“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So is it better to speak?” – Audre Lorde
I am in sixth grade. My hands, gripping the edge of my desk in a quiet rage. Knuckles white. I. Hate. It. Here. My skin crawls. There isn’t a place in the world I want to exist. Everyone listens to me say this. But no one hears me. I am ignored.
Mrs. S. wrote the word “Apathy” on the board.
“That feeling. That word, murdered 11 million people. 6 million Jews. 1.5 million Jewish Children. Look at it.”
We stare for a minute. Silent.
I hear a soft laugh. Is that my snicker? Another. Uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs. Whoever it was, Brandon has the loudest giggle, and he receives the teacher’s corrective glare.
She darkens the room and pulls down the screen. A slide of a naked, emaciated, woman, dead appears. My eyes glance over at the word. Apathy.
The next slide. A gas chamber. Dead bodies slumped over each other.
Next, the entrance to Birkenau.
Next, Auschwitz. “Arbeit Macht Frei” Apathy.
“This is Babi Yar”. Mrs. S. delivers the information with a cold, flat, statement. The class gasps. All of us. Collectively. Gasping at the sight – a photograph of a mass grave holding the dead and starved bodies of 33,771 Jews, murdered over 2 days. Marci looks down at her paper and reads the quote that was to accompany the slide, number 18, “There is no gravestone that stands on Babi Yar; Only coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash.” One of the boys groans, “Ugh…Gash.”
I silently rode home with my father. I will never look at my Grandmother the same. “What did she see in Germany?”
I visited Majdanek, Sobibor, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau when I was 17. I am numb, the feeling of existing nowhere. I think I have died, but I am only numb. Every day, I want to die. Instead I am numb. Now I can survive.
And I promise to share these words, as I stand under the gallows of Auschwitz:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am consigned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” (Elie Wiesel)
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“Let it go.”
“Ok, I’ll move on.”
That conversation has dominated my life for 34 years. Apathy. I define it. My stomach rumbles every day, I never feel good. I sit with my husband at dinner and watch the news. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. All that I have seen and heard. I am numb and dead inside, as I was in Majdenak choking on the stench on rotten leather shoes. Trophies saved by Nazis to commemorate 80,000 murders.
“Never Again. What does that mean?”
He stares back at me. My question emerges from my apathetic silence.
“When we say never again, doesn’t that mean we’re supposed to do something? What does `never again’ mean to you?”
He quietly speaks of his dreams for peace. Eradicating poverty. Housing for the poor. Healthcare. College. Employment.
“What about you?”
“I can’t live here anymore. Not the way it is. When I said never again, I meant I would stop a train carrying cattle cars of Jews with my body, with my strength, with my power. I don’t have power. I don’t want to live that way anymore. I don’t want to live here anymore.”
“Like Loveland? You don’t want to live in Loveland anymore?”
“No. I can’t live in the world as it is anymore. I have to change it. It’s unbearable.” I cry. I can’t stop. I feel the quiet rage of my youth. But my hands lie flat on the table, my knuckles pink. I don’t think I can exist here. I look to my husband and children. But they exist here.
I pick up books and learn. I register voters. I learn how to organize large groups of people to fight for a common cause, not because of politics, but because it aligns with their self-interests. I learn about my privilege. I learn about systemic racism. I make so many mistakes. I am corrected aggressively. Kindly. Ignored. I cry. I laugh. I am successful. I learn as I go. Things change.
One day, I press play. My daughter is watching over my shoulder. We watch George Floyd die. She has closed her eyes. I restart the video.
“Open them. Open your eyes. We have to see.”
I think, “There is no gravestone that stands on Babi Yar; Only coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash.”
We exist in a world like this – coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash. I don’t want this world to exist as long as I live in it.
We hug at the end of the video.
When my husband finishes work, I greet him by stating simply, “Never Again.”
He knows what it means.
I step in front of the train and put my hand up.
With a short meeting and trusted friends, the Loveland Diversity Advisory Board is formed.
John comments only occasionally, but when he does, I put the “mature administrator” hat on immediately and respond with a question, “Help me understand…” or “I’m not sure I am following what you mean…could you say more about that?” Inevitably, John replies with a co-opted statement about the thread and relates it back to Critical Race Theory or Reparations, or School Funding and School Policy. Clearly, he is looking to push buttons and searching for a “gotcha moment”.
I don’t want this world to exist as long as I live in it. My stomach rumbles. Looking down, I see that my hands are clutching the edge of my desk. My knuckles are white.
He writes, “Critical Race theory has no place in American Schools. The tenets of Critical Race Theory are based in the destructive ideal of inherent racism and will teach our children to judge and self segregate based solely on skin color….It promotes the dismantling of American Society thru (sic) Marxist anti American rhetoric.”
It takes my breath away to see it in writing. “Marxist anti-American Rhetoric”. In the rambling online blogs of the Poway Synagogue shooter, references to Jews and their control of the media, the banks, and his description of hatred for Jews and their role in “cultural Marxism”. This phrase has repeatedly created a rationale for violence against leftists, against Jewish people, and against anyone associated with either.
My alarm is sounded. Bully. Microassault. Dog Whistle. “There is no gravestone that stands on Babi Yar; Only coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash.” Apathy murdered 6,273,676 million Jews between 1941 and 1945.
I step in front of the train.
You’re either driving the train. Or you’re stopping it.
The more people that stand in front of this train, the faster it will stop.
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. –Elie Wiesel Z”L, Buna, Buchenwald, Auschwitz Survivor (1928 – 2016)
Leah Marcus stopped being apathetic at least 7 years ago and is now one of the Loveland Diversity Advisory Board co-founders. She is a Social Worker at a nonprofit Jewish Communal Agency. In her work as an advocate for Justice, she is an executive board member of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati (MARCC), volunteer organizer with Project Amos and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and Advocacy/Social Justice Committee Chair at Adath Israel Synagogue. Leah is a 2nd Generation American and 3rd Generation Holocaust Survivor.
This Guest Column by Leah Marcus is presented by Loveland Magazine in collaboration with the Loveland Diversity Advisory Board. Contact them if you’ve a story to share.