Prowl through this old-fashioned trunk.
Old-fashioned yet new. Still gleaming in fact. Royal blue trimmed in silver. "And heavy," in the words of one who was there.
We gathered Tuesday April 3 in the library at Sevier County High School, when this trunk and two others, each measuring some seven cubic-feet in volume, were dedicated for high schools in Sevierville, Seymour and Pigeon Forge. Another was shipped to Gatlinburg by freight. No charge. The clerk wanted to know one thing only. How heavy?
Heavy enough, kind sir.
Heavy with history, that blessing and curse of collective memory, which can be quite precise about numbers, dates, locations, means, methods and faces of those who perpetrated horror on a scale seldom imagined before death camps were opened. More than 13,000 prisoners were killed on the day the Allies liberated Bergen-Belsen alone, said Felicia Anchor, who chairs the Tennessee Commission on Holocaust Education.
Go ahead, prowl through this old-fashioned trunk, and watch denial wane.
No one perusing these photographs and diaries, these eye-witness accounts, this anguished prose and poetry, these tapes and mementoes could sanely deny what history relates. The event.... The name it goes by....
A noun composed of mournful, vowel-haunted syllables, "Ho-lo..." followed by a final exhalation, so caustic in sound and sense that the mind recoils from the images and symbols the very word evokes:
Boxcars and trucks packed with Jews, Gypsies, the physically impaired and others shipped standing in their own filth. Mounds of shoes and dental plates and cast-off clothing from peoples about to disappear. Naked women and children gathered under showers that sputter not cleansing water, but which exhale killing fumes. Corpses stacked like cordwood. Crematoriums pushing columns of black smoke upon the day, changing local weather, staining the horizon for miles around. The opened doors of darkened furnaces. Row upon row of grave markers.
To preserve memory of such horror, lest it happen again, that's the cause that brought us to the dedication of these blue trunks.
Still, there is something to celebrate, and that's the ability of people to affect common destiny. People like Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Ayers and Linda Ogle and Mr. and Mrs. Geoffrey Wolpert, who sponsored these trunks. Teachers like James Overholt, Melinda Derrick, Liz Petty, Dale Gilmour, Jeanne Tredup and others known for teaching tolerance and challenging students to think through insane notions such as "master race" and "genetic cleansing."
Take Nancy Hayes Henry, who chairs the Teachers' Resource Trunk Committee. For decades she has been teaching the history of the Holocaust to high school students and others. Now retired, she remains active in statewide and national drives to extend the mystic cord of memory to yet another generation.
I attended one of Nancy's classroom presentations at SCHS, several years ago. On the program that day was Mira Kimmelman of Oak Ridge, who told her story of Holocaust survival, a story made vivid by a quiet voice touched with history and far off accents. Dignified, stoic, she bore witness to years spent in the belly of a beast. Afterward, students came forward and spoke to her, looked into her eyes, touched the serial number her Nazis keepers had tattooed upon her arm sixty years before, proof of the conveyor belt mentality, the impersonal evil that drove the Holocaust. Quietly the students filed past. Some, upon touching the blue stain of her tattooed number, began to cry. It was a wondrous moment as truth was transferred from one vessel to another. It was truth imparted through a touch, a brief embrace and shared tears. You could feel the essence of knowledge move from Mira to become one with her admirers.
For every living witness, like Mira, thousands more met their deaths in the Holocaust.
Nine million? Six million? Three million?
The mind retreats before such numbers. It claws and grasps after sanctuary, some means of reducing the horror, but in the words of a poet, "pick any number between one and nine, then add six zeroes," and what have you got? A magnitude to overwhelm the mind and stagger history itself with its burden.
Yes, the trunks are heavy. Prowl through and you'll find exhaustive maps and charts. You'll find lesson plans and forms. You'll find personal testimony from Eli Wiesel, Anne Frank, Mira Kimmelman and other eye-witnesses. You'll find stories of heroes who made a difference. You'll find precise milestones and quantified hate. You'll find the truth about the Holocaust. A heavy but essential burden to carry.