One of the hardest things about learning the stories of people who were in concentration camps in the Holocaust is that you feel like, especially for an American teenager, that you can never truly grasp what they went through. Even though I have family who were killed in the Holocaust, there always seemed to be a disconnect for me, because I could never possibly comprehend what it could have been like. Learning about the Holocaust has always been surreal to me, because the fact that some humans are capable of orchestrating such evil and others were forced to endure it are concepts that are almost otherworldly to me. This was my feeling before I pressed the play button on the documentary, but it was not my feeling once it ended.
No human can have the exact same experience as another, but we can experience similar emotions. It is through emotions that we are able to display empathy; an understanding of feeling. Of course, I have always been able to feel empathy for people in Nazi concentration camps, but one particular line in this documentary sparked a familiar emotion, one that cannot be summed up in a single word. When Fred Margulies was talking about the day his mom sent him away on a train to Holland, he said, “[My mother] did not kiss me goodbye, there just was no time… and that was the last time we saw them.”
During the summer of my first grade year, my mom took me to my grandmother’s house almost every day to play with my cousin, who lived with her. He was two years older than me and I always looked up to him, and at the time he was my best friend. I remember rolling with him down the hill that was across the street from my grandmother’s house, and playing hide and seek around the abandoned school with other kids from the neighborhood, or coming inside to take turns watching our favorite TV shows and eating six or seven popsicles. I never made the connection as to why I was seeing him nearly every day (previous summers I only came over on Sundays), because I was just happy to be there. The reason was because he was going to move to Georgia once the school year began to live with his mom. Everyone decided to not tell me until after he left, because they wanted me to have fun that summer without worrying about it. On the last day I saw him, I didn’t really get the chance to say a real goodbye because my mom was in a rush and he had still not been found in our neighborhood game of hide and seek. To this day, I still have not seen him again.
On the surface, Fred Margulies and I probably experienced similar emotions upon the realization that we would probably not see someone dear to us for a long time (or ever again): loneliness, alienation, sadness, a desire to relive previous fond memories. However, what never seems to be addressed in instances like these is how you feel when these emotions are constantly compounded: you feel a certain way and you slowly learn to compartmentalize the feeling, but it never truly goes away. Sometimes, it comes back even stronger. I remember when they tore down the abandoned school to build a new one, and it felt as though they were tearing down some of my fondest childhood memories; my initial feelings were constantly being compounded each time something happened that would spark a memory.
Emotions are universal, and this universality can help us understand the violent oppression of other people. Even though I will never have the same experiences as Fred Margulies, I can understand how he felt the day he took the train to Holland, and how those emotions compounded for him on days in the future. It is through these channels of empathy that we humans can connect and relate to each other; empathy is what allows for us to be human.
Sebastian Ward uses he/him pronouns and is a rising senior at New Haven Academy. Sebastian is planning to go to college next year to study either Political Science, International Relations, or Philosophy (or maybe all three). Sebastian is very passionate about community involvement, as he is the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors for a grassroots non-profit organization in New Haven called Students for Educational Justice, the co-founder and chair of the New Haven County HSDA chapter, and also an intern for the office of Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. In his free time, Sebastian likes to debate, skateboard, and also runs a political education page on Instagram called @leftnortheast.
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. Images courtesy of the Margulies family (Fortunoff Video Archive).
This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.