Never Forget, Never Again: Remember the Holocaust

Sunday is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and to commemorate it, I want to share with you my memories of the day I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I went there during a study abroad trip through my alma mater, and to me, it was the most important stop on the trip. Our bus, usually filled with chatter and music, was quiet. A small crowd was gathered in front of the gate to the compound–clearly we weren’t the only group visiting that day. It took a while for our professors to get tickets, so I meandered away from the others. The gate, a brick wall with a watchtower atop it, was very imposing.

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, located on the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland.

It was flanked on both sides by a tall fence topped with barbed wire. In front were the railroad tracks. It was along these that I strolled. I looked into the distance to see where the tracks led. Eventually, I sat on the ground, and I wondered how many people had sat there, afraid, knowing or not knowing what was in store for them, never to leave that place.

When our professors returned with the tickets, we learned that we weren’t going to be taken on a guided tour; rather, we could wander at will. Some of us split into groups of two or three; others, like myself, determined to go alone. As I walked through the brick archway, under the watchtower, I shivered. I knew I’d be coming back out, but the power of Auschwitz’s history still made me afraid.

Once inside, I wasn’t quite sure where to go. Our professors gathered us and pointed us toward all the things we might want to see, the memorial museums, the preserved “barracks” for the prisoners, the ruins of the four gas chambers, and the field in the back of the complex where the ashes of the slain were dumped. I chose to go to the museums first. Each country affected had converted a barrack into a memorial of sorts, mostly displaying items found in the camp, along with photographs and videos. I explored a couple of them, but two displays stick with me.

The first was too large for a display case. Rather it was a small room with a window for visitors to see inside. It was full of hair. It was one large pile of hair, seemingly reaching from the floor to my chest. I froze, and stared. I remember hearing nothing, seeing nothing, but that hair and the ghosts of the women the Nazis had violently taken it from. So many women, with tear-filled eyes, fear-filled features, or clenched jaws and narrowed eyes while their humanity was taken from them. I was there to remember them, to learn about them, and to honor them, so I stood there until the multitude of faces finally dissipated and I found myself again staring at a display of stolen hair.

The second display was similar–too large for a Plexiglas case, though smaller than the first. It was filled with tangled eyeglass frames. The lenses were long gone. They were remarkably similar–brown, or close to it, metal, and all missing their owners. The frames were intertwined with one another. I stood frozen in place, as the ghosts of the people who had once worn these frames flashed before my mind’s eye. I saw men and women reading books and newspapers, their glasses sliding down their noses. I saw people looking at trees and flowers, friends and loved ones, and yes, bombs and guns and soldiers. I saw their very sight being taken away from them, never again to see their world with clarity and hope. Never to see again.

I left the museum-memorials, and slowly made my way toward the ruins of Chamber 4, one of the famed gas chambers used to murder countless people. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see–I saw huge chunks of concrete, mangled and broken. The Nazis had destroyed it at the end, hoping it would be enough to hide what they’d done. There were others there, but, like in the museum-memorials, I didn’t really see them. The ghosts here were but shadows. I couldn’t see faces.

I walked the grounds next, especially the perimeter of the compound, which was bordered with the above mentioned fence–and a ditch. People had been shot, and their bodies dumped in those ditches. I walked along that ditch, gazing at it, and the green grass that grew there. I was aiming toward the back of the compound, where a path lay to the field where the ashes were dumped of an unfathomable number of people. As I started down the path, I met one of my classmates, who was heading back from the field. “There’s nothing there,” she told me.

She was wrong.

As you left the camp, you had to pass the remains of yet another gas chamber. Then, it was gone. I walked down a gravel path that cut through the woods. It opened into a field of sorts–a clear grassy area bordered on all sides by trees. There were no flowers, and yet, there wasn’t any man-made memorial or any other stamp of human occupation, other than the knowledge that the ashes of thousands of men, women, and children were dumped here. It was a nice relief from the camp, and I was grateful that, at the very least, the remains were out of sight of the camp. At least in death there was escape. I stood at the edge of the field for a bit, not daring to walk across the field. It seemed like a trespass to do so. I wondered what was in the woods. Did any escaped prisoners take refuge in these woods? Did loved ones sneak through these woods to get a glimpse of their imprisoned friends and family members? Surely there were stories there.

