The Americans found us on April 11th, 1945.
Most of the occupants of Buchenwald concentration camp had long since died, whether from starvation, exhaustion, or other more horrible means. Some of the remaining survivors were saying that a Russian prisoner had somehow sent a transmission alerting the Allied troops where we were. I don’t know if this is true; I was being forced to work when we were found.
The Americans found us, the Americans liberated us, and wore smiles the whole time. They lined us up, the few of us alive, and took a photograph. What a crowd we must have looked like – a smattering of Jewish, Polish, Bible Students, homosexuals, and others, standing side by side next to the Americans. 56,545 of us had already died there. The moment did not seem real.
I saw that picture, many, many years later. The Americans were smiling. We were not.
When I finally returned home, I came back to find my family dead. All of them had been executed, most of them in the early days, some only months before I had returned. I had known that Germany would not be home anymore, but I had no idea.
After some push, I was able to relocate to Canada. This in itself was difficult – Prime Minister King was “hesitant”, as they say, to allow Jewish immigrants. The rest of the world seemed to think we were capable of terrible acts, and that we were monsters. I still think they should have taken a look in the mirror.
On September 2nd, 1945, a crowd gathered outside the small place I was staying. At first, I was frightened – were the NAZIs here to round us up again? How did they get here? Where could I run to now? But then I listened closer and all I heard was cheers of, “The Allies have won the war! We have won!”
Well, I thought. You have won, that’s for sure.
On November 11th, 1945, I was asked to remember. “Lest we forget,” they told me. “Of course not,” I would tell them. “I can do no such thing.”
At first, I understood. I understood what this day was for. Sure, majority here in Canada
would spend the day remembering all the soldiers who had died, all of their friends who had gone to Europe and never returned. I understood – I gathered as many names of the fallen Canadians I could and I included them in my prayers. I assumed the same would be done for me.
Perhaps it was simply because most people here had not seen or felt the true horrors of the war, but I did not hear a murmur of regret for the fallen Jewish people. It began to anger me to no end – where was the thought for us? “Lest we forget,” they say, but it was so easy for them.
I began to learn, too. The St. Louis liner, carrying a thousand of my people that had attempted to dock in Canada, only to be turned away, back to certain death? This was labelled an “unavoidable event.” The fact that the government actively discouraged Jewish immigrants, even when accepting us could have saved so many lives? “Unfortunate, but necessary.” The many Jewish people who had been able to immigrate, but were refused housing or employment? “There was just no room.”
Every year, on November 11th, they march down the streets chanting “lest we forget.” I cannot. I cannot forget. I will never be able to “forget” the terror of my fellow people’s faces as we were rounded up on the street, some of us meeting our ends right there and then. I cannot “forget” the screams of terror as the little children were torn from our arms, forced to line up and be killed. I cannot “forget” men falling dead right beside me, and having to continue working, knowing at any second I could meet the same fate.
“Lest we forget,” they say.
“It is easy for you,” I say. “You have nothing to forget.”
“Lest we forget?” Perhaps, for you, that phrase means something. I will not disvalue that.
The soldiers, dying in the battlefield, and the woman who joined the workforce because they had no other options, have things they cannot forget. “Lest we forget” may mean something to them.
To me? To us? “Lest we forget,” they say, with a smile of their face.
“Lest we remember,” I tell them. “Lest we remember, and we may keep on living.”