When I was nine years old, my ears were filled with laughter
echoing in a game of playground tag. At the same age, Hanka Sanders Kent crouched
in a cellar and listened to the sound of bullets piercing the flesh and bone of
her innocent community—a deadly round of hide-and-seek.
Hanka was raised in the
hands of a lower-middle-class family, and these hands caressed her face with
warm adoration, prepared an endless pot of welcoming soup, and provided Hanka
with the responsibility and freedom to do as she pleased. It was a life
bursting with layer after layer of devotion, security, and love.
came September of 1939.
As autumn painted the
leaves to the hues of an inferno, with it came a torrent of bombs from the
skies and scenes of mangled citizens scattered on the streets. The shouts and
cries of men, women, and children alike joined into one unceasing cacophony of
terror that ricocheted off the town’s walls and bled through the cellar’s doors
where Hanka, her mother and sister, and thirty other bodies were pressed
against one another. Confronted with desperate thirst, Hanka recalled forcing
urine down her throat while listening to the whimpering of other parched
children. Seeing her daughters slowly succumbing to dehydration, Hanka’s
mother, Minsha, did what many people think of, but few carry out—she took a
risk. Extracting herself from the safety of the cellar to return with melted
snow for her daughters to drink, her hands plunged into the pure snow and her
life plunged into the path of death. A Nazi’s hand pulled a trigger, and she
fell to the ground. Gone.
In that instant, I
learned that our hands are two-faced. The back of the hand is powerless, merely
supporting the front, while the palm has the capacity to do all. The world is
the same. We act one way in certain situations
and oppose that behavior in another. During the Holocaust, each country,
each nation, and each person who remained on the sidelines, ignorantly watching
the terror of others, was the hand’s back. Pretending not to notice the millions
of Jews struggling between life and death, they looked the other way. In the
end, the people were simply the foundation for the front, which stripped the
pride of each Jew and held the strings that oppressed the Jewish marionettes.
By refusing to intervene, every bystander inflicted the wounds of horror, humiliation,
and hardship on the skin of the helpless victims.
Hanka did not retell
her difficult story for it to fade into oblivion. More than once, she faced the
moment when humankind was neither humane nor kind. As Hanka’s messenger of
memory, I am gaining the strength to make a difference in someone’s life. With
a timid character, I have always lacked bravery and veered from uncertainty in
my path. In other words, I am a bystander when it comes to another person’s troubles.
But Hanka’s story tells me that this needs to change. Whether that person needs
a hand to grasp, a shoulder to lean upon, or an ear to speak to, I will
dedicate myself to go the distance to spark even the smallest change in humanity.
“I feel that it’s a
commitment that I have to pass my legacy on,” Hanka imparted, “at least try to
contribute in some small measure so this never ever, ever happens again.” With
these parting words, Hanka leaves her legacy besides mine. In my hands, she places
the power to change the world. We all utter the phrase “never again,” hiding
behind ten letters, ten fingers, that close our eyes on the six million Jews
slaughtered during the Holocaust. Now, the time has come to take away our hands
from our faces, open our eyes, and become the messengers of memory.