Columnists, Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: Footsteps toward ‘never again’

My footsteps took the same journey as those who marched through the freezing forests, naked, to their death. My footsteps took those same uncertain steps, on the ground that was beaten down by the boots of prisoners in the barracks. My hands touched that same sharply cold wall inside the Majdanek concentration camp. My hands and feet, along with millions of others, touched this ground, as people do every year to honor the victims of the Holocaust.

Over the winter break, 150 college students and I traveled halfway across the world to visit concentration camps in Poland. As I inhaled the cold wind while walking through what seems to be the never-ending nightmare of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I fathomed what could be learned from this horrendous day. I truly could not decide.

How could humanity do such a thing?

I left Poland with many new friends and a greater appreciation for my own life, but I was unsure as to how that would manifest into action.

Stranded in the Boston airport for a layover, I was never so excited to see a mediocre looking cheeseburger from a fast food chain. After eating my dinner and calling my parents, I walked around the airport.

As I watched a small woman swiftly mop across the dirty airport floor, I felt bad for her and thought how miserable that job must be. Every single person from my trip attended great universities and had the choice to pick a path that interests them, but this woman is working at an airport Dunkin Donuts. I approached her in hopes of understanding why she was in this position.

With an unassuming smile and a large gap in between her teeth, she shyly asked to take my order. I wasn’t ordering anything. The 5-foot Ethiopian woman was sporting a Tom Brady shirt with pride. I found out that she had a visa and had been living alone in Boston for the last seven years. While conversing with her, I could tell she was surprised someone was even speaking to her. Her English was fine, but it definitely could be better. She told me she has yet to find a husband, and I told her I’m also lacking a man in my life. She likes America more than Ethiopia, because “the American government respects its people.”

A line quickly formed, and I let her get back to work. But I pulled out my phone and found an Ethiopian community center in Boston. I wrote down all the info and handed it to her. Her face lit up as she thanked me profusely. She said she’d call tomorrow morning.

My trip reminded me that every life has value, and every person has a complex story. As journalists, it is our duty to share those stories. People say that you never know what someone is going through until you walk in their shoes. With some good journalism, we can get pretty close. Stranded at the airport that day, I decided to tap into just one of the millions of stories.

A week before my trip, I was stuck in my own world of Instagram and Snapchat, constantly looking at other people’s lives. Some of the content was educational, and I thought I was gaining a broader world view. But to truly experience other cultures, you must interact and engage with people’s emotions. Sometimes, when talking to someone, you can find out the same information in The New York Times.

It shouldn’t take a trip abroad to the bleakest place on Earth to lead me to realize what is right in front of me. However, the trip did, and this is indicative of a larger societal problem of our generation and culture. America is a giant melting pot full of stories all around. Instead of relying on Instagram for content, people should rely on each other for stories as testimony of living experiences. The same euphoric rush felt when traveling abroad can be found in the city of Boston — all one has to do is venture to a neighborhood that is outside of their comfort zone.

A month later, I can say that my trip taught me about how privileged I am, especially in the context of American life. I have a socioeconomic standing that allows me to automatically reap the benefits of American public policy, and I am a member of a non-marginalized race. Given the context of the Holocaust, Jewish people should play the role of democratic watchdog and stand up for those who can’t.

The Holocaust happened because of a strong disregard for the Jewish people, who at the time were labeled “the other.” If we as a generation are unable to connect with people who are different than us, the phrase “never again” is meaningless. In order for “never again” to truly be put into practice, we must recognize the complexities of human hatred and break down the barriers of judging people based on their race and ethnicity. We say never again, but until we learn to accept differences and expose intolerance, this phrase has not lived up to its full potential. Our generation can not afford to raise bystanders.

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