I will never forget, I thought, as I gulped down the lump in my throat. The hot tears stung my wide innocent eyes as they skimmed one end of the narrow, dark stall to the other. All I could do was keep turning my head back and forth, unsure if something was going to appear, as I stood on the platform in the middle of the cattle car. The eerie silence and heavy air was so overwhelming, more than I envisioned from my first visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Standing in the cattle car exhibit, I started to see things. There, in one corner, was a family with dirt streaked faces, looking hopeless, and hovering over a young child with starving eyes. I turned around to see men and women staring at me, standing shoulder to shoulder, with no space to sit or turn. Glancing back at the other end I saw a woman with silent tears running down her cheeks, looking terrified. As I peered back and forth, I wondered if my Grandpa’s first wife and young daughter had looked the same as the ghosts in this cattle car looked, being taken to the concentration camps. And I wondered if everyone in the cattle car had perished, just as most of my family did.
After walking some more I entered a white room. The smell of old, dirty, and damaged leather hit my nose like a wall of bricks. On both sides of the walkway were heaping piles of shoes. There were all kinds of shoes there as if it were a selection from a shoe store. Children’s shoes for tiny, innocent feet looked as though they were tossed into the ghastly pile just as the lifeless bodies of the owners were tossed onto the ground. The children’s shoes I was mesmerized by were roughly the same size as my daughter’s shoes. My body silently shook as I imagined what it would be like having my own kids hands torn from mine, screaming for them as they were taken away. For all the lives lost, I tearfully thought as I stared at the shoes, I will never forget.
My Grandma (my Grandpa remarried after the war) spoke at my school often when I was growing up, retelling her story of surviving Auschwitz, the death camp. She told horrific stories that only the most imaginative thinker could ever dream up, all stories that happened to her as a young adult. My Grandpa would sit by her side, silently, with a painful smile on his face. It was rare when he would talk about his experiences. It just hurt. So much. My Grandma told her story to my class year after year and as I grew older, my thoughts matured and I understood more. I understood that I, being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, must never forget. For if I did, all the dark, evil, inhumane shit they had to go through would be in vain. All the lives lost, the parents, children, brothers and sisters, would be nothing but black smoke in the air and ashes on the cold, hard ground.
I lit a candle that day at the Holocaust Museum. The flame will burn inside me always, and I will never forget.
Corinne Calderon is a Minnepeapolis-based single mom of two young kids, an administrative assistant, and a part-time student. She’s always been a writer in her heart, and she’s grateful to find rare moments to make time for that, too.