I walked back to the camp, thinking these thoughts. So many people. So many stories. So much death. And all because of hate. Hate and apathy and ignorance and a willingness to blame a convenient Other for one’s problems and a need to know that you are better than someone, and so much more. So much hate.

I found myself standing in front of the entrance to one of the barns that the Nazis used as barracks for the men and women they imprisoned. I’d seen pictures before, but they don’t convey it near enough. They were merely shelves, long, cramped, rough-wood shelves. I stood there and wept. Tears had been streaming down my face off and on all day, but here I stood and acknowledged them. I allowed the power of this place to overwhelm me. I must never forget this, I thought to myself. Never. I must not allow even a shred of the hate that caused this to fester inside me. Never.

I decided then, and I maintain it now. I will not hate. I feel anger, frustration, and irritation, but I cannot feel hate. I have felt it before, but not since–not since I walked through the archway of the gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I have come close to feeling hate. Then the memories surface of all the things I saw at Auschwitz, and I remember the ghosts of those who died there. They remind me that hate turns you on a dangerous path, one adrenaline-fueled step at a time, leading you back to Auschwitz. Rather than following that path, I pause, breathe, and remember.

Always, remember.

What About Teh Menz?

It never ceases to amaze me, on articles like this on the Good Men Project website, commenters will jump on writers for this or that.

This article talks about the proper way to stare at a woman. (I won’t go into my issues with THAT, suffice it to say that staring is rude, period.) In one sentence, the author, Hugo, says that he believes it’s entirely appropriate for women to be suspicious of leering men.

Cue commenters: “But WHHHHYY aren’t you writing about the WOMEN who stare? Huh? Misandrist! Propagator of feminist lies!”

Um. Perhaps because the website is called the GOOD MEN Project? Perhaps the article is aiming toward encouraging men to be Good Men?

These commenters seem to think that becoming good men rests on their ability to make women look bad. Thankfully, Goodness is not a zero sum game.

Why I Love This Bar: Or, Why Most Bars Suck

Among friends, I talk a lot about a particular bar that I frequent. After hearing my descriptions of this bar and my experiences in it, everyone has expressed interest in checking it out. After reading the comments on this post (specifically the comments by AB about bar culture), I began wondering just what it is that I like so much about it.

If you’d asked me before today, I would say that I like it because I feel comfortable there, that several family members frequent it as well, that most attendees know me or my family, and because I feel safe going there alone. I feel confident going there knowing that there is a low possibility of a Bad Thing happening to me, and should it happen, that there will be people there that will take care of me.

Now, I can go a little more in depth about the reasons I like this bar, and hopefully this post will help to shed light on why so many women feel uncomfortable in bars, and how we might go about changing expectations and behaviors that make these places hostile atmospheres.

You see, the median age of the Regular at this bar is twenty years my senior. Many are married with children. Because of this, I know that I can relax and chat with regulars because I know that they’re not there to meet and pick up singles–they’re there for the same reasons I am–to relax and chat with other regulars. Even those regulars who are single, or younger than average, are likewise there to relax and chat.

In short, this bar is not a sexually charged atmosphere where all feel an obligation to perform for the opposite sex. This is not a place where you feel obligated to dress up and put forward your “best foot.” This is not a place where you go to look for someone to take home for the night, or you feel pressured to behave as if you are.

This is not to say that regulars don’t flirt or date each other–they do, but this reflects flirting and dating within a social circle, or activities that do not center around meeting singles to flirt and pick up, rather than the kind of flirting and pick ups that happen (or that we’re told happens) in bars.

This bar has cultivated a very family-like relationship with its customers–I’ve often described it as my “Cheers” bar. Everyone knows everyone–or, rather, everyone either knows you, a family member, your best friend, or your partner. I still have a hard time sorting out how I “know” some regulars outside of the bar–was it this guy who played softball with my father when I was a wee lass, or did he go to high school with him? Hmm… The walls are cluttered with photos of its regulars and their families, of celebrity autographs, etc.

