Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Holocaust Survivor Reminds Us to think for Ourselves

An important piece of history visited North West Rankin Middles School in Brandon, Mississippi a few years ago.  His name is Gilbert Metz. Mr. Metz is a Holocaust survivor. As I watched the students enter the room and take their seats, I wondered if this gentleman would be able to hold their attention on one of the last few days of school. After all, as attention spans go, this was not the best time to do this sort of thing…or so I thought.

After being introduced, Mr. Metz began to speak to the students in his soft, calming voice. However, his voice was the only thing calming about his presentation. The audience sat spellbound as he began to tell his story. He was just fourteen years old when he and his family were sent to Auschwitz with hundreds of other Jews. Loaded into cattle cars, they were told they were going to work on German farms while the soldiers were away fighting the war. The trip alone killed some with no water, little food, and no fresh air.

Once at Auschwitz, they were told to label their luggage so that it could be returned to them later. Of course, that never happened. Clothing stripped away, replaced by ill-fitting uniforms, and heads shaved, they began a life you and I could not even imagine. In my mind’s eye, I could clearly see the little boy, not much older than the students seated before me, just trying to stay alive.

Mr. Metz spoke of being beaten, sleeping on hard, cramped bunks, hours of work with little food, exposure to the elements in all kinds of weather, and the weak being eliminated when they were no longer of service to the Germans. Sickness, suffering, and death were his companions every day. It was difficult to hear him explain the physical living conditions he suffered through, and the mental torture he described was even more troubling. It seems that the guards took great delight in explaining to them that the smell in the air was the scent of their family members being burned to death, and those chosen to die would wait days to be taken to the furnace already knowing their fate. They were routinely forced to stand in line, naked, awaiting the so-called physical exams. The physical cruelty was severe, but the mental cruelty was no less destructive. The child, Gilbert, did what he could to make it through each torturous day. Finally, after two long years of suffering he returned to his home, alone, the only survivor from his immediate family.

Gilbert Metz did not come that day to be honored as a hero, although he is one. He did not come to frighten children and their teachers, although some were clearly disturbed. He did not come to argue the reality of the horrors that he himself experienced, although some say that the Holocaust never happened. Gilbert Metz came because he had a message for all of us. He told that spellbound group that no matter what, we needed to ‘Think for ourselves.”

What a concept! Think for ourselves. What a powerful message! He explained to the audience that the same men who beat, tortured, killed, starved, and conducted experiments on these helpless Jews were the same men who would go home to their families, kiss their wives, attend church, and play with their children.

“How could this be?” I asked myself. How could the German soldiers treat these Jews as horribly as they did and then go home and tuck their children in at night and pray to God? How is this even possible? History will tell us that many of these men claimed that they were, “Just following orders.” Is that an excuse? Are soldiers expected to follow orders no matter what?

Well, I suppose the answer is yes…and no. Maybe that is what makes it so difficult. Inside each of us is the knowledge of right and wrong. We have had that knowledge since we were very small; however, sometimes we may be forced override those beliefs. We are taught that killing is wrong, and yet our soldiers are required to do just that. We do not want to hurt our children, and yet we hold them down while they receive an injection, or other medical procedure. We would not want to hurt someone else, but if we are defending ourselves against an attack, we may need to use extreme force in that defense.

So how do we decide what behavior is appropriate? I believe that Mr. Metz has the answer for that question. Simply stated…we must think for ourselves. We cannot be caught up in the mob mentality. We cannot be content to follow the crowd simply because it is easier.

Every day, our personal code of conduct is being challenged. Do we steal from work because everyone else is doing it? Do we rejoice when someone we do not like is struggling? Do we stand in-groups discussing and condemning others because they are different from ourselves? Do we feel we must wear certain things, or eat certain things, or drive certain things simply because they are popular? What about how we feel about ourselves? Do we wait for someone else to tell us that we have value?

The most frightening part of this story is that it was not an isolated incident from halfway around the world. While the story of Hitler and the Jews may be the most dramatic example of men blindly following a wicked leader, the basic concept holds true today in many forms… Children led by the local bully, Companies run by unscrupulous bosses, Neighborhoods divided by people who gossip and cause discord, families torn apart because the parents do not lead in a way that brings peace.

We must think for ourselves, if we do not, another Holocaust could be just around the corner. 


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  3. This is a sobering message, and very much needed in today's society, Brenda. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, your experiences, your thoughts, and your life!