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.