‘The only way to learn in life is by telling stories.’
On the 15th of September 2009, I found myself staring at a suitcase with the word ‘PASTERNAK’ glaring back at me. This suitcase would have contained pots, pans, clothes and favourite possessions, packed frantically by a family charged with anticipation at the promise of a better life in a new place. They probably prized their one-way-ticket, bought with months of savings, grateful for such a unique opportunity.
‘PASTERNAK’. This means ‘parsnip’ in Russian, linking it to its rustic origins. It is also my surname. It has always been intrinsic to my identity; while being pretty difficult for a child to spell growing up.
‘Any relation to Boris?’ I’ve been asked. ‘I have to ask…are you related to the writer?’…‘Did you know there was a writer with your name?’
Every exam paper, every form I fill out, every register I’ve answered to; I am confronted with this name. A rather unusual name for a Scot. I’ve received letters and certificates with ‘Pasternack’, ‘Pastarnak’ and my personal favourite; ‘Pastomack’. I’ve also had some worse variations, but let’s not go into those right now.
All this being said, I had never come face to face with my own name in such a powerful way as when I was 17, visiting the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp on the Lessons from Auschwitz project with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Tears trickled silently down my cheeks as I studied the suitcase behind the glass. I quickly dismissed the instinctual response: did a relative of mine come here? This notion was rapidly displaced with a feeling of relief, as I remembered that my name was common in both Poland and Russia and so it made sense that it was displayed here. As I panned-out my focus on the little brown leather suitcase, my relief turned into an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Why would I care more if an unknown family member had been a victim here? I gazed at the other suitcases and began to read the other names, one-by-one, hand-written in wobbly capitals in chalk or on paper labels attached to the front of each suitcase. Weinberg. Meier. Cohen. Each name connected to a family, and each family having suffered in the same way.
Realistically, the name was no more connected to me than any of the other thousands of names in front of me, than the names of any of the other 6 million people killed throughout the Holocaust. I struggled to fathom the sheer scale of the persecution and genocide which took place.
Not only was there physical death, but there was also an attack on culture. Families, stories, relationships and every other wonderful thing which makes us human was assaulted. However, through discovering survivor’s stories and the many art-forms and literature which were and still are created about the Holocaust, it is somehow possible to re-humanise the victims and celebrate their spirits.
I have learnt that there is one constant in life which has and always will prevail. It will survive no matter how much suppression it endures, no matter how severely it is tested.
What is the point in believing in anything if we no longer believe in humanity? That we, as human beings, on planet Earth for a finite amount of time, have far more in common than that which separates us; be it religion, ideology, nationality, social group, sex, race, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, political persuasion or anything else? What will it take for us to understand that we are all connected to one another, that our lives merit equal worth and that the identities which we think distinguish us are futile if we cannot respect our fellow human beings?
‘PASTERNAK’ is no more connected to me than any of the other 7 billion people in this world. I learnt a lot of lessons from my visit to Auschwitz, but the most important thing I learnt from my suitcase story was empathy. How can we apply this empathy today, in 2015, to ensure that we honour the victims and survivors’ existence?
I think we should be aware of the other genocides which predate and postdate WWII, global terrorism and the wars currently ongoing in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan. Extremism, ignorance, exploitation and inequality are the causes of these problems and not the solutions. Dark tendencies inhabit us all, as human beings. We must become the change we wish to see in society: challenge our prejudices; battle scapegoating and discrimination; and resist supporting materialistic greed and nationalistic narcissism.
Investing in global, human rights based education resulting in tolerant, compassionate and loving individuals is far more sustainable for future generations than fuelling fear, hatred of the unknown or investing in wars. Everyone knows that human rights violations are a by-product of conflict, but it’s time to recognise that they are one of its root causes as well. Human intellect is forever advancing, but what is it really worth if we do not protect human rights? We should each aspire to reach ‘PHD-level compassion’ which is universal and stems from the heart and the mind.
We are all flagbearers now. Please join me in commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day to keep the victims’ memory alive. Remember that everything we do or say influences those around us. We live in a web of circumstances. A famous writer Maya Angelou once said, ‘I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.’ I challenge myself, you and the rest of the world to be brave and find that courage within us- for the sake of all humanity.
I began by affirming the need to tell stories, to keep alive the presence of the past. Let me end with one such story. In researching the picture of the suitcase, I found out that its owner was called Herman Pasternak. His great-great nephew searched for his records after spotting the suitcase in a photograph and found out that he arrived in Auschwitz on the 1st of February 1944 and was killed in the gas chambers a couple of days later, a few days before his 44th birthday. I would like to dedicate this blog to Herman Pasternak, his great-great nephew and every single victim of the Holocaust.
 Lord Browne of Madingley, ‘HET 2013 Appeal Film’, HET (available at: het.org.uk).  Please see http://www.facebook.com/hetrascotland to take part in #donthatecreate campaign for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015.  Inspired by Russell Brand’s ‘Charlie Hebdo: Whose Fault is it?’ The Trews (E231), available at: http://youtu.be/Dg8Y0WpbfZw.  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein) in his speech at the ‘Education for Peace’ Conference in Geneva (14 January 2015).  For ideas please see http://www.het.org.uk/ and for Scotland, also see, like and share http://www.facebook.com/hetrascotland.  The Travelling Lyon’s blog post where I discovered this story, available at: travelinglyon.blogspot.ch/2010/06/what-happens-to-family-when-you-lose.html (Monday 7 June 2010).