Lessons From History and the Holocaust Museum

Police officers stand watch at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday after a gunman shot and killed a security guard before being wounded.
Police officers stand watch at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday after a gunman shot and killed a security guard before being wounded. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
Sunday, June 14, 2009

The first time I entered the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I remember losing it . . . all because of a pile of shoes. The stories didn't get to me. The pictures didn't get to me. I was steeled for those. It was that innocent pile of shoes. An image worth well more than a thousand words. There are so many things I remember, that I must remember, but I will not remember the murderer. He is one of many. I will remember his hate. The person I will remember is Stephen Tyrone Johns because he reminds me of someone whose name I never learned.

My mother was born in Poland a few weeks before the Germans invaded. It was because of her that my grandparents fled almost 200 miles on foot to Russia. They left after the trains were shut to Jews and after all the bank accounts and businesses were stolen, but before the Lodz Ghetto was locked down.

Along the way, they were often refused aid. People knew who you were if you were running. Germans controlled the entire country by then, and few people would take risks. So, hungry and desperate and with a baby months old, they soldiered on.

By luck, they found a farmer who agreed to give them a ride in his cart. They were buried under hay, and for two scratchy days they traveled safely.

On the third day, a German soldier saw the cart and ordered it to stop. He searched through the hay poking with his rifle and discovered my grandmother and grandfather.

The solitary soldier ordered them out. He threatened them. He cocked his rifle and pointed it at them. They did nothing. The baby cried. The Nazi continued railing, trying to get a response, but they didn't answer him or move. Time passed. Perhaps minutes. Then, he turned to the right and left and he seemed to realize he was alone. No one would know what he did here. He put his gun up and told them "go."

They'd only gone a few yards before the soldier ordered the cart to stop again. The Nazi said that he had to do his duty, had to do what was right. He was going to take them to the trains.

Now, my grandparents didn't know what the trains meant or would come to mean as they were led away to the station. When they saw them, the Germans cursed and threw stones at my family. Then, a strange thing happened. The soldier began waving his hands and shouting, "No, no . . . you don't understand.

"They aren't Jews. They are Russians. They are trying to run away from Stalin."

You see, at that point Germany and Russia were still allies. And because of this lie, my family was "forced" upon a train and made it to Russia.

I think it's important to remember that even though the world can seem monstrous, when you least expect it a monster can turn out to be an angel. We must be ever vigilant against hate, but the lessons of those who choose to do good must be remembered too.

Never forget, but never let hate and despair win.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company