By Anthony Russo
Before coming to Europe and seeing all the memorial sites to past atrocities, I thought I had a decent understanding of what had happened during the Nazi and Communist regimes. I knew that it was a time of great injustices against mankind, and that hundreds of thousands of people perished. However, I never really realized how the murderers didn’t distinguish between who they killed, whether it was men, women, or children. I never thought about all the children that were killed during this period. Throughout different memorial sites, this is what really hit me the hardest. Every time it broke my heart to see the plaques commemorating the death of children. It makes me think about when I was a kid and how innocent I was, and how I can’t even imagine going through what those children did. I will focus on different commemorative sites I saw during my travels that brought the struggles of young children into a new light for me.
The very first monument where I saw this at was at the Shoes on the Bank of the Danube memorial site in Budapest. As I was walking through, looking at the metal shoes, they seemed quite similar to each other. They were all rather large and very bleak. Then as I looked ahead down the row of shoes I noticed some color at a couple of the shoes. I was instantly struck with curiosity and I walked straight to those shoes. When I got there I went silent and stood there completely still for a moment. They were the shoes of a child that had been shot and thrown into the river. The shoes were decorated with candy, toys, and trading cards that people had left. This was such a powerful and eye opening moment for me. I stood there for a while looking at this living monument, absorbing the impact it had on me. I was taking in all the little toys around it and imagining how much a little kid, possibly that kid who was murdered, would’ve loved playing with them. This was my first exposure to the atrocities committed against children but it definitely wasn’t my last.
The next time I came into contact with the memory of crimes against children was during our visit to Auschwitz. Obviously, this is one of the most famous sites of WWII, and possibly of all time, so I was expecting to have a very moving experience. I knew that it was one of the largest and best-known Nazi killing sites during the war. From the second I got there I was humbled by the large rooms filled with luggage, clothing, silverware, and even hair. As we walked through these expositions with huge displays showing the possessions of the dead people we came across a small table. Under the glass was a child’s outfit. I think that putting this separately was a very powerful decision. A child’s clothes would get lost in the large pile of clothing and shoes of the adults, but when displayed on its own, its effect was amplified. There were stories and first-hand accounts saying that children would go with their mothers towards the gas chambers – some crying, and some laughing. You see what these young kids were like as they walked towards the gas chambers, and to their deaths. They were so innocent and unaware of the severity of their situation. I started to imagine myself as a young child and how I would’ve acted. I probably would be complaining to my mom that I was tired or hungry, not knowing what was about to happen to me. At the very end of our time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we visited a room with walls of
photographs of the victims from that concentration camp. Looking through these pictures was a very emotional experience as it gave faces, names, stories, and lives to all the people we had just learned about. It humanized the whole experience. On the very back wall was a section dedicated to the children who died. Looking at all the pictures was very sad because the children looked so happy and young. I realized I had very similar baby pictures to the ones I was seeing on this wall. It was a very moving experience to see the faces of these children who had perished.
In Berlin, we looked at memorials that focused on the communist regime and the divide between west and east Berlin. At the beginning of our visit to the city, we saw an area where the Berlin Wall had stood, which was marked by a memorial with the pictures of the people who had died trying to cross over to the west. I’ve always known that crossing the border was an extremely dangerous and
almost impossible task for many people in the east, but looking at their faces was very hard for me. There were men, women, whole families, siblings, and so on. A few images really stood out to me there. There were images of very young children. Some were around 10 years old, while others were even younger. I remember seeing a picture of a baby and when looking at his date of birth and date of death I was astonished to find out that he was only 3 months old. I imagined how a 3-month old would die at the wall and I assumed he was with his family trying to cross. This was such a difficult thing for me to think about. This put into perspective that even with the end of WWII and the fall of the Nazis, people continued being murdered under the communist regime. This regime was no different in how they handled anyone – men, women or children- who would disagree or go against their rules.
The unexpected and violent loss of life is a very disheartening and emotional subject. It is even harder to deal with when it involves the murder of people on such a monumental scale. But when you think about children being murdered, it is almost impossible to stomach. Seeing all of these sites and memorials dedicated to the lives of children that were lost during the horrible time in history really made me grateful for what I have. It opened me up to a completely new side of the Holocaust and the communist regime that I had never thought about before. My own experience of loss during my childhood probably made me more perceptive to the issue. At the same time, it made me thankful that I am able, at the age of 20, to travel the world and learn about this history. It also makes me think about the injustices against children that are still persisting around the world today. I hope we can learn from the past and put an end to atrocities towards children, and the human race as a whole, so that the next generation doesn’t have to learn about this same issue as it still exists in their world.