I don’t remember exactly what you told my eighth grade class about your mother surviving Auschwitz, but I wish I did. I wish I could remember every word, every detail you shared with us that morning. Where was she born? Was she deported alone or together with her family? How long did she stay in Europe after the war, before leaving to start a new life? Was she the only survivor in her family? What was her first name? What was your name?
It was the mid 1980’s, and my second year at that school. My father had landed a job at a computer company, which is what took us from the countryside around Salem to the affluent Portland suburb where I met you.
Adolescence had begun and my mind was consumed with trying to fit in. I needed to learn how to do makeup and fashion, quickly because I felt like the country bumpkin. I memorized British pop songs played on the radio. I struggled academically and socially. Cold War propaganda surrounded us and that was the year the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. A student messenger from the office delivered a note to the classroom the morning it happened; incidentally, the same teacher who organized your talk. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he read the note, then he excused himself from the room. I’d never seen a teacher cry before. They set up television sets for us, and instead of lessons, we watched the special reports and breaking news. A teacher was on board the shuttle, the first teacher in space, and a woman – a woman with a husband and children. It was my first national tragedy.
You walked into the classroom on silver crutches, the kind with plastic supports up to the elbow, click-clack against the beige industrial floor. You propped yourself up on the high metal stool, where our teacher usually sat. There must have been at least twenty kids in the classroom, sitting side-by-side at shared desks, arranged in a large C-shape design. We watched you, waiting for you to begin. It was not everyday that we had a guest speaker. I sat near the door, to your left, the wall of windows across the room opening up to Oregon’s low, gray sky. I still see the green chalkboards behind you, covered in white scrawl, and colorful world maps pulled down like curtains.
Your speech was slurred and I sat up straight in my chair to understand you better. I had never met an adult who looked or sounded like you. You were the teacher from the end of the hall and worked with the kids who had disabilities. I hadn’t noticed you before.
Your mother was connected, in a sense, to a girl we had read a play and seen a movie about – a Jewish girl who was locked away, hidden away, in an attic in Holland with her family during World War II. There were people in Germany then called Nazis who planned to take over the world. They tried to kill everyone who did not have blond hair and blue eyes. They hated Jews and people who were “different”. I knew this wasn’t right and I also did not understand how something like that might be possible. Didn’t they know that you’re supposed to respect everyone the same? Your mother was Jewish and had survived concentration camps. These were places where Nazis did horrible things to people and where they killed millions of people they did not like. Something else my heart and mind did not understand. Wasn’t everyone free to do what he or she believed in and to live the way they wanted to? The girl in the attic did not survive these camps, but her diary did. And so did your mother.
Your talk sparked something inside me. I woke up after that. That’s why I wish I remembered more. Aren’t we supposed to remember the details of life-changing events clearly? What captured my 14 year-old soul that day? What did you say that compelled me to explore the Holocaust for the next twenty-five years?
In my early thirties, I wrote a letter to the school. I didn’t know your name, but I described as best I could what I remembered, hoping someone might know who and what I was talking about. My intention was to thank you, but I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy. I needed to confirm my memory about how this all started for me. I asked the school if anyone could help me contact the teacher who had changed my life. They replied within hours with a very positive yes – you were in fact, still teaching there.
Peter, I dedicate these stories to you. You sharing your mother’s story gave me my whole life. One person really can make a difference.
- To hear more about our story, listen to this interview by Oregon Public Broadcasting’s program, Think Out Loud.