Seventy-five years ago, my parents were skeletal, brutalized slave laborers imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. This spring is the 75th anniversary of their liberation. I wish I could say that the extreme racial prejudices and intense nationalism that fueled the Holocaust are safely confined to the past. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the rise of white nationalism in the United States and around the globe, this is clearly not the case.
I was raised in New York City by parents who were not religious, so I never considered being Jewish as something that defined me. It wasn't until I went off to college in Vermont in 1980 that I encountered overt anti-Semitism for the first time. Hateful graffiti about Jews was scrawled on the door of a bathroom stall in my dorm. A classmate peered at me closely and said, "You're a Jew? But you look like a regular person." And a Jewish friend told me he'd had to become a black belt in karate while still in elementary school to defend himself from anti-Semitic attacks. I realized the time had come to learn more about my history.
I took a course on the Holocaust where I learned the horrific details about how the Nazis had managed to kill six million Jews in just a few short years. Being from Manhattan where there were 1.5 million residents, I was stunned to realize that to kill six million people someone would have to enter every single apartment in that entire city and murder each and every man, woman, child, and baby — and then repeat the entire exercise three more times.
I began having nightmares and panic attacks as I finally faced the indigestible truth: an unfathomably massive, brutal, calculated extermination of my people had taken place in the modern Western world just a few decades earlier, while most of the world stayed silent.
Growing up, my parents never talked about what had happened to them during the war, not even to each other. It would be decades before I learned the truth about my parents' history.
My father had been a shy, sensitive teenager in 1942 when he was separated from his family at gunpoint and transported to a concentration camp in Germany. He was part of a group of 40 boys and young men from his hometown in Poland, and the only one to survive. My mother, Edith, was 15 during the roundups in 1944 that sent her to Auschwitz — the place where my aunts, uncles, and all four of my grandparents were murdered.
Fifty years after liberation, my father, Mendek Rubin, wrote, "Even now, at this very moment, the Holocaust seems like a horror out of time and place — something my mind cannot, and does not want to, comprehend."
The silence my parents kept did not protect me from inheriting a legacy of trauma. I've lived most of my life in a state of constant low-grade terror — always fearful, anxiously awaiting the next massive catastrophe. Only recently have I learned that my fear is a trauma symptom, and that in addition to trauma being passed down through behavioral patterns, catastrophic events alter the body's chemistry, and that these changes can be epigenetically transmitted to future generations.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of liberation — the last major anniversary where concentration camp survivors will be alive to share their stories — I feel compelled to add my voice as a second-generation survivor, especially now, when the majority of American millennials cannot identify "Auschwitz."
The Holocaust is still relevant today. Not only do we need to continue to honor those who perished, and not only is it a legacy still borne by the millions of descendants of its victims — but also because it is a cautionary tale that's too dangerous to ignore. While it feels more comfortable to look away, facing the truth reveals how far into darkness humans can stray when hate and bigotry go unchecked. Understanding our past can help us make choices that lead to a more harmonious future.
My father was a brilliant inventor who turned his mechanical genius onto his own psyche in an effort to overcome decades of unrelenting nightmares, depression and fear. Remarkably, by middle age, he'd become the happiest and most peaceful person I have ever known. When he died in 2012, he left behind writings that explained how he'd been able to mend his own mind and heart, and shared his insights about why the Holocaust occurred, and what needs to happen to ensure that nothing so horrific ever happens again.
Mendek spent much of his life trying to decipher how our belief systems are created and the dangers they can pose. He wrote, "Ever since I was a young man, I'd sensed that human beings were creatures of arbitrary habits. At the end of the war, when I looked into the eyes of a German soldier my age, I'd been surprised to recognize our common humanity. More than our uniforms and ethnicity, what separated us was our conditioning. If the two of us had been raised by the other's parents in the other's hometown, it's likely I would have been the soldier carrying the gun and he the starving, brutalized inmate."
My father believed that every inhumane act begins with a thought, and that peoples' thoughts can sync, so that they pounce on their prey like a pack of wolves. He was convinced that the only way to liberate the world from repetitive cycles of conflict and cruelty is if each of us learns how our minds work, how our beliefs are formed, and why they rule us so completely. This awareness can enable us stop being seduced by fear and hatred, and instead have the freedom to choose beliefs that encourage tolerance and appreciation of the diversity of the human family.
"The power of beliefs to create good and evil should never be underestimated," my father wrote. "Our beliefs become weapons we aim at other people and at ourselves. A threat to them can feel like a threat to our very lives. Just observe the willingness of so many people to blindly offer their lives in service of their beliefs. We members of the human race are constantly fighting and inflicting the miseries of war upon one another. Today, we're even in danger of destroying our planet."
My hope, as a second-generation survivor, is that this 75th anniversary of liberation is a significant reminder to pause, remember, and listen to the wisdom of those who survived that terrible time. My father is an inspiring example of how we can heal ourselves and the world when we commit to fostering love and acceptance.
One of my father's top priorities was to focus on the commonalities shared by all human beings, and on the best qualities of every person he met. He asserted that there are no bad people, only bad ideas. He wrote,
"The cycle of hate and revenge has to stop sometime. Why not now? Why not with me?"