This makes its customers feel as if they have an investment or part-ownership of this bar and thus, protective of it. Not a single regular will treat its employees or the property with disrespect. Fights won’t be tolerated. You’ll often see regulars bring in their families or close friends, usually for big sporting events or the cook-outs. As a result, the patrons become less and less strangers, and more like acquaintances or friends. The bar becomes less like a bar, with all its cultural connotations, and more like the home of a friend.

This bar has avoided cultivating a get-trashed-and-hook-up-here atmosphere, relieving the pressure of expected gender and sexual performance that contributes to rape culture. The closeness of the patrons, the patrons to the employees, etc strips away the anonymity that predators need to operate. This bar doesn’t need to offer drink specials, because it has cultivated a clientele that will keep coming back–and whom will bring the next generations, as well as their social circle–avoiding the subtle encouragement of other bars to binge drink.

Today, if you asked me why I like this bar, I will tell you that I don’t feel anonymous and therefore vulnerable. I don’t feel the temptation to binge-drink to “get my money’s worth.” I don’t feel an obligation to dress up. I don’t feel pressure to act the “sexy woman” and flirt with other patrons. I don’t see a patron buying me a drink as a sexual overture, as an unreturnable gesture that obligates me to play the “sexy woman” for their personal enjoyment that leads to my having to turn down more overt overtures. I don’t see the bar as a me vs. everyone else battlefield, where I must fight to simply sit in peace and enjoy my beverage of choice.

Sexism from Jersey City Superintendent

Last Wednesday, the superintendent of Jersey City public schools, spoke to a group of local pastors, and said this:

“Our worst enemy is the young ladies,” Epps said. “The young girls are bad. I don’t know what they’re drinking today, but they’re bad…[employees of JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs who have volunteered to mentor students have] signed up to help even the dirty, nasty, bad kids.”

Well, aren’t they the heroes?

Seriously? This guy is in charge of the public school system of an entire city? That he thinks so little of the young girls under his charge says a lot about him. It’s disgusting that not only he still has a job, but that people are defending him. Ministers that attended the meeting, and even other school board members, are busy telling the press what this man really meant to say, how he doesn’t think badly of all the girls, oh no, just the bad ones. Commenters on the articles linked in this post jump to point at the police officers stationed at the schools as evidence of the truthiness of his words.

I cannot feel anything but angry for the girls in the JCPS system, and hurt for them. Children are not bad, dirty, or nasty. Girls are not the worst enemy of anyone. That so many think otherwise, and feel perfectly comfortable saying so publicly, shows the depths to which our society will go to tear down young girls.

To the girls stuck in JCPS:

Stay strong. Do not let this cold-hearted, contemptible man define you. You are strong. You are smart. You are brave and courageous, and you are better than Superintendent Epps and his supporters. Rise up–speak out against this hatred. Stand together. Help one another. Follow your dreams.

Protesters have created a facebook page to counter Epps statements. The local papers have demanded the Board of Education call for Epps’ resignation.

Epps so far has refused, perferring only to apologize that he hadn’t meant it that way, and that he used “a poor choice of words.”

I have to disagree, Epps. I think you made your contempt for the girls of Jersey City perfectly clear.

Tyler Clementi’s Bullies Being Charged

Good.

Dharun Ravi is being charged for the events that led to Tyler Clementi’s death last September. In all, there are 15 charges, including four bias intimidation charges, tampering with evidence, attempted invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension, and witness tampering. A case is advancing against Molly Wei, his accomplice.

I’m relieved that Tyler won’t be yet another young gay man dismissed as a tragic suicidal character, with his tormentors as victims of their own making. No.  Ravi and Wei are finding out that their bullying has consequences for them, too. They drove a young man to death for their cruelty, and they will face justice for it.

It won’t bring back Tyler. If only it could. But perhaps Ravi and Wei will learn, along with every other bully of my LGBT brothers and sisters, that their actions are wrong, and that we won’t stand for it.

RIP, Tyler.

Election 2012: The Issue

Robert Creamer of the Huffington Post posits in an editorial that Republicans, in voting to end Medicare, have committed political suicide, and handed the Democrats an easy victory in 2012.

It’s an interesting article. But I’m a bit skeptical.

If only elections were so easy.

No election, especially not one as huge as a presidential race, hinges on any one issue. Even among a single demographic.

