This year marks the passage of two major anniversaries that reveal man’s unbelievable capacity for cruelty and evil. It has been 100 years since the outbreak of the Armenian Genocide and 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. We experienced these tragedies firsthand. One of us survived the Armenian Genocide. One of us survived Auschwitz.
During this year of commemoration, we have come together as survivors to make clear that the duty of remembrance extends far beyond ceremonies. It calls for action. Each and every person has a responsibility and a role to play. As the number of survivors shrinks and shrinks, we continue to share our stories, year after year, with the hope that others will take from them clear lessons for the future.
We know all too well what happens when the world turns a blind eye to the persecuted.
I, Yevnige, was born in Aintab, Turkey in 1914 – the year that World War I broke out. My first seven years of life were spent hiding in our home in great fear that we would be captured, robbed, or shot, like the many people we knew whose families were murdered before their eyes. As a young child, I remember hearing loud cries coming from the street. Armenian families – mothers, grandmothers, children – were calling out for water and bread. The Turkish soldiers drove these innocent people onward, whipping them as they went on a march to their deaths in the desert.
I, Mala, was born in Lodz, Poland in 1931 – the second youngest of six children. As a child, young Poles would throw snowballs at us because we were Jews. Later they threw rocks. Then they trained their dogs to attack us. I was bitten viciously. The Nazis gathered the Jews together and put us into a ghetto. Not long after, my father was murdered by an SS man on a motorcycle. We were soon rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, where most of my family was killed in the gas chambers. Of 60 people in my extended family, 58 were murdered.
Both of us know the incredible power of faith to give people moral clarity and strength in the most difficult of times.
As a child in Turkey, I lived every moment worrying about what my family would eat next.Most of my nutrition came in spiritual form, as my devout Christian mother raised us to trust in God, continually read the Bible, and pray to keep alive the faith that we were being persecuted for. This love for God is what carried me through those years and taught me to forgive those who committed these atrocities.
In 1921, our family finally had to leave Turkey. Two horse-driven carriages came to transport us to Syria in the dead of night. In front of me sat an old grandma. “My little girl,” she begged, “ I don’t feel comfortable here, shall we exchange our seats?” “Sure,” I responded.
On the journey, our driver lost control of the horses. Our carriage overturned and its iron rod pierced the neck of the grandma with whom I had exchanged seats. She died instantly. I was thrown out of the carriage and into a ravine below the road. I was saved miraculously by a rope that got tied around my leg as I flew out of the carriage. They pulled me up by the rope, tearing open my thigh to the bone in the process. For two days, I lay unconscious. I often ask myself, “Who tied me with that rope so that I would not fall into the ravine?” It must have been through an angel that I was saved.
We’ve seen firsthand the power of individuals to bring light to the world in the face of great darkness.
The horrors of Auschwitz will always live in my memory. I remember classical music playing to camouflage the cries of those in the gas chambers. Each evening, instead of saying good night to each other, we would say goodbye, not knowing whether we would live through the night. I’d often wake up to find a frozen or starved body next to mine.
I survived only by the will of G-d and the humanity of those around me. At the camp, the Nazis would line us up. The infamous Dr. Mengele walked through the lines, scrutinizing who would be sent to the gas chambers and who would be used for work. At that critical moment, the older women in the camp would lift me – a child of just 11- years old – up on their shoulders so that I’d look older. They saved my life.
One German supervisor at the munitions factory where we were working was able to look at me and see a child – a human being. Risking his own life, he would give me sandwiches and hide me when the SS men would come through looking for women who did not appear fit for work.
During our lifetimes, we’ve seen many try to claim that the genocides we saw with our own eyes never happened. We’ve seen world leaders turn a blind eye as more than 40 other genocides have taken place since 1945 – from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Bosnia to Darfur. At this moment, many millions are threatened with genocide and mass murder in places like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mankind can do better.
Just like we saw righteousness in our darkest hours, we see glimmers of hope today – in the children who hear our stories and promise to never forget them, in the many passionate professionals who work to preserve our history for the future, in the activists who fight to breathe life into the words “Never Again” by protecting those threatened in our time.
This month, thousands of people from the Jewish and Armenian communities – and from many other backgrounds and faiths – will stage a Walk to End Genocide in Los Angeles. Although we are no longer able to participate in such a long walk in person, we will be walking in spirit.
Long after this year of commemoration comes to an end, we hope that the stories of the survivors from our two peoples will live on in the deepest parts of the human soul. In all corners of the world, we must inspire people not just to speak, but to act, heeding the lessons of the past to protect the precious lives of all G-d’s children.
Yevnige Salibian is a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Mala Langholz is a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Both are residents of Southern California.