By Val Muller
Last week, I had the honor of hearing Aranka Siegal speak. Ms. Siegal is an 84-year old Holocaust survivor, and despite the physical challenges of her age, she agreed to attend the 2014 Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference. She was the final speaker for the week and by far the most inspiring. Indeed, there are days we experience that we know will impact the rest of our lives. For me, June 27 was one of them.
While Ms. Siegal did describe some of the atrocities she experienced during her time at Auschwitz, it was not the extent to which humans can torture one another that resonated with me or that will stay with me for the rest of my days. Rather, it was Ms. Siegal’s spirit and outlook that gave me so much hope for humanity.
She began by describing the hesitancy of her family when she told them she had agreed to yet another public talk. According to her family, it was time for her to settle down and simply enjoy life. Indeed, both of my grandmothers passed away at around age 84, and I could not picture either of them, in their last years of life, traveling alone and standing in front of an auditorium, speaking for one hour before lunch and one hour after lunch. Her family was right to worry. But as soon as she heard that she would be speaking to “her favorite group of people,” teachers, librarians, and other educators—those who could spread her message to the “most important group of people,” the children—she knew she had to attend.
I’ll spare you the heart-wrenching details she recounted to us about what happened at the Death Camps (as she referred to them). I’ll only say that think everyone in that packed auditorium cried at some point—including Ms. Siegal. I cannot imagine dragging myself through such a painful experience time and again, bringing out memories and tears that would be more comfortably stored away. But Ms. Siegal felt it was important to share her personal history and her message. After she was rescued near-death (with a high fever, suffering from typhoid and weighing not even 60 pounds as a teenager), she almost immediately started jotting notes because she knew she had to share her story. It was her former neighbors and friends, the Hungarians, who put her and her family onto the cattle cars to Auschwitz, and after Liberation Day, she told herself that she would eventually make it known to them what happened after they put the Jews on those trains. She kept emphasizing her concern that many of the people that put her on that train must not have known the type of place she was going.
Ignorance leads to all kinds of dark places. So does hatred. She described all the horrible propaganda she saw growing up as a Jew in a place that has been part of several countries during her lifetime—Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine. This propaganda turned people against Jews in a visceral way. As she admitted, it wasn’t the first time propaganda was used to set one portion of the population against another, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
What struck me, though, is what she spoke about at the end of her speech. She told us that she does not harbor any hatred for people who had nothing to do with her imprisonment or torture—regardless of their background or ethnicity. She recounted friends and acquaintances she has of German heritage, and she bears them no ill will. At the end, she looked out at the crowd and said, “I love you all!”
After lunch, when there was time for question-and-answer, someone asked her how her heart could be filled with so much love after all that had happened to her. The questioner asked, specifically, how she could stop herself from feeling hatred for the descendants of those who had killed her family. She spoke genuinely to the crowd and told us that it was hatred that allowed the Holocaust to happen in the first place. She would be no better than those who had killed her family if she harbored hatred in her heart.
Instead, she emphasized the importance of sticking to the truth. She even hinted at the fact that people should not blindly follow a religion or a philosophy if the ideas behind it encourage prejudice and hatred. Indeed, when recounting her time at Auschwitz, she never embellished details, and she did not speak with hatred about those who helped to torture her. Instead, she simply let the facts speak for themselves.
Hatred is like a dangerous fire that can quickly grow out of control. As Ms. Siegal put it, “a flame can quickly grow into a crematorium” (her mother and younger siblings were taken to a crematorium when they first arrived at Auschwitz), and it’s important that we don’t let hatred get in the way of logic. It’s easy to become taken by propaganda and let hatred take over our hearts. I need only to think about election season on Facebook and all the hate-filled memes intended to pit one political party against another. These pictures are nothing more than propaganda created to fan the flames of hatred and force people to abandon logic in favor of reasonless passion. And with impassioned panic, people are willing to cede too many rights. Just look at the Japanese Internment Camps as one small example.
Ms. Siegal is right. To remain free, we must think logically and stick only to the truth. We should not fall prey to propaganda or political correctness—in other words, she told us we should never be afraid to speak out about something that seems wrong to us simply because our opinion might not be popular. Instead, we must always question and use our brains to see if decisions make sense. While propaganda is a dangerous flame that spreads quickly, truth wields its own flame, and though it does not ignite so easily, it can still be spread through persistence and honor.
Finally, to remain free, we must keep love in our hearts. There is never actually much that divides opposing parties—whether it be Democrat versus Republican or Hungarian versus Jew. If we use reason and do not allow propaganda to enrage our emotions, we’ll find that we’re all human beings with more or less the same desires, goals, and values. We’ll find that our differences are smaller than we once thought. And if we stick to the truth, we’ll find that we can work toward common goals without trampling on each other. But this is only possible if we do not allow those in power—or seeking power—to blind us with propaganda and rage, the enemies of reason.
So as we celebrate American Independence Day, let us be grateful that we live in—in the words of Aranka Siegal—the safest and freest country on Earth, but let us not become complacent or fall prey to propaganda created by those seeking more power and seeking that power only by driving a wedge between our minds and a wedge between our hearts.
Val Muller is an author and editor. You can learn more at www.ValMuller.com .