But it’s interesting. Of all of the possible issues that are being pegged as the issue for the 2012 election: the one that effects the old, white demographic.

Not DOMA. Not immigration. Not the economy, the budget cuts that would affect the millions of struggling Americans.

Hmm.

Entitlement of the Able-Bodied

Today, my brother and I were talking about my recent post. His response to it was basically “Yeah, but some people need to know.”

Hmm.

Do they?

And who is they, exactly?

Do I have a legal obligation to share private medical information? No. Could it be a moral one? I don’t think so.

While others may be frightened or feel helpless while watching me actually be unconscious and helpless on the floor–I don’t believe I’m under a moral obligation to assuage an aspect of fear that others may feel if I have a seizure in their presence.

You see, no matter whether or not bystanders know I have epilepsy, I’m told it is incredibly scary to watch. The unknown is frightening, yes, but being helpless to prevent or stop a seizure is also frightening.

And, um, people? I’m the one that actually is helpless while having a seizure. You may feel helpless, but you are still conscious and have complete control over your body, yes?

Right. So forgive me if I’m not exactly sympathetic to your plight.

Despite that fact, I have on numerous occasions, been subjected to the indignation of others who felt they had a right to know. Not only that, but my failure to disclose my private medical information was a failing of mine, a betrayal of the highest order. And they. were. pissed.

I’ve been lectured, berated, abandoned while semi-conscious, told I’m no longer welcome in the home of a friend, threatened, and more.

That does not endear me to trust you with knowledge of my disability.

You are not entitled to anything. I am not morally, legally, or otherwise obligated to tell any one person a damn thing about me.

The Balancing Act of Education and Privacy

Every time I find myself in a new environment or with a new group of people, I have a decision to make: to share, or not?

Because of the nature of The Beast, I cannot simply wait until my epilepsy shows itself to tell others. If I have a grand mal, I’m completely incapacitated, and left to the mercy of those that may or may not know what to do. Later, I’ll probably be treated to the indignation of those I hadn’t told, because of course I should have revealed my medical history immediately, to everyone.

However, I have just as much a right to privacy as anyone else. And sometimes? The mental effort it takes to open my entire health history up for all to scrutinize as well as to educate the ignorant about my epilepsy is just not worth it. Sometimes I just want to be a person that has things she keeps to herself. Sometimes I don’t feel like going into lengthy explanations of what epilepsy is. Sometimes I don’t want to share my humiliating experiences. Sometimes I don’t want to be vulnerable.

Sometimes, I just want to be.

A privilege the abled enjoy is the fact that they don’t have to choose to be, they just are.

That’s the decision I have to make, with every new environment or group I choose to enter: to be, or to be the educator, the vulnerable, the open book?

I’ve made that decision countless of times already in my life, and I’ll make it countless more. As I said earlier, I cannot simply choose to wait until my epilepsy shows itself to introduce it. I also, often, cannot wait until I trust the person and feel comfortable revealing this thing about myself, because it’s quite possible my epilepsy will manifest itself in a very public, very violent way before I feel that trust.

So I must weigh the risk of complete vulnerability and helplessness with someone completely ignorant, with the vulnerability it takes to educate, with my desire to simply exist, to live my life as a woman whose medical history is none of your business, thank you.

That I have the ability to make that choice is in itself a privilege. Much of the time, my disability is invisible. That I can feign normalcy, that there are times that I forget, is a privilege.

But even so.

Why I Didn’t Take Them: Epilepsy and Medication

I’ve mentioned before that there was a period in my life where I refused to take medication to treat my epilepsy. In fact, I refused to take any kind of drug whatsoever. I’ve hinted that there was a reason for that, and some of you may have picked up that the reason was very personal and painful for me to discuss.

I think that I’m ready to share that story.

Several years ago, my parents were going through a prolonged, bitter, difficult divorce, and it impacted me in a very big way. I felt reduced to nothing but a piece of property–something to “get custody of” or a prize to win and lord over the losing parent. As the oldest child, I was the confidant of both parents and my younger brother. I tried to be the peacemaker. I tried to enlist the help of adults close to my family. I tried to shield my brother from the worst of my parents’ fighting, and my own hurt.

