Their voices were calm and matter of fact. Each stood alone at a lectern in a college auditorium and spoke without stopping for an hour or more.
Each had survived the Holocaust.
Every year, a college in our town sponsored a Holocaust Remembrance that featured a living, breathing survivor. The audience would fill with college students, some younger students from high schools, and people like me who saw the notice late every year and dropped everything to race across town. How can I not go, I asked myself, no matter how busy, no matter how many books I’ve read, no matter how hard the story they would tell? How can I risk there being a single empty seat?
The person I remember most vividly was a woman in her eighties. She stood next to the lectern, not behind it, and rested her right arm on its edge, like a person might do if they were chatting in a friendly bar somewhere. She was dressed in a very tailored suit which she later mentioned she had made herself. She had, she told us, survived the camps because she could sew.
She told about the deaths of her parents and her siblings. Her voice was clear and strong but her words came out as if she was telling her story for the first time. Steady and strong, factual, no embellishment. She had no slides or photos, no way to show us the young person she had been, so she took us there with her words. She talked about hunger and fear, seeming to know that no words could describe what those words meant then to people who were living now. She just described but didn’t emphasize, didn’t wave her arms or tell us that it was the worst thing that had ever happened. She kept herself to her own path.
She said that each day in the camp she did what she needed to do to live to the next day. It was her job to survive, she said. God wanted her to survive. I sat thinking that she was sparing us the details, the stories of cruelty and desperation. We weren’t tough enough to hear those things and she knew it.
After her talk, a student asked her if she was bitter about what had happened and she said no. But it wasn’t because she had forgiven the people who had perpetrated such horror. She wasn’t bitter, she said, because she couldn’t raise her children with love if her heart was filled with anger, it would hurt them, damage their lives, so she decided to be happy. And she was. She lived her life.
When she said this, she was still standing with her arm on the lectern, hands clasped, standing straight as a twenty-year old. She wore old lady shoes that laced up and they looked just like the shoes in photos of people dressed in their traveling clothes being herded on to the trains except now they were beautiful like very dark glass slippers. Is that how she survived, I wondered? Was she magical in some way? Stronger than other people? No, that wasn’t it. She told us how she survived. She could sew.