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?
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- When you hear the word “history”, what do you think of? How is “history” separate from the present?
- 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?
- 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?
- Education and Life Lessons
- Jewish Americans/Jews
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
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?”
“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?