"My mother went in the gas chamber first," the Holocaust survivor recalled. "They took my sister and me to the bathhouse, shaved our heads and gave us striped clothes and wooden shoes. We started asking for our parents and crying, 'Where is Mom? Where is Dad?' They said they'd follow us, but they never did."
This was Betty Rieger of Skokie telling her story in 1991 at a North suburban synagogue, according to a Tribune report. The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. Rieger was 18 when she, her parents and eight brothers and sisters were taken from their home to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Only Rieger, her sister and a brother survived the six months in the camp.
"The pain is still there, and it always will be," said Rieger, who died in 2011. "But hopefully we'll leave a legacy for future generations, and it will never happen again. That's our motto: Never again, never again."
And so it must be. The Nazis killed 6 million Jewish men, women and children during World War II. There are many stories of Holocaust survivors in the Tribune archives. There are countless books, movies and museums, including the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. The Holocaust is taught in schools. Thursday marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, known as Yom Hashoah.
Yet awareness of historical events can be fleeting. The facts of Adolf Hitler's systematic plan to exterminate the Jews won't ever be erased – but could be forgotten. Details can recede as time passes, diminishing the power of a universal lesson about man's capacity for evil. A new study released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, think only 2 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Additionally, 11 percent of U.S. adults, and 22 percent of millennials, said they haven't heard, or are not sure whether they have heard, of the Holocaust. And 40 percent of adults, and 66 percent of millennials, can't identify Auschwitz as a Nazi death camp.
The risk isn't a rise in the number of people who deny the Holocaust. Deniers are an insignificant group, though they pop up in surprising places, including a Chicago-area U.S. House race. (Reminder to 3rd Congressional District residents: Don't vote in November for Republican Arthur Jones, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.)
But if the Holocaust isn't actively discussed through the generations, the shock value will fade. Nazi Germany could be reduced to one page in the history books, no more important or relevant than another page on ancient Rome.
The powerful antidote to creeping historical amnesia is for those who survived the death camps, and their descendants, to tell their families' chilling stories, and thus protect the memory of the Holocaust. Truth is, this is everyone's responsibility. "When it becomes human, it becomes more real," Orin Kerr, a University of Southern California law professor, told us. On Thursday, Kerr tweeted about his father's harrowing, miraculous survival.
Arnold Kerr, born Aronek Kierszkowski, was a boy in (present-day) Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1943 when the Germans liquidated the Jewish ghetto. Aronek's father was killed near Warsaw. His mother and two younger brothers were gassed at Auschwitz. In 1944 another brother was ordered by a German mobile killing unit in Estonia to dig a mass grave – and was then shot there.
At one point Aronek was in the Stutthof concentration camp in a group of 516 teenagers. Of them, 500 were sent to Auschwitz and gassed. Aronek was one of 16 selected to stay. Eventually he came to the U.S. and got a doctoral degree in theoretical and applied mechanics from Northwestern University.
There is immense power in retelling these tales of death, and life, at the hands of the Nazis. Let everyone who knows the stories pass them on.