When I was 16, I went to Europe on a school trip. I got my first job at 15 to pay for this trip, so badly I wanted to go. One of the events on our trip was a visit to Dachau--an event that I looked forward to, in a weird sort of way.
I remember this day so vividly. It was a grey, overcast sky with a chill in the air. The perfect weather for something so somber. I remember the way the gravel crunched beneath my feet as we walked around. It wasn't a guided tour, we just walked and looked at everything. The barracks, the piles of shoes, the crematoriums still with soot marks on the bricks, the THOUGHT that those soot marks were once human so hard to comprehend all these decades later. To imagine the atrocities that went on in the very place where we now stood. The mass graves, the barbed wire, the sign that claimed that work was freedom. It was and still is one of the more poignant events of my life.
Today a Holocaust survivor came to speak to my students. I've been trying to arrange this for years, because my students struggle with understanding that these were real people, people just like them with hopes and dreams. She is so tiny. 90 years old with wispy white hair. I asked if she wanted to sit, she said, "No. I MARCH, so they listen to me." And listen they did. She told of the Germans coming silently, like thiefs in the night. How they took the religious men first, then they took the teachers. She told them that history always attacks the teachers first, because the teachers make you think and make you aware. She told of how all the teachers had to dig a hole and then one by one, the Germans shot them and buried them in the very grave they dug. She told of how she was arrested. A German soldier lifted up her skirt with a bayonet, and she smacked it away. She was beaten for that. How her brother was killed in a concentration camp. How her mother died from the operations done on her in a concentration camp. Of being placed in closed trucks and starved and afraid for her life and of working in a German military hospital because she could speak German. She talked of the Americans liberating and how all the German soldiers, the ones who weren't wounded, disappeared again like thieves in the night. How when she learned of liberation, she ran up and down the hall shouting and banging on things and celebrating and you could see it, this 90 year old woman, you could see it in her eyes how it must have been.
She spoke of so much that I can't even really put into words, not quite, how deeply moved I am, how my eyes clouded with tears at the pain and somehow, beauty of it. She told my students, "You might say, this couldn't happen to me. I said that once, too."
My students didn't want to leave the room even when I told them it was okay to go. This never happened. They lingered, some staying behind to hug her and say thank you. She asked each one their full name and delighted at the Polish last names.
We hugged tightly before she left. I gave her the cookies I made and said, "I know this isn't much of a thank you, but I hope you like them." She clasped my hands in her and told me she would enjoy them so much, that she loves cookies. My hands smell like her soft, powdery perfume as I type this. I can't quite tell you the strength and power held within that moment, sixty years between us--her surviving untold atrocities, me this morning, worrying about how my students would behave for her--yet somehow connecting in that single handheld moment over a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
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