What A Survivor of Auschwitz Wants You To Know About Syrian Refugees

Photo: Courtesy of Gene Klein.
The Klein family in 1934.
Editor's note: Gene Klein, 88, is a survivor of the Holocaust. Together with his daughter, Jill Klein, he wrote We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz. The views expressed here are his own.

On the day my family arrived at Auschwitz, our personhood was stripped from us. I remember lining up in an open area of the camp and placing my shoes and all my clothes in front of me. That pile at my feet was my last connection to my previous life. My two sisters, both in their early twenties, were suffering a similar fate elsewhere in the camp. Their heads were shaved of their beautiful long hair, and they were given rags to wear. Our names were replaced with numbers. Just a few months before, we had been living such normal lives. I went to school, did my chores and homework, and played as much soccer as I could. My sister, Oli, practiced piano as she trained to be a music teacher. My sister Lily wanted to be a pharmacist. At the end of the day, when my father arrived home after closing up his shop in the town square, we would all have dinner together, starting with my mother’s soup and fresh bread.

I’m just a speck of dust in the crowd, nobody considers me a human being. I don’t have a name. I am just number 12,900.

Oli Klein, Holocaust survivor
One of the hardest things for prisoners in the camps to endure was the knowledge that families just outside the barbed wire continued to live as we had once lived. We realized that we had become the world’s discarded, and this knowledge was a great source of loneliness. We were anonymous and forgotten, cast aside as the rest continued on with their lives. For much of their captivity, my sisters were in a forced labor camp in a small town in northern Germany. Each day, they were marched from their camp through the town to the munitions factory where they worked the night shift. Through lace curtains that swayed in the evening breeze, they would see families eating their evening meals. On the other side of those curtains, soup was drunk, bread was buttered, and lives were normal. These two worlds — their own wretchedness and the normality that they saw before them — almost touched.
Photo: Courtesy of Gene Klein.
Gene Klein as a boy in the 1930s, before his family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
My sister Oli had managed to keep a diary while she was a prisoner. She wrote: "I’m just a speck of dust in the crowd, nobody considers me a human being. I don’t have a name. I am just number 12,900. A number doesn’t mean anything, and it’s so very painful to me. People can’t see through the shabby, patchy clothes, or the shoes with holes, and when they look at my untidy hair, they curl their lips scornfully and move away as if I were a beggar. Children stick out their tongues at us, and we are subject to mockery." The families at their dinner tables probably rarely — if ever — thought of these women in striped rags as individuals. They were, instead, an amorphous collection of the discarded. Some might have pitied them, some might have hated them — most were probably disgusted by them. Yet, had they looked outside and recognized the woman passing their window as my sister Oli, had they known that she played the piano beautifully, that she liked to play soccer with the boys when she was young, that she missed her family and her boyfriend, then how could they not have come to the window offering food?

Resist the temptation to tire of the news of the suffering of Syrian refugees. The discarded of this war appear in such numbers that their personhood can easily escape us.

Gene Klein, Holocaust survivor
Empathy is hard. If we truly felt the pain of every suffering individual, we would be overwhelmed. But the opposite has us continuing to enjoy the comforts of our homes while the discarded walk past our windows, without aid or comfort. Our Holocaust experiences were punctuated by people who dared to feel our pain. When we were in a ghetto, Christian neighbors brought us something to eat. A woman boating on a river next to where my mother and two sisters were laboring threw them a precious onion. One evening, an elderly German man intervened when Hitler youth mocked and cursed the women passing through the town. He shouted that the women have nothing to be ashamed of, that the shame is in the way they are being treated. Such actions lifted spirits and saved lives. They were initiated by people who saw the individuality of another human being in need of help. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, as one who has lived in that lonely realm of the discarded, please let me remind you of the power of human care and generosity. Resist the temptation to tire of the news of the suffering of Syrian refugees. The discarded of this war appear in such numbers that their personhood can easily escape us.
This crisis is not the Holocaust, but the two do share disturbing themes, and I urge you to not give in to the fatigue that can drive us to shut our windows and close the curtains. We must also combat hopelessness. The problems in Syria seem insurmountable, but we can still have a powerful impact on those who suffer. Remember this: It is an honor in life to be able to have a positive effect on even one other person. And when the suffering of another is great, small acts of generosity and courage are powerful beyond expectation. Take this opportunity to do a great thing that will live in someone’s memory for a lifetime and be told to the generations that come after. Offer something to relieve the suffering of the person walking past your house. Provide a word of support when others taunt. Reach out your window and softly touch the forlorn face of someone who will remember your kindness forever.

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