Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sometimes things are serious.

So lately I've been having a lot of minor anxiety attacks (don't worry, the story gets better). I've been worrying about getting schoolwork done, my love life, why my ankle's twinging like that, whether or not my roommates hate me, etc. So last Thursday when my teacher told us that we weren't going to have class, I breathed a sigh of relief. Right after saying that, she clarified that we were going to go watch a guest speaker instead. All right, not as exciting, I thought, but still not as bad as having to go to this class for a real lesson.

I should probably get out in the open that I'm a double major in Linguistics and German. This particular class is an exciting and entertaining German class called "Jewish Experience" (no invoking Godwin's Law for this. It's just too easy). As you can probably guess, it's not a happy class most of the time. Well any of the time, really. Basically it's a study of how Jews were mistreated for 400 years or so in Germany / Prussia / Austro-Hungarian Empire. So as for the speaker we were going to listen to...well, you can probably guess by now (hint: it was a Holocaust survivor).

I arrived 5 minutes before she was supposed to start. The room was completely full, and I actually had to sit on the floor. Others couldn't even get in the door. We all eagerly waited for the speaker to start. She began with her name, and then we were lost in the story of a nightmare. Her name is Tosia (pronounced Tasha) Schneider. She was a Jew living in a small little village in Poland (now Ukraine). As a mere teenager, she saw her entire family and all of her friends get killed off one by one. She told us about hiding from the Nazis handing out "Typhus vaccinations" (they actually just rounded the people lined up, force-marched them to the woods outside of the village, made them dig their own graves, take off their clothes, and then the Nazis shot them all. The worst part is that they charged the surviving Jews for the bullets it took to kill them). She told us about working in forced labor camps, and about living in the ghetto. She encouraged us to start using the word "Shoah" instead of "Holocaust" because the latter has positive connotations in Hebrew, and there was nothing positive about the mass murder that occurred. She kept all of us on the edge of our seats, describing how one person survived merely by chance and the occasional kindness of others. While this calamity was occurring and her mother was still alive, she made little Tosia promise that if she survived, she must tell this story to the world, lest the world not realize how horrible it all truly was. She wrote her memoirs, and they were published in 2007, and have been recently been translated into French. Our local newspaper also wrote an article about her speech.

I left the room haunted after her story. You can read about Holocaust survivors and kinda become immune to the effect, but this was something you couldn't ignore because it was right in front of you. You could see the pain in her eyes as she talked about the disappearance of her father. You could tell she was reliving every moment while she was telling you her story, but she still found the strength and courage to relive the ultimate trauma. One striking thing that sticks out to me is during the question and answer section. An old man stood up and asked her in a heavy accent "How long did it take before you were able to tell your story?" Then he clarified his answer by revealing that he, too, was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. It was really amazing how these two people found a connection through their pain right in front of us. I realized then how very fortunate I was to be in the room with incredible people such as these. 10 years from now, this probably would have been impossible. We are the last generation that will get to hear these horrors from a first-hand source. I'm very grateful for this experience, and suddenly my little anxieties don't seem all that serious after all...

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