Faculty, students and other members of the Union community crowded into Reamer Auditorium this past Thursday to hear Martin Becker, a Holocaust survivor and World War II veteran, speak about his experiences.
Before Becker arrived, Stephen Berk, Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies, gave a brief introduction and summary of the importance of the talk.
“There’s nothing like the voice of authenticity,” Berk said. “Nothing compares to the experiences of people that were there.” But, Berk warned, “In ten years, they’re all going to be gone. If not ten years, then 15 years.”
He encouraged the audience to take every opportunity to experience firsthand, the stories of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans: “If you ever have the chance to listen to a Holocaust survivor, make sure that you do so.”
In light of the 70th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Berk gave a brief overview of the importance of remembering the persecutions.
“We commemorate the Holocaust because it is probably the greatest example of genocide in all of history,” Berk stated. Speaking of the groups targeted by the Nazis, Professor Berk explained why the Jewish experience was so distinct.
While Slavs, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and lesbians were all victimized, the Jews were the only group targeted for total extermination. Quoting Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Nazi SS, Berk solemnly summarized the Nazis’ “Final Solution” for the Jews: “We must kill them down to the last child in the cradle.”
The most horrifying aspect of the Holocaust, according to Professor Berk, was the system of “industrialized mass murder,” which was engineered by one of the most civilized countries at the time. German universities were recognized around the world as forerunners in medicine, physics and philosophy.
However, this center of civilization would produce butchers like “Frankenstein” of the Warsaw Ghetto. Berk posed two questions: “How do you explain the behavior of Germans? How do you explain the behavior of lots of Germans who sided with the Nazis in killing Jews?”
After the war, Berk spoke about how many of those who participated in the killing of Jews, assimilated back into everyday society, not even incurring a speeding ticket over the remainder of their lives.
Juxtaposed next to the horrors of the ghettos, the 42,000 concentration camps, labor camps, extermination camps and the mobile killing squads called the Einsatzgruppen, Berk struggled to explain how ordinary people could commit such horrible atrocities and then recede back into their normal lives.
“Some people, do not believe that it even happened,” Berk concluded. “But the evidence here is absolutely overwhelming.”
And it continues to happen. Berk mentioned other instances of genocide in places like Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur and Armenia.
“There’s a lesson to be learned here,” Professor Berk added. “Lesson number one: you’ve got to combat racism.” He called for active resistance to racist comments: “You cannot be silent in the face of something like the Holocaust, in the face of discrimination.”
Berk also spoke about the importance of learning from those who survived the Holocaust and World War II. Addressing his audience, Professor Berk commented, “As much as I love athletics, athletes and entertainers are not heroes and heroines.”
He compared these public figures to those who fought and those who suffered: “You study the Holocaust, you study the Second World War and you understand what heroes and heroines and heroism are all about.”
Berk also recognized those who protected and sheltered Jews as another brand of heroism.
Before Becker spoke, Ariella Honig, president of Hillel at Union, gave a brief summary of the important of the day’s events. “We are here today to honor the dead and to bear witness to what can happen in modern civilized society,” Honig observed. “We hope that you being here will help you to commit to not being a bystander in instances of injustice.”
Honig gave a brief overview of the first 20 years of Martin Becker’s life. Becker was born in 1926 in Nuremberg, Germany. From a very young age he faced discrimination as a Jew. When Becker entered the sixth grade, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, establishing Jews as second-class citizens.
A few years later, an armed squad of Nazi sympathizers entered Becker’s home during Kristallnacht, throwing out and burning all of his family’s furniture. Becker’s family escaped to France in February of 1936.
Arriving in the United States in 1940, the Becker family settled in Schenectady, NY. After graduating from Central Park Junior High School in Schenectady, Becker attended Nott Terrace High School.
Graduating in 1944, Becker was immediately drafted. Possessing perfect English and German, Becker assumed he would be sent to Germany as a translator. However, he was instead sent to the Pacific as a member of the Army Air Corps, Fifth Fighter Command, stationed at Clark Air Force Base.
One week after the bombing at Hiroshima, Becker was deployed to Japan among the first wave of Americans. Leaving Japan in August of 1946, Becker returned to Schenectady and to his mother.
“My first twenty years have shaped my life,” Becker remarked. Becker has been the subject of Holocaust researchers, who created a video and composed a narrative detailing his life. Becker played the video, which follows his first 20 years, for the Union audience. The video detailed the narrowness by which Becker and his parents escaped Nazi persecution.
However, in regards to Becker’s two sisters, one would lose her husband and the other would pass away at Auschwitz along with her children.
After the video, Becker took questions from the audience. He explained that he had visited Germany several times since the end of World War II and had noticed Germans taking responsibility for the Holocaust only in the past 20 years.
When asked about his life philosophy, Becker explained his firm belief in a “glass half-full” ideology. “I am a very strong believer that life is so much easier for you whether you’re ten, twenty, or eighty if you think of life as a glass half full rather than a glass half empty,” Becker mused.
Focusing on the power of forgiveness, Becker observed that only through forgiving trespasses can we advance.
Becker asked the audience to repeat the line “We remember them” as he recited Kamen’s and
Riemer’s poem “We Remember them.” When speaking of the importance of remembering the
Holocaust dead, Becker took responsibility for educating the next generation on the experiences and lessons learned by his generation.
The event was closed with a recitation of the Jewish prayer Kaddish and the lighting of a remembrance candle.