When I got off the ship that brought me to the United States in 1945, the American relatives who took me in urged me to forget everything that had happened to me and my family in the Holocaust. They told me to never think or speak of it again. I was fifteen years old and they were adults, so I listened to them. As time went on whenever the silence became too painful and I tried to bring up something that occurred during the war years I was interrupted with a harsh stare and a change of topic. No one wanted to listen. For forty years, I followed my relatives’ well-meaning advice. I finished high school, went to college and got a PhD, established a good career as a professor, married the love of my life, and raised a son and a daughter. And during all that time I hardly ever spoke about the Holocaust. People rarely asked, and I was in the habit of not speaking of it. Only a few people knew.
In spring 1986 I was asked to participate on a panel at an exhibition honoring Anne Frank in Detroit, Michigan. Anne and I lived in the same neighborhood in Amsterdam. Anne and I travelled different edges of the same circle, knowing of each other and sharing common friends, but Anne was almost two years older than me—a lifetime for young girls—and seemingly inhabited a more sophisticated, popular world. I looked up to her. The last time I saw Anne was when both of us were in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Thoughts of Anne brought back memories of Amsterdam under Nazi occupation, my family’s time in the concentration camps, and my eventual solo journey to North Africa.
I became increasingly aware of the importance of witnessing, meaning I was part of important historical events and I had a moral obligation to testify, or tell my story as part of a mission to ensure they never happen again. With so many Holocaust deniers speaking up around the world, the kind of evidence that only survivors could provide was crucial. Elie Wiesel was a leader with this idea, and he made a deep impression on me when he said:
If you were there, if you breathed the air and heard the silence of the dead, you must continue to bear witness…to prevent the dead from dying again.”
In other words, my silence would help others to forget the Holocaust, meaning the dead would have died in vain.
I was emotionally torn. On one hand I was locked in the habit of silence. I was also scared of revisiting my past too closely—some memories cut to the core. Yet I was flooded with the desire to tell the story about the miracle of how I survived when so many didn’t. I had a growing understanding that keeping silent about what happened to me during the Holocaust was no longer an option. I thought of my parents, especially my Pappi, and all they had sacrificed for me. I had to exhibit that kind of courage.
So I began to speak, and what surprised me most was who was most interested: students, those who were the same age as I was when I went through the Holocaust. Those young teenagers coming of age. The same group, ironically, that I feared most.
I was afraid to speak about my personal history in front of hundreds of middle school and high school students who would fill the school auditorium with noise and hoodies, cell phones, and backpacks. I wasn’t used to so much energy and movement! Looking back, I was most afraid of being laughed at, of being judged, being misunderstood, or facing an auditorium of yawns and blank stares. But the unexpected happened. Not only did students listen and ask good hard questions, but they wrote me afterwards to share reflections on my story and share their own stories. They wrote me of losing a loved one and of being bullied, of having someone stick up for them and of sticking up for someone else, and of feeling discriminated against and not letting it get them down.
Their writings, drawings, and poems heartened me, giving me the motivation to keep talking and sharing even though it was often painful. For more than twenty-five years I have saved student work—certain pieces I know by heart—and many adorn my home office. I can no longer remember my childhood in Germany and the Netherlands without students’ words dancing along the canals of Amsterdam, or their drawings floating down from the grey sky over Bergen-Belsen. They are now part of my story and make me feel that peace is possible if we reach across our differences, across generations, across religions, and across race.
And so, dear reader, I will share my story with you. I promise to be interesting. Remember, I was young once, when I lived through the Holocaust.