Okay, it's a slight exaggeration to say that my mom and I traveled today to Dumas, Texas -- but we were certainly there, and we certainly connected with about 200 students at Dumas Intermediate School, thanks to Skype and the miracles of modern technology.
This was "our" third "visit" to Dumas Intermediate. Our is the right word because Cathy Craigmiles, the school librarian, asked me to speak about my historical YA Novel, What World Is Left, which is based on my mom's experience as a prisoner in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp -- and so I went to my parents' house to do the visit, which meant that the students could have a chance to meet my mom too.
I worked with two groups of Grade Six students -- and they were wonderful. A virtual visit can usually never compare with a real-life one, so maybe it was the students (they were really engaged and focused), or the material, or the fact that my mom made a guest appearance (so did my dad, but my mom is the real star of today's blog entry), but today's visit felt pretty wonderful. Most of the students were 11 or 12 years old, which made the experience especially moving for me since my mom was 12 when she was rounded up by the Nazis and shipped to Theresienstadt.
I could not resist sharing some writing tips, but mostly the students wanted to know more about the story behind my book. We talked about propaganda and I explained how my opa (the Dutch word for grandfather) was forced by the Nazis to create propaganda art. As an author, I am especially interested in "grey" areas because, to me, the world is never black and white. My opa could not have been glad to do what the Nazis forced him to do, and yet he must have known that his actions might help keep him and his family (including me) alive.
My mother is 86 (and-a-half), quite deaf and fragile, but she was well enough to say hello at the end of both sessions -- and to answer a few questions. Luckily for us, the students had amazing, thoughtful, deep questoins.
A student named Keaton wanted to know what the scariest part of my mom's experience was. She told him it was the transports -- never knowing if she would be on the list of prisoners who would be transported to Auschwitz.
A student named Andrea asked about my mom's immediate post-war experience, and you know what? My mom ended up telling a little story I had never heard before. She told Andrea, "I went back to Holland. I remember the first time I saw a slice of white bread. It was so bright it hurt my eyes." Hey, Andrea, good interviewing work!
Raigan wanted to know if, after the war, my mom ever saw anyone she knew from Theresientadt. I helped my mom with the answer to this question -- I told the students about an old friend of my grandmother's -- this woman had lost her husband before the war, and her only son was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered, and yet she had it in her to be loving to my mother... and, in 1960, when I was born, the woman (who by then was living in New York) took the Greyhound bus to Montreal so she could come in person to meet my mother's first daughter -- me!
I told the students how, when I hear something beautiful, the insides of elbows tingle. And you know that happened to me today when, after my first session, my dad was chatting with Mrs. Craigmiles and he asked her, "How come your students are so interested in the Holocaust?" -- and she answered, "They've been studying it for the last six weeks." All I can say to that is -- wow, and thank you, and that gives me hope for the future.
I think it's only fitting to close today's blog entry with my mom's words. When we were about to say good-bye to the kids at Dumas Intermediate, I asked her what advice she could offer young people who may be experiencing their own hardships. She told them, "Food they can take away. But hope is in you. Hope is the most valuable thing. Nobody can take it away."
So many many many thanks to my young friends in Dumas -- for being great listeners, for opening your hearts to stories, and for caring about other people's experiences. May you open your hands to catch many stories, and may you always have hope. Thanks, too, to Mrs. Craigmiles, who has become my friend over the years.