Braille Monitor                                                                                                        May 2004

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Understanding the Holocaust

by Harold Snider

Harold Snider
Harold Snider

From the Editor: No one with humane impulses enjoys thinking or talking about the Holocaust. We take pride in the relative handful of individuals and groups who did what they could to thwart Nazi cruelty or who risked their lives and reputations to help people escape the genocide. But by and large nations and individuals simply looked the other way or even consorted with the perpetrators to inflict suffering on innocent people.

In recent years many of us have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in our free time during the Washington Seminar. Perhaps we are mindful of the admonition: "Lest we forget." We also remember George Santayana's warning that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

But why should a consumer organization of blind people in twenty-first-century America devote its time and attention to the Holocaust? Dr. Harold Snider, a longtime Federation leader, explains why in the following article. This is what he says:

I am prompted to write this article as chairman of the National Federation of the Blind in Judaism, an interest group that allows Jewish Federationists to come together to deal with issues of common concern. Although World War II ended almost sixty years ago, the death of more than six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps continues to be an issue of concern to all Jews, blind or not. The hate and prejudice that inspired the killing of more than six million of our people is very difficult to comprehend, even more so because we as blind Jews cannot see the photographs documenting the tragedy and can attempt to understand this catastrophe only by reading Holocaust literature, visiting Holocaust museums, or talking to Holocaust survivors themselves.

This issue of the Monitor, with its articles about the Holocaust, permits all of us, Jews and non-Jews, blind and sighted, Federationists and non-Federationists, to get some small idea of what the Holocaust was really like from the perspective of two blind Jewish survivors. The more scholarly article also illuminates the nature and extent of the attack on blind people. It is important for all of us to remember that Hitler and the Nazi killing machine did not want to eliminate only the Jewish people. Blind people were also high on the list of the defective who were to be eliminated. Therefore to be both blind and Jewish was particularly unfortunate.

As an eleven-year-old blind boy in the sixth grade in Jacksonville, Florida, I came face to face with the effect of the Holocaust in my own family. My cousin, Frances Hirschfeld, had survived the Auschwitz concentration camp along with Julian, who later became her husband. Frances was visiting my great-aunt, and I asked my mother if I could speak with her about her Holocaust experience. I was doing a project on Germany in social studies.

In September of 1939 Frances and Julian had been neighbors in Warsaw, Poland. They were each married, and each family had two children. Frances was an accountant by training, and Julian was a research chemist. These families suffered incredible privation and discrimination under Nazi occupation. In April of 1943, after having been displaced from their homes in Warsaw, Frances and Julian along with their spouses and children were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp on the same train.

When they reached the camp, a selection process took place. Frances's husband and two children and Julian's wife and two children were sent to the gas chamber. Frances and Julian themselves were forced to work as slave laborers. Frances was one of the inventory clerks who kept track of all of the items taken from Jews on the way to the gas chamber. Julian worked as a chemist in a munitions factory at Birkenau, a satellite work camp.

After liberation in 1945, Frances and Julian made their way to Paris, where they eventually married. Frances wrote to my great uncle, who assisted them to immigrate to the United States, where they began a new family. Julian was employed as a research chemist and invented many new artificial fibers.

Although I have only briefly recounted their story here, the effects of my interview with my cousin Frances will be with me as long as I live. The Holocaust is personally comprehensible to me as a blind person only because of the love and patience of my cousin in telling me her story. As a trained historian I think that it is important for all of us to understand the lessons which this Holocaust or any genocide must teach us. Like it or not, we as blind people are among the most vulnerable in any such situation. The firsthand accounts of Max Edelman and Hans Cohn as Holocaust survivors should make Monitor readers pause to reflect.

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