In the midst of all of that, I was a teenager trying to figure out who she was, who she wanted to be, and what she wanted out of life.

Because I was dealing with a lot of grown-up issues, my friends didn’t know how to respond or deal with it, much less be there for me, so they backed off. The adults in my life were simply taking sides, and there wasn’t much (proper) attention paid to my brother and I. There was a lot of posturing, of course, as there is in any divorce proceeding where “minor children” are involved.

Civil Air Patrol was my only refuge. I kept my family problems carefully hidden there. I loved CAP, you see, and I didn’t want the one thing that I had that was solely mine, getting infected with my problems. It was the only place where I was happy. But after a couple of years, it wasn’t enough. I had a friend in CAP that I had confided in, and he saw where I was heading. He did his best–but a fifteen year old can only do so much.

<trigger warning>

I was depressed. I was lonely. I couldn’t be strong enough anymore for everyone: for my father, for my brother, for me, (at this point I was not speaking to my mother, or even seeing her.) and for everyone else that needed to vent. So I stopped being strong for myself.

And I started spiraling further and further into depression and misery. I kept it to myself–I’d only allow myself to be weak at night, in the privacy of my room, in the dark. I wanted to die. First I cut up my arm. Night after night, I’d cut and bleed, but I didn’t die. Next I tried to starve myself, bulimia-style, because I still couldn’t have anyone know that I was suffering. I had to stay strong for my family. I shed pounds. More boys started hitting on me. I snuck off to the bathroom at school to purge my lunch. I’d get up from the family dinner every night and headed straight for the bathroom. In my fog of depression, I thought I was being slick about it, but my younger brother knew, as I discovered years later.

At some point, I decided it wasn’t happening fast enough, so one night I took a bottle of acetaminophen–a hundred pills–with me to bed. I managed 43 before I got full from the water and drowsy, and I laid down on my bed. But I didn’t die. I woke up a few hours later and spewed more vomit than I thought a stomach could hold, and hurled it much farther than I thought possible, too. It covered two walls and my comforter. I was too weak to do much but take the comforter off the bed and lay down again.

A couple hours later, Dad came in to wake me for school. He thought I had a stomach virus, and no way was I going to disabuse him of the notion. He gathered up my comforter and wiped the walls and declared I wasn’t going to school that day. My existence for the next two days consisted solely of my vomiting in between long periods of unconsciousness. I was too weak to do much but pull myself along on my belly to the bathroom, hoping I could get there in time. When my brother got home from school that day, he brought me a grocery bag and hung it on my bed post, so I need only roll over to expel my stomach contents before passing out again. I’m fairly certain it was he who changed it for me while I slept.

The third day, Dad declared me well enough to go back to school. I couldn’t eat, and I was still very weak, but I wasn’t vomiting anymore, so I went. Eventually, I had to eat. There lay a dilemma. Was I going to purge? After those three days of hell, I had no interest in vomiting ever again. My throat was raw from all the stomach acid. My stomach churned at the memory of the sensation of vomiting. I couldn’t do it. There ended my bulimia.

Moreover, I couldn’t hear the sound of a pill bottle rattling without getting extremely nauseous. I’d feel sick if I even imagined the texture of a pill. There was no way I was ever going to be able to take pills ever again.

I stuck to it, too. It was years before I could hear the rattle of a shaken pill bottle and not feel sick. I still cannot take anything but capsules–I had taken pressed pills all those years ago, and if I took one now, it would not go down my throat without a hard fight. I have had terrible menstrual cramps, and I would deal with that pain because the alternative was too sickening to bear.

Then my epilepsy flared up. It was thought that I had had juvenile epilepsy–the type that you have as a child but you grow out of. I refused medication. As I’ve shared before, I got a lot of shit for it. But I didn’t budge. The sensory triggers were still too much. My physical reactions were still too much. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. And it was my choice.

Well, it should have been, anyway.

