Grace Incarnate: My Work with Survivors of the Holocaust

I can't believe where we are now. Brutal words and catchy epithets intended to wound have become common as violent acts increase.  With most survivors of the Holocaust passed from Earth, it's now firmly up to us who knew them to share what we can of what we  know. So here I am, on behalf of all survivors, but particularly in memory of a few dear departed friends. For Karla, who at the age of three ran terrified through the glass shards on the streets of Kristallnacht, who'd return to her homeland whenever she could with a heart full of grief and love; for beloved Walter, who carefully selected and gifted me with scholars' works on the history of the times, that I might not persist in my ignorance of the finer details, "the stuff of which human life is made;" and for Erna Ganz, whose early leadership changed the way students in the United States learn about the Holocaust. This is for them, and for all of us.

More than twenty-five years ago, when I learned of an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with living history, I couldn't pass it up. Though not Jewish myself at the time, I figured that my Polish forebears must have certainly played some role in history as events unfolded.  I wanted to know more. And so I introduced myself to the unforgettable leaders of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois in Skokie and committed to help concentration camp survivors tell their stories for the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archives Project.

It's hard to imagine the scope of Spielberg's undertaking without first acknowledging that gut-wrenching horror, for Jewish families, was a pervasive and inescapable fact of daily life for many years. Here I am compelled to mention something of the extent of the Nazis' demonic undertaking, in light of a certain political representative's recent, unseemly and ignorant remark about "Holocaust centers."  No, Sean, these weren't like holding centers. Literally thousands of work camps and sub-camps were established throughout Germany and Nazi occupied countries, along with seven specific extermination camps or designated "killing centers."  Auschwitz, though perhaps the best known on this side of history, was only one of them. Each camp and center specialized in its own brand of annihilation, retaining a few common elements. Here are just two of them: exquisitely devised dehumanization techniques intended to belittle and to crush the spirit; and, as Elie Wiesel put it, "not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims."

The survivors with whom I worked described their most difficult memories off-camera first. Between sessions, I reviewed archives and saw photographs I can't describe here. The images, so many containing infants and children, are impossible to erase from the mind's eye. Seeing, I became breathless and numb. Listening, I became a witness.

I also experienced myself differently as my cherished notions of the way the world worked slowly fell away. As my Polish Grandma once said of me when I was four, "That one's full of piss and vinegar, and quick on the trigger." Basically, this still held true in my thirties. But here, with these people, I was stunned to silence. Hands folded in my lap, all I could offer were my ears, and all I could do was imagine in my frozen, blank state. I'm sure I'd have sunk into depression had I not been so impressed, make that imprinted, by the fact of the survivors' grace. How was it that they'd found the will and the faith to start families after living through unspeakable horror?

All were deeply and actively grieving through the sharing of their memories.  Mothers, fathers, children, infants, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends had been systematically tortured and destroyed. Once, off camera, a woman confided that many stories would remain untold, because "you must understand we had to try to survive, and sometimes we did things of which we are not proud...those memories are a hidden torture to us." Still survivors wrote books and poems, made art of artifacts, and spoke elegantly and honestly of their experiences in an effort to teach us what books could not. An Auschwitz survivor quoted author C.S. Lewis: "Experience, that most brutal of teachers, but you learn, my G-d do you learn."

 

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On D-Day's 50th anniversary, I stood with survivors, politicians, local leaders, educators and guests in front of the Holocaust memorial monument at the Skokie Library. After a formal program, we joined the community and walked together through Skokie in remembrance of D-Day and to honor those who made liberation possible.

Pictured are surviving members of the U.S. Japanese-American Nisei Unit who served under Post Commander Alan Meyer, also shown. Even as their own families were imprisoned in camps in the United States, these men were liberating the prisoners of Dachau. What moved me as I spoke to the liberators was the absence of bitterness about any of this. Another encounter with grace.

One said that he felt he'd only taken his assigned role in history, and acted. Praise or rhetoric meant little. He barely knew what to say.  It was the act of saving whomever he could that had imbued this dignified Japanese-American veteran with a sense of the meaning of his life. The values he'd acted upon as a young soldier were deemed noble and worthy by his parents, and had pleased them; this is what mattered now and throughout his life, he said. He was a liberator. The rest was tragic circumstance.

We all share this lifetime and we are each headed toward the same end. Along our apportioned years, we come to inevitable crossroads, and for each of us, paths and decisions differ. We know, or perhaps barely intuit, that one path leads to dying, the other to life. Listen or talk?  Open doors or close them? Hate or love? Give up or go on? Complain or welcome? Stay silent or say something? Forget or remember? Ignorance or learning?

Surrounding events shape us from the inside out, affecting us and our children for life. We're being molded now as individuals and as a nation. So much depends on what we choose to see, what we do, and what sort of role models we are for others.

As a people, I wish us grace and the will to take up the weapons of the spirit. Here are our role models. When you have time, please see the entire documentary, available free on You Tube.

 

P.S. A visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Education Center in Skokie is always time well spent. Listen to living histories. Take the children.

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