I’ve known Rudy at the Jewish Home for the Aged for over eight years now. I’ve read his story about hiding for three years in Holland during the Holocaust, but today, for the first time, I heard him tell it to my daughter’s 5th grade class. Listening as he recalled what happened to him over 75 years ago was an extraordinary journey. At 92, his memory was impeccable, down to the details of what color flower his contact was holding so he could recognize her.
As you might expect, the delivery was slow and the kids sometimes a bit restless, but their questions at the end revealed how deeply they listened, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be indoors for three years straight starting at 17 years old and nervous the whole time about discovery. Not knowing what had happened to your parents and then finding out after the war that they had been killed in Auschwitz. Not being able to socialize with friends or date (at 17!!) or take a walk in the park. I asked him how he passed the days and he began answering with “Peeling potatoes and taking pins out of pincushions,” but I hope to find out more. Did he write? Read? Exercise quietly?
I want to find out more about the family that sheltered him. Consider. They were not family friends taking in a neighbor who they knew. They were part of a network committed to sheltering Jews even as they knew that the penalty for doing so was death. It’s one thing for us today to put up a sign saying “Muslims welcome here” or sign a petition on Facebook, but who amongst us would be willing to shelter one for three years knowing we would be killed if anyone found out? The depth of that commitment and courage is unfathomable to us privileged folks growing up so far away from the horror of war. But maybe we need to start thinking about it as those horrors come creeping closer to our doorstep with each new announcement about the White House’s plans.
The first step in any campaign of terror and oppression and denial of rights is to shut down people’s stories, take away their voices, clear the road for the propaganda that this group is less than human and not worthy to be included in any vision of a beautiful future. The possibility of telling one’s story—through song, through poetry, through novels, through essays, through interviews, through dance, through art, whatever the media be—is a crucial first step toward humanizing the conversation and letting those with open minds, ears and hearts consider beyond propaganda and brainwashing. The rich white males have been holding the microphone for a long time in this country, but at least in the 20th century, there has been room for Louis Armstrong and James Brown, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few, to get their stories out there. And now there’s blogs and Facebook and texting and thousands different ways to tell your story. Who will listen and who is prepared to actually hear deeply is another matter.
It feels like a good time to ask everyone to tell their story and really listen. Including the working class displaced whites who voted for Trump as well as the folks from Iran. And get them to hear each other’s stories in a deep listening space. And while there’s a few of them left, I recommend finding a Holocaust survivor. Or stay tuned to this blog. Rudy also wrote his story down and with his permission, perhaps I can copy over some of it here.
Meanwhile, start preparing your attic.