by Brittany Sacks, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
For as long as I can remember, the beginning of the back-to-school season meant bringing out our family’s label maker, inputting my name and phone number, and pressing print and cut repeatedly in order to label every textbook, notebook, folder, and new piece of clothing for the year. My parents, of course, had the best intentions; they wanted to be certain I would not misplace anything. It quickly became a joke at school, and as soon as I would begin each class, the teachers would laugh that they could always count on the Sacks kids having their belongings labelled. I’m sure some students viewed this annual shout out as praise, but I certainly did not. The superficial idea of labeling one’s possessions appeared pretentious to me; I was grateful for everything I had, but why did I need to constantly remind everyone that what I had was mine?
As it turns out, there was good reason. I have had the unique opportunity to travel through a number of concentration camps and museums commemorating the Holocaust, and my experiences have encouraged me to consider my name, my possessions, and my identity in the context of my ancestors and their history. As I walked through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland during my high school trip to Eastern Europe, I found hundreds of unclaimed shoes to my right and thousands of strands of hair to my left. Each was stolen from the victims of the Holocaust immediately upon arrival. All new prisoners were stripped of their belongings, beliefs, values, and identities; even their names were substituted with mere numbers.
Realizing all of this forced me to remember that I have the freedom to publicly display my belief system and values, an opportunity the victims of the Holocaust were so brutally robbed of. It was then that I understood that my name, my label, tells the story of my identity. As I walked through the Auschwitz Exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC, these exact thoughts once again traversed my mind.
Growing up in a traditionally Jewish home with relatives who were Holocaust survivors, the significance of listening to the stories of my ancestors and understanding my own connection to Judaism has always been vitally important to me. Whether I was attending Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, traveling across Eastern Europe and Israel with United Synagogue Youth (USY), or celebrating Shabbat weekly with my family, I was constantly reminded of how I can be proud of my Judaism. I am lucky to have had such profound experiences providing me a connection to my religion and my history, and these same experiences have given me a platform to educate myself on the Holocaust. However, unlike me, so many of my friends, classmates, and neighbors have yet to find that same connection and reason to seek information.
Holocaust education in the United States is severely lacking, and too many people my age struggle to find the same understanding and appreciation for the phrase “Never Again.” I am grateful to have been able to travel abroad and stand in the footsteps of my ancestors, but so many others have not been afforded that same opportunity. Educational platforms like the Auschwitz Exhibition make it possible for people, regardless of their origin or background, to find a similar connection without flying across the world. As children and grandchildren of survivors, we must make it a priority to educate our country so the atrocities humans are capable of are not forgotten and history does not repeat itself.
Walking through the Auschwitz Exhibition and seeing the “shoe with a sock” and “a woman’s dress shoe belonging to an unknown deportee to Auschwitz” reminded me of the many lost items that surfaced after the Holocaust - items that once belonged to a person and had a story to tell. I was reminded of the many people who were stripped of their identity and broken down to a simple set of numbers. I was reminded of the many people who were forced to practice their religion in the utmost secrecy. I have a name that I am proud to be called; I have belongings I am proud to own and label; I have the freedom to practice Judaism and openly be myself — and none of this would have been possible without the tireless fight and persistence of my ancestors. My belongings are labeled, and they tell a story: not one of shame and embarrassment of my identity but rather one of dignity and honor. I am grateful to the Auschwitz Exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for reminding me to take pride in my name and my story, and I thank the exhibit for teaching me and the rest of the world once again just how important it is to never forget.