I shared in a previous post, how that choice was taken away from me:

“My professors were outraged that I hadn’t told them while on a study abroad trip. So much so, in fact, that when I had one, they threatened to send me home if I didn’t take medication. I had very little choice. So I did. I took medication that had just been released in Europe, that hadn’t even been considered by the FDA in America, which I knew nothing about. When I forgot to bring the medication on a weekend trip, I was lectured, reduced to tears, forced to remain on the bus while the rest of my classmates toured a chateau, and forced to take a Xanax. I wouldn’t be allowed to join our group on our next stop, Auschwitz, if I didn’t take the Xanax. What choice did I have? None. So I did. I took a drug that I didn’t, and still don’t, even know the name of. I took a pill that I knew would do nothing for me because my professor thought it might, and that was all that mattered. My knowledge of my own disorder, my own body, didn’t matter.

When I got home from the trip, and that new drug ran out, I got on medication. Once I started, I couldn’t easily stop—my body adjusting to the lack of drugs would mean more partials and more seizures while the drug was purged from my body. I’ve been on medication ever since. It’s been a year and a half since my person was disregarded, my choice disrespected, and my agency taken from me. Everyone is happy I’m taking medication. They’re so pleased that I got a little keychain pillholder for emergencies. They’re satisfied that I’m being the Responsible Broken Body. Everyone is happy, but me.”

I was thousands of miles away from home. My professors dredged up this horrible experience, from one of the darkest periods of my life, to demean and belittle me for a choice they thought was trivial, though they saw my decision to conceal it from them as a great sin, a terrible betrayal. My right to silence, to privacy, to protect myself from triggers was nothing. They never asked. I might have told them. I liked and respected both of them. I might have told them, had they respected me. Had they only asked.

I had my reasons for refusing to take drugs. Damn good reasons. But the reasons don’t matter–the choice does. I’m sharing my story because it illuminates very nicely why “such a little thing,” according to the abled, is actually a big thing. A pill on a countertop, sitting by itself, isn’t a big deal. But put a PWD and an abled-bodied person with that pill, with the abled-bodied pushing the pill on us, and it becomes a big deal.

We have our reasons for the choices we make, and it is our place, not the able-bodied, to decide them. We know our bodies. We know our conditions. We know our past and the experiences that have influenced our choices.

You don’t.

Taxes: I Still Don’t Mind Paying Them

Last year, I wrote this post, explaining why I don’t mind paying taxes. A year later, I’m employed full-time, thereby paying taxes full-time. My stance hasn’t changed. Taxes are the price I pay to participate in an advanced society. I may not agree with every way taxes are used, but looking at the big picture, we are better off as a society.

A year later, I’m still grateful for federal student loans–I wouldn’t have been able to attend university without them. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met, befriended, and loved the many people I met during my time at WKU. I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to study abroad and see a good chunk of Central Europe. And of course, I wouldn’t have learned everything that I did.

A year later, I’m still grateful for police, fire, and especially EMS–my mother might not be alive if these services didn’t exist–and I would be very lost indeed without Momma Beemer. I’d give more than the paltry amount I pay in taxes for my mother’s life. This reason alone makes paying taxes more than worth it. But there’s much more.

Taxes pay the salaries for many, many of my dear friends who serve in the Armed Services–and I’m more than glad that every one of them is employed doing something that they love–flying, missile maintenance, infantry, and more. Not to mention, I wouldn’t be employed without the federal contracts that the government has with my employers.  Nor would my sister.

Civil Air Patrol, an amazing organization in which I was an active member for more than five years, would also not be able to exist on the level that it does without taxes. Its thousands of volunteers across the country better their communities, while at the same time giving its teenaged members leadership training and fostering a love for aviation that will endure for a lifetime. I love CAP, the people within its ranks, and the experiences that it gave me more than I can say. Without CAP, I’m not sure where I’d be right now.

I cannot summarize my feelings better than I did last year, so I will simply restate my closing paragraph:

“As a community, we can’t decide who to help, who deserves to benefit from the things taxes give us, or who should pay more or less depending on some arbitrary judgment of “goodness” or “worthiness.” Our neighborhoods are communities which are part of the city’s community, which is part of the state’s community, which is part of the nation’s community. Each individual is one of many, and unless we pool our resources, very few of us will succeed. Very few. Those who currently do not need “help” cannot stand in judgment of those who do. We have pooled our resources for a reason–because we are all equal. We are all equal, we are different, but the same, and we are part of the same community.

We think a lot about how taxes hurt; but how do they help?”

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