Ancient History? Do Stories of the Holocaust Matter?

By Storyteller Gail Rosen

Story Summary:

Gail Rosen tells the story of a Holocaust survivor. Why tell a story that’s not your own? How does understanding others’ stories help us think about our own place in history?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Ancient-History-Do-Stories-of-the-Holocaust-Matter

Discussion Questions:

  1.  When you hear the word “history”, what do you think of? How is “history” separate from the present?
  2. When you hear a Holocaust survivor tell his or her own story, you hear an authentic witness to a part of that event. Do you think other people should tell those stories? Why or why not?
  3. There have been and continue to be people in the world who cause great suffering to others. There have been and continue to be people in the world who do great good. Hilda said that we all share a common humanity, with a potential for good or ill. She said, “This humanity that we all share is for each of us to look at, to deal with, and to transform, to make it into something that is noble.” What do you think that means? How do we do that?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Gail Rosen and this is a story about history and about finding my place in it.

When I was growing up, I attended public school. But because I lived in a neighborhood where most of the people were Jewish, most of the kids in my school, and some of the teachers too, were Jewish. I attended synagogue and Jewish Sunday School. I belonged to a Jewish Girl Scout troop. I went to Jewish summer camp. I went to play rehearsals at the Jewish Community Center.

Now, I knew that Jews were only a very small minority in the world but not in my little corner of it. Even in high school, most of the students were Jewish. I’d never experienced prejudice or discrimination. I’d studied World War II and the Holocaust but that stuff was in my history book with, with all that other old stuff.

I mean, World War II ended in nine…1945. It was 1967. That’s… that stuff was, was practically ancient history. My grandparents, on one side, they’d been born in Baltimore, where I still live today. On the other side, they came to this country in the early 1900s.

Now, I knew that I had distant relatives, cousins maybe, who, who must have been killed when the Nazis went through small villages in Russia and murdered Jews. But I didn’t know them. I didn’t even know their names.

Fast forward to 1996, and a friend called me and he asked me if I would come to his house for a Yom Hashoah event. Yom Hashoah is the day that’s designated, on the Jewish calendar, where we remember and honor those who suffered and died, and those who survived and triumphed in the Holocaust of World War II. And to honor that day, my friend had invited a survivor to come and speak at his home. I’d never heard a survivor speak. Whe… when I was in school, people weren’t telling those stories yet. Maybe they weren’t ready to tell them or maybe we weren’t ready to hear them.

But I went and I heard Hilda Cohen tell her story or at least half an hour of her 12-year saga. Hilda had been born in a tiny, rural village in Germany. She was nine years old when Hitler came to power. Now her family had lived there for generations, but her parents’ house and farm were confiscated. And by the time she was eleven, she was forced to leave public school.

Eventually, the family was transported to a ghetto in Lo… in Poland called Lodz, and by then, Hilda was a teenager. And that was where her grandparents died. Her fiancé died. Her mother died. Her father died. She herself survived years of hunger and, eventually, transported to Auschwitz, that infamous concentration camp.

She endured innumerable selections where the Nazis would decide who would live and who would die. And then, finally, a death march back to Germany. Twelve years, twelve years. Hilda told her story with grace, even humor.

Afterwards, there were refreshments. And I was chatting with another woman, who said to me, “What do you do?”

“I’m a storyteller.”

Well, Hilda was standing behind her, with her back to me, but she heard, and she turned around. She came forward, “Excuse me, you said you’re a storyteller?”

“Yes.”

“Do you tell stories of the Holocaust?”

“No, I don’t, because I don’t feel entitled to tell them. They’re not my stories.”

“But they need to be told.”

“I, I’m honored to have heard yours. I hope you will tell it for a long time. And I wonder who will tell it, when you no longer tell it.”

She looked me right in the eyes, smiled, “You tell it.”

I began a series of interviews. I asked her a lot of questions. I asked her questions about, not just what had happened during the years the Nazis were in power, during the war, but also about what her life had been like before. And, especially, about what meaning she’d been able to make of her experiences since the war.

Hilda was a woman of great faith. She raised her three children to be observant Jews because she said,” Hitler wanted to destroy the Jews,” and she would not give him that victory. She was also a woman of great moral courage. She told me of her own struggle in the concentration camps and in the ghetto to, to maintain her own humanity.

