Editor’s note: This story received 2016-17 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Keystone Press Awards – honorable mention for Feature Story
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
The Concept of Genocide:
From the beginning of time, man has sinned against man. Blood has poured from the hearts of the innocent only to stain the hands of his brother. Genocide, however, is a more recent term that came about after World War II.
Used mostly to describe the heinous acts of inhumanity committed by the Nazis during their regime, the act of genocide is classified as violence toward members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious minority with the intention of destroying their very existence.
In 1948 genocide was deemed an international crime, followed by a treaty signed in 1998 that created the International Criminal Court, or ICC. The ICC strives to prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in order to prevent these crimes from being repeated in history.
Coming Face to Face with Death:
This past July, I traveled to Krakow, Poland, known as the city of kings as well as a country haunted by its past.
The largest of the German Nazi concentration/extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau is located in Poland, only an hour outside of Krakow, and serves to this day as a reminder of the 1.1 million men, women and children that died inside its borders not so long ago.
The camp itself goes on for miles and miles.
As I walked, my feet seemed to feel heavier with every step I took, making it sometimes impossible to even move. Almost as though the grief I was feeling was literally weighing me down.
My stomach curdled at the site of the railroad tracks and the trains that sat on them, knowing very well what they used for.
Every single hair on my arms would stand at the indescribable yet unmistakeable feeling of the spirits that once roamed.
The sight of certain landmarks that seemed virtually untouched scared me to my very core.
My hands felt like ice even despite the record-breaking heat Poland was experiencing that day.
Tears flowed quietly down my face as I continued to walk that day as if the pages of history were coming to life right before my very eyes.
That is when I saw them.
The trees of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The trees that saw everything.
That is when it hit me.
The trees have eyes.
Generations of Genocide:
These very trees had witnessed the act of genocide that I was struggling so hard to comprehend.
It was then I realized that the trees of World War II had also witnessed my grandfather’s struggle with genocide before me.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 2nd Lt. Theodore Seaman, a quiet, intelligent and brave young man, took to the clouds as a bombardier in World II.
A man of honor, integrity and courage he risked his life to fight the Nazis and their quest for power and bloodshed in Europe, even if it meant never returning home to his wife, Patricia, and two young children (with five yet to be born).
Ted was the lead bombardier of a Boeing B-17 flying fortress in the Air Army Corp.
While in flight and under extreme pressure, one of his tasks was to locate railroad tracks in Italy that the Nazis used to transport their weapons and supplies.
It was grandpa’s job to flawlessly calculate the speed of the plane, location of the track, wind factor and altitude in order to determine when and where the large fleet of planes that followed him would release their bombs to destroy Nazi train tracks.
During one particular mission, while soaring at 20,000 feet, Theodore and his men were struck by anti-air craft fire stationed in the mountains below at 10,000 feet.
A piece of shrapnel pierced grandpa’s chest, going straight through his shirt pocket causing him to lose half a lung.
Despite being hit, he pulled himself up, located the target and nailed the tracks dead on.
2nd Lt. Theodore Seaman lived to tell the story and returned home to the United States with a Silver Star and Bronze Star medals, Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross- only next to the Medal of Honor.
I never got to meet this hero of mine because he sadly passed away before I was born.
However, Grandpa’s fight against genocide is one that continues to this day.
The Trees Have Eyes:
3 trillion trees that have eyes.
All over the world.
These quiet, wise and strong beings deeply-rooted in their native soil have seen humans evolve from the beginning of time.
They have witnessed the murders and genocide of those in Poland, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur.
They have seen the children and their families cry when they are forced from their homes in war torn Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen and told that they are banned from entering the United States or forced to live in refugee camps.
They have seen the farmers struggle to cultivate their agriculture in order to make a living and put food on their table due to effects of climate change.
They have felt the pain of the ax that mankind uses to chop them down despite the fact that they provide the very oxygen we require to breathe.
They have witnessed human beings repeating the same mistakes throughout history over and over.
Yet, there they sit.
Rooted in the struggle of mankind.
“There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. You’ve already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer – or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.”