Sometimes you luck out when you are least expecting it. Last week I was on Eventbrite’s website because I had just entered an RSVP for a running-related event. By pure dumb luck I stumbled on an event called “Auschwitz Survivor Max Garcia Shares His Unique Story,” hosted by the Consulate General of The Netherlands in San Francisco. (Prior to this I did not even know The Netherlands had a Consulate General in San Francisco.) Amazingly, the tickets were free. In part because I live in the Bay Area–an embarrassingly over-full cornucopia of unique events–I have a tendency to read about a cool event, bookmark it, and completely forget about it. This time I entered my RSVP immediately. (I’m not going to lie, part of that was because I just could not believe that all I had to do to attend an event at a foreign consulate was click a website button. Seriously, I basically invited myself.)
Frankly, the remaining Holocaust survivors are getting old. There are not that many left, and of those who are left there aren’t many who have both the desire and the ability to take on speaking engagements. Like any kid my age I studied World War II in school, and first learned about genocide in the context of the Nazi attempt to exterminate all who could be seen as Jewish by religion or culture or accident of birth. I’ve seen pictures of the grisly artifacts–lamp shades made of skin, piles of human teeth yanked for the silver in their fillings–that stand as physical evidence of otherwise unimaginable cruelty. Sure, I saw Schindler’s List (and was completely traumatized) and I’ve seen some brief videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors. But there is something very different about sharing space with a real, breathing human being and listening than there is about studying a textbook history or consuming recorded media. The main reason I put in my RSVP is that this might be my only chance to hear a concentration camp survivor speak. I feel like it is important to be a witness, especially in an era when Holocaust deniers have unlimited access to the world’s largest megaphone (the internet) and anti-semitism shows up even in my Facebook feed.
This evening I had the privilege to hear Mr. Max Rodriguez Garcia speak. I didn’t Google him. I didn’t set up any expectations beyond Wow, I can’t believe this is real. Even with the limited space available in what I assume is usually the lobby and reception area of the Consulate, I was surprised it wasn’t standing-room-only. (Did I mention the tickets were free?) But like anything else, I guess an audience is better in quality than quantity.
Mr. Garcia started out talking about his life before the war. He described the kinds of things you tend to remember from childhood, things that are ordinary and unappreciated. Then he told us about what it is like to be “in hiding” in Amsterdam as a teenager; not holed up in an attic like the Frank family, but to me more like a silent shadow-person who was forced to shun both shoes and the sunlight. When the authorities caught up with him, it wasn’t the Germans/Nazi-loyalists who beat him but the Dutch police. When he was taken from the jail to the first camp–he was in Buna, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk, and Ebensee–he was only 19 years old. In the train car built for animals and filled with straw and a very public, communal chamber pot, he did not know anyone. He didn’t know, but all of his family was already dead. Alone in the darkness filled with crying babies and couples making love as though it might be their last opportunity, headed to a destination unknown to him…I’m not exaggerating when I say I have absolutely no sense of how to even begin to imagine it.
But Mr. Garcia didn’t focus on the terror. He didn’t reek of bitterness and anger and resentment as he recounted being forced to strip, be shaved, and sprayed with Lysol. He didn’t silently beg the audience for pity as he told us how his sister was sent straight to a gas chamber just days after her 16th birthday. He didn’t have a demeanor that told us we should think of him as persecuted, or extraordinary. He didn’t play the role of victim or hero. He just told us parts of his story, like any man telling stories from his life, without shades of either a Shakespearean actor or an emotionless automaton.
I’m not going to share Max’s story here. It’s not my story to tell, it’s his. Trying to share what I remember would be like watching the made-for-TV-movie version of a skillfully written novel. If you want to learn his story, you can get his book, Auschwitz, Auschwitz…I Cannot Forget You As Long As I Remain Alive (ISBN 978-0-9792922-7-9) or visit his website, http://www.auschwitzmaxgarcia.com (EDIT: as of 6/9/2015 this link leads to a bluehost ad; it appears the domain was not renewed)
Instead, I’m going to share what I take with me from listing to Mr. Garcia.
First, the capacity of a person to WILL is limitless. One of the attendees asked if he thought there was some reasons he survived, or a purpose or destiny he lived to fulfill. Mr. Garcia said he survived because he DARED. He gave several examples of choices he made where he dared to live and to thrive, where he took what we might call “calculated risks” (but which were really, in my perception, calculated interpersonal interactions). It was difficult enough just to survive on the meager rations given to the prisoners–there are more calories in a nonfat latte than he ate daily for over a year–and yet he survived when many did not. Mr. Garcia made it very clear that he had to repeatedly make the choice to dare to live. (While he did benefit from some choices made by others, he didn’t learn about those acts until years after the war; his attitude and determination existed apart from those unknown facts.)
Until you hear a former concentration camp prisoner spell out the details of daily life inside the camps, you don’t even know how wide a swath the concept of #firstworldproblems encompasses. Got a bed that has sheets or a pillow, or that you get to sleep in by yourself or only with those you choose? Are you confident that your only pair of shoes won’t be stolen in the middle of the night? Oh, you have more than one pair of shoes, do you? How about your social interactions, let’s look at those… Do you get to have friends of your own choosing? Can you move about freely without fear you’ll be shot for saying the wrong thing? Or for just some random, unknowable reason? Do you have even a tiny bit of control over where you live, the job you do, and when you move? Does your boss speak to you in a language you understand or bark at you in a foreign tongue he knows you don’t speak? Is your life at least somewhat predictable and lacking in impending death threats such as starvation, communicable diseases, and machine guns? Again, I cannot wrap my head around what it is like to live under the circumstances Mr. Garcia experienced. Without any concrete hope that life will get better–you know, you’ll get a promotion, pay off that credit card, find true love–is it any wonder that so many people just wasted away? I’m somewhat ashamed that I’ve ever felt sorry for myself.