She said in the ghetto, people were starving. There was never enough food. And at one point, there was a big barrel full of, uh, uh, thin soup that was brought in. There were, maybe, a few potatoes floating in there. And she said some of the Jews were responsible for labeling it out to hundreds of people.

She said, “Now, if there is this potato and it may not be enough for anybody anyway, who are you going to give it to? Your… yourself, your… your child, your mother, your father, or somebody else? You see, uh, the ones who did not keep the potato for themselves, who tried to be as even-handed as possible, they were the real heroes.”

She was able to see the humanity in both the perpetrators and the victims. She also said to me, “I want people to understand the human beings involved. If we feel, quite honestly, ruthlessly honest, about this, we have to realize the potential, the potential of the average human being. I mean, you say this can never happen. Well, it can happen. You can walk to the edge of the abyss, which is yourself and y, you look into it and you say, ‘Oh, my —, I can’t believe it, this is not me.’ But I have that in me too. This humanity, that we all share, is for each of us to look at, to deal with, and then transform it to make it into something that is noble.”

Hilda died a year after we met. And I’ve been telling her stories ever since. The… that story, her story, has taken me to places I never would have traveled. I’ve told it in many of the places it happened, in Germany, and in Poland, and Austria. And I’ve told it all over the United States, and even in Israel. I’ve met people I never would have met because I tell Hilda’s story. It is not my story, but I carry it. And I’m grateful to Hilda for offering me the responsibility of carrying her story, and, also, for the possibility of finding my own connection to it.

You see, when my father died, we had known that he served in World War II. But when he died, we made some new discoveries because he never talked about it. And going through some papers and looking online, we discovered that he had been a navigator in a bomber that flew over Germany. He flew 28 missions. And statistics say, that of all those young men who flew in those missions, of every ten who went, only three survived. But my father flew 28 missions. The last one was on April 21st, 1945. Two days later, he celebrated his birthday. April 21st, that was the day that Germany surrendered. And on his birthday, my father turned 20 years old.

He came home. He went to college, met my mom, married and I was born in 1951. It’s been many years. Many years, since I lived in that small, safe corner of my childhood. I have since experienced and witnessed discrimination and prejudice, and I hear about it in the news every day.

When I was a teenager in high school, the Holocaust seemed like ancient history, 1945. But I only missed it by a few years.

History. What is history, except for the stories that happened before us. And I think, I think those stories still matter. What do you think?

Who is a Friend? German-Jewish Reconciliation After the Holocaust

 

Story Summary:

 Who is my friend and who is my enemy? Gail Rosen, a Jewish storyteller, goes to Germany and makes a surprising connection to a German man who lived through WWII.

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Who-is-a-Friend–German-Jewish-Reconciliation-After-the-Holocaust

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think people make assumptions or judgments about you based on how you look? What might they be? What do people think they know about you by looking at you? How could they be right and how could they be wrong?
  2. Can you tell of a time when you made assumptions or judgments about a person, but learned to think differently of that person later? How did that happen?
  3. How do you choose your friends? What qualities do you value in a friend?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Gail Rosen and I’m a storyteller. One of the most important stories to me, that I tell, is the story of a Jewish-German holocaust survivor. Her name was Hilda Cohen. Now I had learned about the Holocaust in high school. I’d studied about it but hearing a survivor story, that made it much more personal, more real.

In 2002, I came across an organization called Compassionate Listening. Their basic premise is that you can’t hate someone, if you’ve really heard their story. And so, they teach listening –  listening in a way that helps us to hear our common humanity in the hopes that, that kind of listening can help us to resolve conflicts.

I signed up for the Compassionate Listening Project for German-Jewish Reconciliation, and I went to Germany. I’d never thought about… going to Germany, wanted to go to Germany… but I wanted to go and see some of the places where Hilda’s story happened. And I wanted to tell her story to some of the people there, and I wanted to hear their stories.

There were 34 of us. Half of us Jews from the United States and half non-Jewish Germans. And on the first night of the project, we were sitting on a polished, wooden floor on cushions, sitting in a circle in an A- framed, shaped room with glass all around. And we went around the circle. And we each shared our feelings about coming together, to share the wounds that have reverberated through the generations, and into our own hearts, and bodies, and minds, and psyches since that time, since World War II.

One of the Jewish men told about his parents fleeing Germany with him when he was just seven years old. And he told about how they brought him up Episcopalian in northern California. They were too frightened to be Jews, even in the United States. Two other Jewish women talked about their mothers’ experiences in the concentration camps. I spoke about Hilda’s story, about the responsibility of carrying that story, and about wanting to share it there, in that place.

