I was recently invited to attend a Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) event at a local synagogue. It was an honour to hear first-hand from men and women who had survived the holocaust. A few years from now there will be no more survivors; their generation will have passed on from this life. There will be many memories shared, many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren whose history will be marked by the survival of those who went before them. Lives will continue to be affected by the atrocities that were inflicted by the Nazi’s as the effects of war scar the land, globally shape the politics today and for some lessons are learned whilst for others they are forgotten.
Many who returned home from war never spoke of the things they had seen or done. Many of those who survived concentration camps had no homes to return too. Perhaps they could have gone back to the location but it was no longer home as the family and neighbours had either been killed, died of ill health and poor conditions, or had moved to other countries for safety. Many survivors remained silent because of the horrors they experienced were too dreadful to give them breath. So, for all the memories that have been shared, all the things we have recorded or registered in historical records, books, journals and other forms of media, they tell of just a fraction of what was experienced.
I listened as Peter Lantos shared the story of his family as they were taken from their home in Hungary to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He spoke of his memories, his rescue and his life following; studying and becoming a medical researcher in the UK, publishing more than 500 articles. This is a man who has lived through the worst nightmare and given his life’s work to helping others. It is only in later life that he began to share of his experiences as he realised that if he didn’t then it would soon be forgotten.
There is so much that was shared that inspired me. The words that spoke most were about hatred and forgiveness. As he spoke Peter said, “Try not to hate; hatred gets you nowhere.” At the end of his talk he was asked “Did you forgive the Germans?” Peter, shared that he had consciously made the decision to undertake some of his work and study in Germany. He made the interesting statement, “I decided not hate the Germans. Hatred hurts the person who hates. I do not forget what happened, but I choose not to hate.”
This is a powerful testimony. It strikes me that if we can choose not to hate then there is also a choice to hate, it is a decision we must make to hold onto hatred. Equally, there is a choice to love and a choice not to love. Choosing not to hate does not mean choosing to love, that is a separate or further decision. It is however a decision.
I am not going to suggest that Peter or any other survivor should choose to love those who caused them such anguish and were responsible for terrible atrocities but I want to learn from them. I want to learn the strength and power of the decision to not hate. I want to learn the strength and power of the decision to love. To love our neighbours as ourselves, to love strangers, foreigners, aliens so that they become friends and family. We might begin by choosing not to hate, or even asking ourselves if that is possible but the ultimate question and challenge is whether we can choose to love in the face of opposition or difference, or with the potential risk that others will hate us because of those we choose to love.
NB. To learn more about Peter Lantos’ story his biography – Parallel Lines: A Journey from Childhood to Belsen – was published in 2007.