In the early weeks of summer of 2010, after my first year of teaching, I had the dream of designing and implementing a Holocaust Literature and Art course. The idea had been building in my mind for most of the previous year and after much time, thought, and courage, I met with my school administrator and pitched my idea. To my surprise, he was 100% on board.
So, I had the summer to put my dream into fruition, a frightening task.
The summer was filled with planning; I took time to carefully choose what books to read, plays to attend, and stories to share. More importantly, the summer was filled with communication back and forth with an organization that had been recommended to me by a journalist I had reached out to; this organization was Tolerance Minnesota.
Shortly after I began communicating with TM, I learned of a unique opportunity, the opportunity to have actual Holocaust survivors come to my class and share their stories. This, I knew right away, would be the most important part of my course.
Fast forward a number of months to February of 2011. My class was ready to meet our first Holocaust survivor, a woman by the name of Margot. A few weeks before her scheduled visit, we learned she was quite weak and unable to travel. However, with some creativity on both of our parts, we came up with the idea of having my class join her in her home to hear her story.
I was excited and nervous. I had never met a Holocaust survivor before, much less welcomed myself and thirteen other students into her home. Nervously, I baked cookies the night before to try to be hospitable. They burnt, like most of my other baking ventures that year, but I brought them anyway.
We were dropped off in front of her home and cautiously made our way in. Her home was filled to the brim with photos, artifacts, stories to be told. She welcomed us with bright eyes and a wide smile; she looked tired and weary but warmly inviting all at the same time.
We made ourselves comfortable around her as she sat in a well-lived in Lazy-Boy chair; she began to tell her story.
We learned of her story before the war; she told us of life in Germany as a young child. She told us of her move to the Netherlands during Nazi occupation. She told us of the evil she saw around her and her decision to fight what she saw was going on, even when it put her and her husband’s lives at risk. She told us of her work in the Resistance, delivering false passports and identification cards to Jews who needed to escape Holland and the persecution they faced.
She told us of being caught, right before they meant to flee the country.
She told us of Auschwitz.
She showed us her tattoo, the second tattoo that is. Shortly after Margot received her first identification tattoo, she snuck off, grabbed a handful of gravel, and scrubbed it off as viciously as she could. She was, for the most part, successful. However, when she was discovered, they tattooed her arm again, this time much larger.
The tattoo stood out on her arm; though skin aged and ink faded, this tattoo told a story.
It told the story of the horrible conditions she faced, the hunger, the work, the sorrow.
It told the story of survival of Dr. Mengele’s human experimentation and forced sterilization.
It told Margot’s story.
But, her story did not end there.
Though her dreams of raising a family ended as a result, her dreams of forming young minds did not.
Though she would suffer from physical hardships for the rest of her life, her ability to flourish did not suffer.
Though she faced atrocities no one should ever experience, she found joy and hope and meaning.
Though she would rather forget her story, she chose to share it instead. She chose to work for good despite the evil she experienced.
That day changed me.
That was the last time she shared her story with a group of students; my students were the last students to hear her story in this way.
Today, I found out that Margot passed away this weekend. Margot was 92.
Though I did not know Margot well and only met her that one time, she changed my life. She believed in the good of humanity, despite experiencing the evil of humanity. She challenged my students to see their role in fighting injustice in whatever form they may experience or witness it today. She inspired me with the hope of flourishing despite wrongs done. She had hope.
On this day, I am saddened but thankful for the opportunity to have met Margot. I am also reminded of the importance of hearing and remembering these stories as many survivors are no longer with us. We are required to learn their stories, share their stories, learn from their stories, and be changed as a result of their stories.
Margot was the first Holocaust survivor that I met and through her sharing her story, I was inspired to continue doing whatever I could to facilitate these experiences.
These stories need to be heard. I am so thankful to learn from Margot’s and may we learn, remember, and fight to make sure these stories are not created again.
You are my witnesses. – Isaiah 43:10
Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children. –Deuteronomy 4:9
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” – Elie Wiesel