But it was the speaking of the Germans that stunned me.

One woman said, “Hitler ripped the heart out of our country. And now you are back.”

Another said, “We’ve been waiting, longing for our Jewish brothers and sisters to return, and finally you are here. Thank you. Thank you for coming.”

And they wept.

There was one man in the circle who drew my attention. His name is Ulrich. He’s a German man. He’s tall, very blond. He held himself very erect. His jaw was tight. And, and, though he held himself upright, when I looked at Ulrich, I had the distinct impression of someone who was doubled over in pain. And in the first days, hhh, of the project, he, he shared with us that he had always suspected that his father had been a perpetrator. Someone who willingly assisted the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. He told us how frightened he had always been of his father. Now, Ulrich is just a couple of years older than I am. Neither of us was born when that war ended, but as a little boy he was terrified of his father. And even as a grown man with his own children, family, his own career, he was, he was frightened of his father.

During the project, we traveled together to Bergen-Belsen. It’s the site of a Nazi concentration camp. Now, in Jewish tradition, we’re taught that to attend a funeral is a special mitzvah, a blessing, because you see the dead can never return the favor. And it seemed to me that, that site of Bergen-Belsen is like an eternal funeral.

It’s beautiful there; it’s park-like. There are aspen trees and moss and wild grasses. There’s a large, circular, cobblestone path, and around that path are the burial mounds.

When the Allied Forces liberated Bergen-Belsen, they found tens of thousands, dead and dying. And so, the Army dug huge, rectangular mass graves. And they laid the bodies in, in tight rows, and then stacked them like cords of wood. And covered them over. Some of them are as large as a city block. And they’re about chest high.

And on the front of each one is a, a large cement plaque and they read in German, “Here rest 1000 dead 1945.” “Here rest 800 dead 1945.” “Here rest 2500 dead.” “Here rest 2000 dead.” “Here rest untold numbers dead 1945.” There are many of them.

I walked in that place with Ulrich. And he told me, that after his father died, he and his siblings had found, locked in a safe, hidden away, an old briefcase. And, in that briefcase, were papers that indicated that his father, his father was probably, at least, partly responsible for the deaths of between 10,000 and 45,000 Jewish men, women, and children in small villages in Russia.

He said, “I consider myself my father’s son. I do not carry his guilt. I cannot change the brutal past. But I have to find a way, how to deal with this inheritance.” And then he said, “But it seems wrong. Wrong of me to talk of my pain in this place.”

Before we left Bergen-Belsen, we held a ritual service. We stood in a circle, we lit candles, and we sang prayers. There was, on the edge of the circle, a bowl of wildflower seeds. And after the service, we were each to take a handful of those seeds, and then scatter them among the wild grasses in the fields. The service had ended, and I was standing on the edge of the circle, and I looked across and I saw Ulrich. He was kneeling by the bowl of seeds. He had taken a fistful of them and his head was bowed over his hand. And I looked at him. His father helped to murder innocent people.

I thought, “How can I look at this man and not imagine his father’s crimes. But how can I look at this man, and not see an innocent, frightened little boy.”

I walked over. I knelt down. I took a handful of seeds. With my other hand, I pulled Ulrich to his feet. I pried open his fingers, I poured my seeds into his hand, mixed the seeds together, took half, and we went together, and we scattered the seeds in the field.

I’ve been to Germany five times now. Ulrich and I continue to write. He and his wife came to United States, and they visited; they had dinner at my home. And in January, I’m going back to Germany to tell Hilda’s story at Ulrich’s syna… at Ulrich’s church and a school nearby. And I will stay with him and his wife. We think of each other as friends.

When my father died, Ulrich sent me a card. Now, many of my friends sent cards, and they were lovely. But the one that moved me the most was the one from Ulrich. I want to read you a little of it.

He said, “Dear Gail, your dad has left you. I have never met him, yet, in my mind’s eye, I have the image of a kind and gentle man. A thought comes to my mind. The deaths of our parents, makes us the elders. There is no living generation before us. There is a little candle burning in front of me in honor of a man I never knew. I know his daughter. With great sympathy, Ulrich.”

I am grateful. I am grateful for people who are willing to share their stories. I am grateful for people who are willing to hear the stories of others, and I am grateful for my friend.