I’m not sure why this memory has resurfaced again, but I must deal with it — the indelible image of a Holocaust survivor bringing an auditorium of high school students to complete and utter silence.
In my 20s, I taught English in a suburban school district with a significant Jewish population. As part of a humanities unit, “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” we covered historical topics and literary works such as “Night,” Elie Wiesel‘s account of the Holocaust.
(This actually is a two-part memory, of events two decades apart, so forgive me if some particulars are inaccurate.)
Mid-1980s: The Holocaust survivor spoke at the high school where I taught, and of the many riveting anecdotes he shared, one has been seared into my psyche.
The speaker, a wonderful man who lived to be 84, told of being in a Nazi concentration camp as a young man and seeing this scene unfold: Jewish prisoners were brought out to a massive trench, which they no doubt had been forced to dig, to be executed.
One prisoner was with his young son, and as they lined up with many others next to the trench, the man put an arm around his son’s shoulder and said something softly to him. Then he raised one arm and pointed to the heavens, and his son’s eyes followed.
I cannot think about that story without getting a knot in my stomach. It is so horrific, I cannot say it aloud without choking up, so I have to write it. I cannot fathom the inhumanity and pure evil of what the Nazis did.
Spring 2003: My family was invited to a celebration following the bar mitzvah of one of my son’s friends. It was a joyous occasion, with live music, wonderful food and probably 300 guests.
At one point during the festivities, there was a pause to recognize and honor the young man, his parents and siblings and extended family. Then, the master of ceremonies announced that there were two special guests to be honored.
He said the names of two women, asked them to stand, and very reverently announced that they were Holocaust survivors.
The audience was silent for a moment, as I recall, and then several people began to clap. Then more, until the sound of applause filled the banquet room. Everyone stood, joining the women, and honored them with extended applause.
I will never forget that moment, or the survivor who spoke to the high school students. I doubt anyone else in those rooms could forget, either.