Like many people around the world, I have been despairing and feeling hope-less. The October 7 brutal attacks on Israel -- and all the loss of life and suffering on both sides that has followed and which is likely still to come -- has left me practically without words.
Yet sometimes life gives you what you need most. For me, that is hope.
It came this morning when together with Herzliah High School teacher Ms. Brown, we brought one of her Grade Ten English classes to the Cummings Centre, where the students interviewed Holocaust survivors who are part of the centre's Holocaust survivors' support group. The activity, funded by Canadian Heritage, is part of a Blue Metropolis Literary Foundation educational program called Looking Back for a Better Future.
Before we left Herzliah, I told the kids they would be the recipients of a gift -- the survivors' stories, and that the students in turn would be giving a gift -- their attention, their interest, and well... the joy they provide simply by being teenagers, full of life and possibility.
You'd have had to be in the room with all of us to understand the impact of the exchanges that took place.
When I looked around at the faces of the students and the survivors I saw goodness and connection. There were tears, but also laughter.
A few highlights --
Maya interviewed Angela, who is 78 years old, and was born in 1944 in -- and this is in itself a miracle -- the Auschwitz concentration camp. When Angela was liberated from the camp, she told Maya, "I was like a little bird without feathers." Angela also told Maya that when she was younger, she tried to remove Auschwitz as the place of birth on her passport. But it was Vera, Angela's mother, who talked her out of it: "She told me 'No!' You will have to tell the story." Which is, of course, exactly what Angela was doing today.
A student named Akiva interviewed a survivor named Andrew. Andrew is 87; both his parents died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Andrew told Akiva, "I grew up on the streets." He also told Akiva how, at the age of eight, he was tortured by the Nazis who had trapped him in a sewer. I had warned the students that their questions could upset the survivors, but Andrew said, "I feel good to tell."
A student named Adam interviewed Léon, who's 83 and spent part of the Holocaust in a French orphanage called La Colonie Scolaire. "All the children who were there came from families who had been deported," Léon told Adam. Adam has a grandfather living in Paris who was also hidden as a child from the Nazis. Because Adam wondered if it was possible that the two men had known each other, Adam phoned home and arranged for his grandfather to phone him from Paris. Again, it's a moment that's hard for me to describe -- we don't think in the end that the two men knew each other -- but Adam's openhearted interest in Léon's story and his desire to connect Léon and his grandfather... well, it moved me to tears.
Now to return to the subject of hope. One gentleman, a survivor sitting at the far end of the room, initially said he preferred not to be interviewed. But Bill, who is 88, and was born in Lithuania, changed his mind when he met the teenagers. He was interviewed by two students (hey, I didn't write their names in my notes, so if you are at Herzliah and can help me out, post the students' names in the comment section and I'll add them here). Bill's life was spared by chance -- he was visiting family in Poland when the Nazis rounded up the Jews of Vilna and forced them into a ghetto, which was liquidated in 1943. I happened to be walking by when Bill told the students who were interviewing him: "Life without hope is worthless."
Ahh. Thank you for that, Bill.
The students have only just begun their interviews with the survivors. But I think I was right -- it was a gift for the teenagers, but also for the seniors. It was certainly a gift for me. One for which I am so very grateful.
In these dark uncertain times, we need to listen to others' stories, we need to learn from the past, and we need, perhaps above all else, to continue to hope for peace and goodness.
When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.