(Ed.'s note: Richard Weilheimer, a Port resident of many years, is a Holocaust survivor. Born in Germany, he witnessed the infamous Kristallnacht. In 1940, he was sent to the Gurs concentration camp in Vichy, France. Later, he was sent to a French orphanage and eventually came to the United States with the help of the Quakers.)
"Why are you doing this?" Why do you do this to yourself?"
Our memories are their only tombstones as collective remains were scattered in unmarked ravines. Ashes of others were eagerly and efficiently spewed out of the chimneys in the death factories, a consequence of a failed humanity.
As attack dogs drove them to the extermination chambers they pleaded, "Let the world know." "Do not forget us." "See and remember." Others buried diaries and documents in the sewers beneath their ghetto prisons. They wanted the survivors to know what happened.
They demanded justice, and, most of all, they wanted to be acknowledged. Their personal identities were reduced to mere numbers, which makes it even more important not to refer to the victims in incomprehensible statistics. We must recognize their individuality, their lives and contribution to society. Each was a unique human being who lived, loved and frolicked among us. They had families, children, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins.
That is why I do this. I have no choice: it is a mission, a command. I speak on behalf of those whose voices were stilled. Perhaps the reason for my survival, at a time when reason and comprehension did not exist, was to bear witness, to "do this."
Survivors attest to the best of mankind for they owe their existence to those righteous individuals who risked everything, including their lives and the lives of their own families in order to sustain and rescue the hunted. We also acknowledge those who did not barter away their morality for a cup of sugar or a sack of potatoes - the going reward for betraying a Jew. These righteous people must never be forgotten. Though more than 10,000 of them have been publicly recognized and honored, countless others, because of their fate and futile attempt to help the victims, will never be known. I "do this" for them with great admiration and praise.
The Holocaust was born of prejudice and hatred and nourished by apathy and indifference. I "do this" in the hope that young minds will develop tolerance and respect for all peoples. I trace the path of hatred to genocide and explain that by our passiveness and non-involvement, by our silence and retreat from moral and civil responsibility, we in effect endorse those who are bent on evil.
Recently when I was speaking about the Holocaust to a high school class, a 16-year-old student noticed my emotional baggage and asked "Why are you doing this?" Why do you do this to yourself?"
My young friend, I "do this" so that we will never forget and hopefully in the process learn, so it will never happen again.