, Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine and YR Media and she has won numerous Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Over the past year, Ilana has been quoted in Teen Vogue, The Lily (publication of The Washington Post) and the New York Times. When Ilana is not writing, she advocates for social justice and engages in public policy. She was recently appointed to the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council and was a STARS CGI Fellow.