Second, we need to acknowledge the differences between “us” and “them” are slight and imagined and not a reasonable basis for separate treatment. (This is where the yoga lesson comes in.) There wasn’t much difference between the prisoners–who we now tend to forget were not all Jewish but also included, for example, homosexuals, criminals, and political prisoners–and those who ran the prison. The prisoners were all but starved, but at times the guards were not eating much better. They lived not in the same barracks or identical conditions, but in an isolated place away from their families. At their core, everyone was just a human being with the same human being needs. Yet the prison staff regularly tortured, abused, and killed the prisoners. Doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners in the hospital barracks next to the ones Mr. Garcia lived in; the women there were repeatedly impregnated so the doctors could practice abortions (among other despicable things). The prison staff magnified the tiny differences between “us” and “them” until “they” were something other than human and so it didn’t matter if they were abused, tortured, killed, or left to die. But those tiny differences were really just random characteristics, most of which were not under the control of the individual to which they pertained. You don’t choose your parents (empirically unprovable metaphysical/religious beliefs aside), so it isn’t like anyone chose to be born Jewish (or Catholic or Protestant), or gay, or blonde. Yoga philosophy teaches that those differences between “us” and “them” (and even the separation of the concept of “you” and “me”) aren’t real.
Oh, just to be clear, Mr. Garcia didn’t utter the word yoga. This is all me here.
I left the Consulate thinking about the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and the protests that shut down the Berkeley BART station (again) tonight. The racism that bubbles underneath the surface of our allegedly post-racial society isn’t any different than the race-ism that separated the “Jews and other undesirables” from the “Aryan” race. Your Black (or Asian or Latina or any other not-white) skin and my pale white skin contrast in photos, but they don’t mean anything (other than biologically, pigment concentration and all that–probably I get sunburned more). Neither your skin nor mine should entitle the bearer to special treatment positive or negative. It’s not even just about race here at home, it’s also about economics and the politics of class. There is nothing free or brave about a country where something as random as geography or how much money your parents have determines your chances of success in life. There is nothing United about a world where nation-sponsored genocide has repeatedly resurfaced repeatedly. Just hit Google up with the word genocide. Or try the term Armenian. Or look back to 1994 in Rwanda. No people are immune, and one of the very first sites to pop up on that Google search for genocide will tell you that genocide begins with the dehumanization of the “other.”
Part of my privilege–give it any label you want–is that I had the CHOICE and the opportunity to interact on a personal level with a broad mix of people. The activities and travels I’ve chosen have let me have one-on-one interactions with other individuals. Individuals who get labels I don’t, who are “different” in skin color, cultural identity, education, experience, religion/belief, economics, and age. The yoga idea that these “differences” are not real makes total sense to me. (By the way, I do find it thoroughly ironic that yoga in America started out populated by bored white upper-middle-class housewives and has trickled down to mostly middle-class albeit somewhat “alternative” still mostly white and still mostly women.) I’m not saying everyone I meet just wants to bliss out and sing Kumbaya with me, as I’ve certainly met people where we’d both probably say, “oh, we have nothing in common” (which is often code for something like “her political stance/religious beliefs/taste in music make me want to puke”). Chances I will personally get smacked in the face with anything other than your basic misogynistic asshattery discrimination are pretty much zero; on the other hand, chances I will exhibit anything other than an unintentional discrimination against people who are “different” is also pretty much zero.
This got much longer than I had intended it to be.
I don’t have the answers to any of the problems that fall under the banner of #blacklivesmatter (or at least I don’t have any answers that are reasonably realistic in this current time and space). The best I can do is to (1) observe that continuing to divide people into an “us” and a “them” is foolhardy and dangerous, and can easily lead to one Us dehumanizing a group of Them; and (2) encourage you to consider how those “differences” between you and me–and you and that guy over there, or you and that family on welfare, or you and that bullied kid, or you and that bully–don’t really make us all that different….and on further contemplation, you might discovery they aren’t even real.
Thoughtful commentary and exchange of ideas welcome here.
(Read: personal attacks and blatent hate speech will be deleted.)
Thank you for this thoughtful article, Bain, which I found when I was looking for “Auschwitz and yoga.” I searched for that because a retreat seemed somehow most appropriate to process the emotionally intense experience of visiting the memorial sites of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is so important to make the connections of those horrors with what caused them: The magnification of differences between people exploited for political or maybe even personal reasons. If we truly want to prevent something like this, we need to stop that magnifying!
(And I am very sorry I missed this event! It might have been an interesting way to prepare for a visit to the memorial sites… Maybe. Like you, I am struggling to even imagine the stuff that people like Max survived…)
Rachel, thank you for your kind words. I do have a “loaner” copy of this book, which I will gladly send to you if you’d like. The book has several chapters written by the author’s family, as well as Mr. Garcia’s story. Mr. Garcia was really inspiring in part because even while talking about the horrific things going on at the camps where he was imprisoned, he gave little details that humanized both the other prisoners (so they were not a mass, but individuals with their own struggles) and the guards. When I thought about this–how he was not only able to see the humanity in the people who were so cruel to him and the other prisoners, but remembered it and took the time from his presentation to tell the rest of us–I was ashamed at how much I have at times allowed my anger to color my view of someone else as 100% other, not-me, for committing far more minor offenses.
Unfortunately, the link to Max’ website doesn’t work…
Thanks for letting me know. I tried to find out whether it was renamed or moved, but was unable to locate a new website for Mr. Garcia. I’ve made a note in the post indicating this link is no longer good.