I Am Because We Are


Nichole Forbes -We Are4

I closed my eyes and hung my head, because I didn’t want to know. I could hear the shuffling of feet and the conversations in hushed whispers as I stood, cemented in my place. I knew I was in the way, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t open my eyes,  because I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t know one more painful, heartbreaking thing. I just couldn’t bear it.

But I couldn’t not know, either. I opened my eyes, slowly, bracing myself, willing myself to be a witness.

Hair. A wall of hair. Tiny bundles of ash brown hair. Braids, ponytails and fistfuls of hair. My chest ached as mybmind was flooded with thousands of pictures, faces, of prisoners I have studied. Patchy bald, dangerously thin, beaten, sick and shuffling under the weight of oppression. Made to be barely human, yet deeply, painfully so very human.

Each bundle of hair spoke to me. I could hear the echo of pain and fear as each fistful of hair was pulled back, brutally sheared and tossed in a pile. The shuffling feet around me were a distant whisper of the feet of those who were herded on to the next step, the next station where their humanity would be further stripped from them, one piece at a time until all that was left is this terrible weight in our chests and ashes. Piles and piles of ashes.

I have studied the Holocaust for more than twenty years and still, I am undone by the truth of what we’ve done to each other, how we have been so brutal and so careless with each other. I knew my visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum would be emotional, but I didn’t expect to feel so overwhelmed by the machine of hate that propelled our world into this tragic chapter in our history. More than 10 million people murdered in less than five years.

Then million people … 10 million individuals.

One mother clutching her daughter’s hand in terror. One son watching his father being dragged away to an unknown fate. One young wife crying out as her husband is ripped from her embrace. One defiant resistant fighter, head held high, as he marched toward his death. One stoic rabbi praying for his people as he takes his last breath.

The Holocaust isn’t just a story of millions, it’s also a story of one. It’s the truth of one. And standing at that memorial, looking at those bundles of hair, those small pieces of whole lives lost, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why are we doing this to ourselves again? Why are we trading in our humanity for fear and hate? Why are we staying silent when we should be speaking up, speaking out? Why are we doing this very same brutal, terrible thing to ourselves all over again?”

I spent years not watching or reading the news because I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know what terrible thing was happening, what tragedy had occurred, what brutality had transpired. I didn’t want to know what human beings were doing to each other out there. I wanted to stay in here, in my safe little bubble. I wanted to stay small and quiet and out of the way. But somewhere along the way I realized that not only was my silence and ignorance in the way, it was part of the problem; part of the brutality.

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” My life was on pause all those silent years. All those years I chose not to know, I was dying little by little. My passion, my connection, my sense of community was dying because I chose to not know. I chose to become silent in the face of injustice. I chose to not see the murder of our humanity all around me. I chose to turn a blind eye to pain, hatred, fear and violence. But when I chose to know, to wake up, to witness I could no longer stay silent.

I’ve learned that when we are intent on stripping a person, or a people group, of their humanity, we end up forfeiting our own humanity in the process. It’s ubuntu. “I am because you are.” We are all connected. I can’t hate what is different from me without destroying something in me. I can’t fear what I see without allowing fear to rule me. I can’t be silent about the injustice that I witness without silencing my own right for justice. I can’t be ignorant of the pain in the world without ignoring my own pain.

Ubuntu. I am because you are.

It’s been 70 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the descendants of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust have thrived. These once oppressed and dehumanized people have risen to build businesses, universities, synagogues and homes. They have raised families and created legacies. They have chosen to live. They have chosen to know, to witness, to speak. They have chosen to reclaim their humanity.

Will we?

I believe we must.

Nichole Forbes
Nichole is just a regular gal loved by an extraordinary God. She believes in community, justice, freedom, reconciliation and the sacredness of storytelling. Her journey to connect with her Metis culture and history has been her own liberation song. She tries to live bravely every day and say the kind words that need to be heard. She raises her three Not-So-Wee-Ones in the middle of the Canadian prairies with her favorite person ever—her husband, Brad. Nichole blogs, writes and speaks on the things that fill her heart and frame her world. 
Nichole Forbes
Nichole Forbes

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  1. Carolina says:

    Yes: “I’ve learned that when we are intent on stripping a person, or a people group, of their humanity, we end up forfeiting our own humanity in the process.” Great post today. Thank you.

  2. Such heartbreaking history. Like you, I used to never watch the news. For me I just hate having that much negativity in my life. But you’re right, we must do something. And if we don’t, we are most certainly part of the problem!

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes says:

      I am still very careful about how much news I watch or read. I try to take in enough to know what is happening without saturating my soul in negativity and fear. Thanks for reading!

  3. Chilling.
    I’m drawn to World War II history and the amazing people who lived life through that era, and it never ceases to amaze me that we are forgetting the lessons that horrible period of history should have burned into our brains.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes says:

      I’m learning how important it is to have these conversations with my children. They don’t have the same opportunity to know veterans from this war and to hear first hand accounts as I did at their age. I want them to know and to see the parallels and warnings from history in the world today.

      • Our across-the-road neighbor passed away last year well into his nineties, and my kids have memories of listening to him tell stories around a “marshmallow fire” in our back yard about some of his experiences in the war, and they were aware of the way his background had shaped him in so many important ways. I’m so thankful for the years we had with him. It will certainly be a challenge to replicate that kind of contact with the Great Generation.

  4. The Holocaust and its stories are ones that I have to be careful with. Reading books, watching movies, visiting exhibits can be overwhelming. I am learning to balance the necessity of remembering – how horrible to forget – and the self-care of recognizing that immersing myself in these stories will mean weeks of sleeplessness. But, your reflection reminds me of the importance of remembering. Yes, I am affected, but how horrible if I wasn’t? Thanks for reminding me to step into the stories of others, because they are mine, too.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes says:

      I, too, had to find a balance when I first began my journey to understanding injustice. A wise friend reminded me that my responsibility was to bear witness, not bear the burden. She reminded me to approach learning with an open hand to receive the story but release the pain. When I am learning about things like the Holocaust, systematic racism, human trafficking or any painful issue I try to remember to absorb the story, the humanity, without taking on the burden of guilt and pain. I find this helps some.

  5. Nichole Bilcowski Forbes says:

    Thank you so much, friend! This was a heart-wrenching piece to write as I had to do some soul cleaning to ‘get there.’ I’m overwhelmed by God’s gentle kindness as He continues to teach me and shape my heart!

  6. This connection with hair … O. My. Word.

    Thank you. For going there and for reminding us how we belong to each other.

    So love your heart.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes says:

      Thank you so much, friend!

      This was a heart-wrenching piece to write as I had to do some soul cleaning to ‘get there.’ I’m overwhelmed by God’s gentle kindness as He continues to teach me and shape my heart! Thank you for being a catalyst and encouragement in this process!


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