By Madeleine Weiss
Madeleine is a student at Sycamore High School and a member of Congregation Beth Adam.
Getting a first person perspective of the events of the holocaust gave deeper meaning to an event that can sometimes seem like statistics when reading a book about it. Hearing some of the smaller stories that Steen lived made it all seem more human and individual because everyone’s story is different. I think it is amazing how in Denmark everyone was considered a Dane, before their race or religion. This enabled 95% of Jewish Danes to escape to safety. Just by chance, Steen’s family did not get the warning and that propelled him into an 18 month hell that he will never forget. The idea that one was considered a Dane first, contributed to the warm welcome he and his mother received when returning to Denmark on buses provided by Sweden. This warm Danish welcome occurred even while Denmark was occupied by Nazi forces. Danish citizens were upstanders—- people who stood for the rights of their fellow countrymen even risking their own safety and security. In other countries, Jews were not welcomed home and were often met with additional persecution.
Steen’s story was striking for many reasons, but one that stood out was how the Nazis took every chance they could to make their lives worse and degrade their humanness. The German officers and Gestapo would not only take the parcels that were sent by Danish relatives to Steen and his mother, but they would remove the contents of the parcel and replace the items with bricks. Not only did the Nazis want to disappoint the inmates by taking the contents of the package, they wanted to create a sense of despair and hopelessness. As a young boy, Steen was encouraged by his brave mother to play with fellow children at the camp to at least make an attempt to have a positive, normal childhood. However, that was short-lived, as his Czech friends were sent off to an execution camp. Steen wasn’t aware of what was happening in other parts of Europe. Perhaps if he were older he would have been able to figure out what was happening. In some ways his youth protected him from the absolute evil that existed in Europe at that time.
After hearing Steen speak I can’t help but wonder why the term upstander hasn’t become a commonly used word with the Holocaust and other tragedies. It accurately represents what some people did in the Holocaust to save fellow human beings, without thinking about race, religion, etc. Why didn’t other countries in Europe have a similar response as the Danish people? Why were other countries so willing to turn their Jews over to the Nazis, not considering them one of their own? At what point will society begin to realize that we all belong to the human race? Even today, prejudice based on race and religion exists. As we become a more global society the identity of race becomes more muddled, making me think that all the racial and religious prejudice in our world should become less important and no longer be the basis for crimes and excuses for cruelty against fellow human beings.