2016-12-21 / Columns

In awe of Holocaust survivors and their resilience


I’m not sure what I expected. Perhaps a rather quiet gathering of a few people. Maybe even a dense silence.

My husband and I had accepted an invitation to Café Europa, a monthly lunch gathering of local Holocaust survivors in our community sponsored by the wonderful folks of Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) with help from a corps of devoted volunteers.

But the last thing we expected was to enter a room at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill filled with men and women alternately listening, clapping and then dancing to the music of a wonderful singer.

Somehow, in my own ignorance, I had expected something very different, something far smaller, quieter, and definitely not bursting with the joy and conviviality we witnessed.

I’ve been thinking, since, how nourishing and enriching it was to be in that room.

I think many of us have stereotypical images of elderly Holocaust survivors. We might expect a certain reserve or an aura of lingering sadness or anger.

So being in that room at the JCC was such a wake-up call.

These are people who remember that life does go on. Buoyant life. Meaningful life.

As my husband and I met, and in some cases re-met people in the survivor community, we were struck by their engagement with life. Obviously, life becomes even more sacred when it has been compromised in histories we cannot possibly fathom.

These lunches seem to be nourishing in a way that has not so much to do with food, but rather to bring together people who have a bond so deep that it reaches beyond words.

They live among us in the larger world, but also cherish one another because before they could enjoy music and laughter and yes, wonderful food, they experienced the unspeakable.

In my own life as a journalist, I’ve interviewed famous people— actors and talk show hosts and a stream of Miss Americas. It felt exciting and glamorous and important. That is, until I joined Steven Spielberg’s crusade to record the testimonies of every Holocaust survivor he could reach on Planet Earth.

That vision, and its scope, so dazzled me that I signed on to be an interviewer.

In the process of that experience, I sat opposite men and women with stories so horrific that it was difficult not to gasp.

I have never forgotten any of them because once you do this work, it is impossible to ever leave it behind.

It was also, for me, the greatest privilege I’ve ever known as a writer.

The shock of the survivors’ stories taught me more than anything else ever has about the human spirit. It awakened in me the true meaning of what it is to be Jewish.

So while I sat and talked with these survivors, who are my neighbors, and who do ordinary things but have extraordinary histories, I was reminded once again how accidents of geography, history, and destiny gave me the life I’ve lived, and gave the people at Cafe Europa totally different lives.

Why them? Why not me?

That is the imponderable, the mystery of timing and fate.

That recent afternoon, as we moved from table to table, my husband and I marveled again at the resilience of these men and women—as I learned of their current lives, and their passion for art and music, their love of this country, flaws and all, and yes, their bonds to their own families, but also to one another, I rejoiced that for one golden afternoon, I was in remarkable company.

That included Charlotte Weiss, a beautiful, dynamic lady who can tell the story of actually approaching Dr. Josef Mengele, the Holocaust’s feared “Angel of Death,” and begging him for the lives of her sisters.

The youngest one, too small and frail to be of value in doing hard labor, was about to be exterminated before ever getting to the camps.

Charlotte can tell the story of how that sister was saved, and how miraculously, all four sisters are still alive and still in close touch.

To know Charlotte is to know the life force. And there were so many Charlottes in that JCC room that day.

I plan to visit Cafe Europa again. And listen. And learn.

And realize that these people don’t want our sympathy or our pity.

They just want our ears while they are still here to tell us that two words must direct our own lives.

“Never Again.”


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