In the last days of 2013, my grandfather passed away. Simon (Syzmek) Korn was 90 years old, and he lived through many things in his life, but none more harrowing than the Second World War. The war started for him on the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939. It was supposed to be the first day of school, but school was cancelled that day. Simon spent most of the war in the Lodz Ghetto, and when it was liquidated he was sent in a cattle car with the rest of his family to Auschwitz. He spent the remainder of the war in a number of different Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald (where he was eventually liberated).
My grandfather was many things: a son and brother, a husband and son-in-law, a father and a friend and a survivor. For me, he was a grandpa, and some of my best memories with him involve very grandfatherly activities. He liked to play and have fun, and he also liked to tell stories. Even when I was very young, he told me stories of his experiences during the war and in the camps. These stories were so much a part of my childhood that I honestly can’t remember a time when “the Nazis” and “the Germans” weren’t a part of my vocabulary and imagination.
He wasn’t trying to scare me, and he wasn’t being boastful at all. In fact, he was very explicit in his throwing off of the heroic mantle that is sometimes thrust upon Holocaust survivors. He said that he was not a hero, and that his survival owed as much to dumb luck as to anything else. It was dumb luck and a certain amount of craftiness – the ability to steal some extra soup or cut in line, things of that nature. The kind of things that you do to survive when you have been dehumanized and put into a situation that is not human. The real heroes, he would say, are those who remained human in that place, those who remained decent in spite of it all. And those people did not survive.
No, he didn’t share his stories to build himself up, but he did have an agenda. He said that the world needed to hear his story, and others like it, so that it could stand guard, and make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. This was especially true of the younger generation, he always said, those who were not alive in those days and did not live through them.
He said that we must remember what happened because it is so easy to forget.
He did his best to ensure that people would remember, but he also realized that to remember is not enough. How we remember is almost as important as what we remember. And he somehow managed to remember honestly, but without hatred or bitterness. That, for me, was the most amazing thing. He saw his experiences for what they were, and avoided seeing them through rose colored glasses certainly, but also through glasses that were totally blackened out. Of course his natural desire was for justice, but he somehow stopped short of revenge and hatred. It did not happen overnight, it was a lifelong process, but he was able to take a firm stand against all forms of prejudice and intolerance, even with regards to his former oppressors. As he said, he realized that those who went through what he went through and were still filled with hate were not yet free. He wanted to be free.
Of course, it is impossible to talk about someone’s legacy or lasting influence without oversimplification. Simon Korn was many things, like I said, and it would be wrong of me to try and reduce all of who he was and what he meant to me and to others down to one idea or principle. However, it is difficult for me to look at his life and not draw an important lesson from the shape of it. He went through the worst that this world has to offer, and came out on the other side, not to forgive and forget, but to remember and to avoid contributing to the cycle of violence and bigotry which so shaped and damaged his own life. He was dehumanized, but he was able to recover his humanity, and refused to dehumanize others in return. He refused to shackle others (and himself) with the chains that he had just been freed from. Although I am sure he would object to me saying so, I think that makes him a hero.
A few years ago I wrote a poem for/about Grandpa Simon, and although some of it is embarrassingly bad, I thought I would share some of the salvageable bits with you:
April 11th, 1945.
Buchenwald, you stalled death, barely alive,
But still breathing, all day from the morning to the evening,
Hanging on to the hope that soon you’d be leaving.
Few can conceive of the evil you faced,
And only God knows why in that hell you were placed.
But you handled yourself with dignity and grace,
And forgiveness that surpasses all time and space.
I still can’t understand how you don’t have hate.
It’s hard for me sometimes, and I could never relate
With what you went through, but I think you’re on the right track.
Hitler was hate and we can never go back to that.
From you I leaned lessons about life and hate,
And to never leave any food left on my plate.
About love and peace and understanding,
Keep and open mind, be kind but commanding, when you have to,
And sometimes you will.
But never seek to hurt anyone or kill.
Everyone: Black White Arab Jew has value,
All God’s sons, even Germans too.
More than 60 years later most hearts remain sore.
But with their tattoo needle and their evil endeavor,
They marked you as a survivor forever.
Severed from your family and taken from your home,
They could never break your spirit even though they broke your bones.
And now you walk around with these numbers in ink
To shake the slumbering and force them to think.