Monday, October 30, 2017

A Holocaust Survivor's Message

There was a time in my tween years when Anne Frank was my secret best friend. Her book, The Diary of Anne Frankwas my constant companion and valued possession. I'm not sure why I was intrigued by her story but her words resonated in my young girl's heart. It might have been the racism and discrimination I experienced myself where I felt Anne was a kindred spirit. 

As soon as I finished reading the book I'd start back at the beginning. I remember buying my first copy from one of my elementary school's book fairs and highlighting sentences in pencil. I'm one of those people who get intimate with my books, highlighting and writing notes in the margins. When I was in between library books I often flipped to certain chapters hoping the story had a different ending. 

Many of us know Anne Frank's ending. 

Had the internet existed in the late 70s I would have spent insanely long hours researching Anne Frank's story still hoping for a different end. I believe the fire for fighting against injustice was lit when I read her experiences of hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

Since then I've read books (too many to name or count) on the the atrocities of the holocaust, Hitler and the Nazis. As I grew older my intrigue evolved into near obsession. My 10-year-old brain couldn't wrap itself around the evil of racism, intolerance and genocide. 

When my middle spawn invited me to the Museum of Tolerance for one of her school assignments earlier this month I was excited. There was an Anne Frank exhibit and a holocaust survivor scheduled to speak at noon the day we went. The last time I visited the museum was over a decade ago when I had a similar class assignment to complete. I took my then teenagers with me to experience the museum. 

This time my daughter and I were pressed for time so I chose to listen to the holocaust survivor speak as I hoped to glean wisdom from someone who experienced evil firsthand. With the recent division of our country and the blatant rise of racism I, needed to know if she could provide insight on how best to navigate our current climate. 
Dr. Elane Geller speaking
at the Museum of Tolerance

Her name is Dr. Elane Geller. A soft spoken woman in her early 80s imbued with a spirit of strength. 

When she spoke to us that day she gave a brief introduction of her time in the concentration camp where the Nazis placed her in when she was four years old. The rest of her talk was spent answering questions from the audience which made her story somewhat disjointed. I wrote this piecing together the notes I took during her introduction and answering questions. 

She and her aunt were in Bergen-Belsen, what she called as "one of the worst concentration camps." Her mom just had surgery and was recovering at her grandparents' house when the Nazis came to take her. (Disclaimer: this is what Dr. Geller told us that day. I've read other articles about her talks that told a different story. Like this one.)

According to Dr. Geller, her mother and grandparents were killed because the sick and elderly were of no use to the Nazis. 

In the concentration camp Dr. Geller was with her aunt who gave her explicit rules: obey her orders, don't run around, don't let the guards notice you and stay out of trouble. There were no other children in the camp since "children were not worthy." Her job in the barracks was to help the new prisoners as they were processed in, which provided plenty of opportunities to steal food from their pouches. "I was a terrific thief. I had no conscience." She joked. 

As young as she was she remembers being hungry all the time. They were only fed dirty water and a moldy potato twice a day which were shared with her aunt. Since children were useless she wasn't known by her given name. Her only identification was a number on her arm. 

She and her aunt shared a bunk which was so narrow that they slept upright leaning on each other's backs. For a long time she thought her aunt was her mom. 

Dr. Geller was seven and a half years old when liberation came to the concentration camp. She didn't understand why there were things falling from the sky, watching people picking them up off the ground and putting them in their mouths. It was the first time she tasted candy and she's "liked candy ever since!"

She had no idea why she lived while other children were killed right away. She was seven and a half when she was part of the boat that brought her to a United States refugee camp in Brooklyn, New York. 

I asked Dr. Geller my first question. What do you think of the rise of racism in our country today? She said she felt sorry for the haters. "If I ever lose my anger then I need to be committed. I'm sensitive to injustice to others." 

The next question I asked her was, "what do you tell your grandson when he experiences racism?"  She didn't quite answer my question, only saying that she tries to be respectful of her son and daughter-in-law and doesn't talk to her grandchildren about her experience in the concentration camp. 

This is her message to people: I don't like everybody but I respect everyone's right to exist. I don't mimic the things I don't like in people. If you got two legs and living you have every right to not like me. The world is still a better place. If you want to be an anti-Semite, God bless you!" 

I'm not sure what my expectations were in listening to a holocaust survivor speak in person for the first time. I walked out of the room with the rest of the audience yearning for concrete solutions to handling racism. It felt like an anticlimactic end. 

While I appreciated her honesty in saying that she still felt angry and that her experiences will always be embedded in her psyche, I've often wondered since how I would react if I'm confronted with racism today. Would I react with the diplomacy Dr. Geller suggested in her message? Would I respect the right to a racist's existence? 

I wish I could say with certainty that I would. 

We learned in the Museum of Tolerance that we all hold prejudices in some form. I know I do which is why my awareness of it urges me to work on my own intolerance. With the increase of hate crimes today I'm not sure if I would readily choose love when faced with it. 

I can, however, choose not to be silent with injustice and to live my life in a way that would reflect the good in all of us. It won't be a perfect practice but one that must be honed daily. If we all collectively raise our voices against intolerance and exclusion we can affect change because as Dr. Geller reminds us, this world is still a better place. 

Below are a few photos I snapped with my phone while visiting the Museum of Tolerance

Middle spawn taking notes for her assignment