Each Holocaust Victim Was Just Like Us
by Daniel Pesin
I recently gave an address to students at Westminster Abbey about Holocaust Memorial Day; the theme for this year was “ordinary people.”
During my speech, I asked everyone in the audience, myself included, to imagine being in the middle of our ordinary, daily routine, doing your homework or preparing for a test, when suddenly you’re told that you and your family are about to be deported — segregated from the rest of the population, sent to a ghetto that will ultimately be a place of starvation, forced labor and mass shootings.
I find it hard to imagine this scenario, and it seems almost impossible. Yet this was the fate for so many young Jewish people, along with their families, not so long ago.
The perpetrators of the Holocaust intended for Jews to think of what we would eventually become to much of the world — six million Jewish victims as a nameless, faceless mass, dressed in striped pajamas, unworthy of life. But we must resist this and remember every single victim as an individual, like you and me. We should think of their hopes and dreams; what they liked to do after a long day of classes; what they found pleasure in; what joy brought to others, or the good they could have done for society.
One of these individuals was my relative, Leah. Along with the rest of her large family, Leah was uprooted and sent to a ghetto in Latvia. Leah was a doctor, and one day, after visiting a patient, she came home to find that her family, including her parents, her many brothers and sisters, her husband, and her only young daughter, gone. They had been taken to the nearby forest, shot, and dumped in a ditch.
After the war, when the mass graves were finally opened, Leah found the remains of her daughter — identified by her brightly-colored doll found next to her that the little one was never parted from. Leah kept this doll until her last day, and was one of the very few people who ever got out of the ghetto alive. Leah spent the rest of her life alone.
Another relative, my great-grandfather Mikhail Yakovlevich Pesin, was an artist in the Soviet Union. When the Russians allowed Jews to live in big cities, he moved to Leningrad, while many of those who stayed in his birthplace of a little Jewish town in Ukraine were killed. Like Leah, he survived where others did not. Much later in his life, he made a lithograph depicting a woman in front of a gravestone engraved with Russian and Yiddish text that mourns her loss.
My great-grandfather also made a drawing of a ghetto. What strikes me about it is that although so many horrors took place in ghettos such as the one Leah was in, the drawing shows an ordinary, empty street which does not seem as if it is a place where people were starved and shot.
My family’s story is not unique. It is not very different from other Jewish families, as well as the stories of those who suffered in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan. The Holocaust was unique, and targeted Jews above all others. But other atrocities have sadly happened since.
And like mine, there are millions of ordinary families who have similar stories of loss, pain, trauma, and solitude.
When we speak about the victims — however difficult it is — we should try and remember that they are more than just statistics or figures; they are ordinary people just like us. If we succeed in this, if we can see the humanity in all people, whoever they are, and however different they are, we all have a chance to stop history from repeating itself.
The strongest way to stop hate and evil, is to remember the individual victims of its destruction, and stand up for their memory and their lives long after they are gone.
Daniel Pesin is a student at Westminster School in London. His writing has won competitions at school, and he recently won a prize from Jewish News, the UK’s largest Jewish newspaper.