Tuesday, December 6, 2011

her hands held history

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.

linking up with Just Write

28 comments:

Julie said...

I am so glad all went well and that you finally were able to make this happen. I grew up with a lot of kids with survivors for grandparents, so it didn't occur to me until I was an adult to be blown away by them, as I am now. In a country were we are going down the dangerous road of attacking our teachers first, I hope the parents and community recognize what you have done for their children today by arranging this.

Lyndsay said...

And now you've made a memory for these students that they won't soon forget.
Good job Mrs. C!

Herb of Grace said...

Absolutely beautiful post :)

Heather said...

One of my strongest memories of school is when Eli Wiesel came to visit. It was amazing. We had read Night. He made history real like nothing else can to preteen/teen.

What a great experience you were able to set up for your students! I'm glad they responded so well.

InTheFastLane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
InTheFastLane said...

I am totally in tears.
And I am so glad that your students "got this" and the day and the experience.

I have been to the holocaust museums in both Los Angles and Washington DC, and in DC there where bunks from Auschwitz. And I stood there, starting and realizing the real people who had slept there, died there, been marched to their death from there. Heartbreaking, the enormousness and the tragedy.

And it CAN happen again (Serbia, Rowanda...). Hopefully, these kids will remember and take it forward and make sure that it doesn't.

Jo said...

What an amazing gift for your students.

I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau with my husband several years ago and, like you, it was incredible. Obviously not in a "wow!" tourist kind of way, but the energy seeping from every corner of those camps still takes my breath away. It was certainly one of the most emotionally-charged days of my life.

Becky said...

Wonderful! beautiful post and beautiful thing to have her talk to your students.

quicklikeabunny said...

How brave of that woman to continue to share her story. What an impact she - and you - made today. Awesome.

Adam said...

You're good at this. (This being teaching, writing, living, etc.)

Natalie said...

This just gave me goosebumps! Those students are lucky to have you set up something so meaningful for them.

Anna said...

I'm bawling. I'm so glad that you and your students were able to hear her powerful story.

Stephanie said...

Oh wow. What an amazing moment for you AND for your students. I still remember walking through the Holocaust museum in DC and how you could have heard a pin drop because nobody had any words to say as we walked through, holding our breaths at the history displayed before our eyes. I hope we never forget history like this, because it should never, ever happen.

Adventures In Babywearing said...

Oh, tears stung my eyes as I read this. What a powerful moment that must have been.

Steph

pinkflipflops said...

Wow, what a wonderful experience for your students.

Abra said...

you will hold that class time in your heart forever. wow. you are an awesome teacher for making history come to life.

Bari said...

Wow. Just wow. I've been to the holocaust museum in DC and that is a powerful & moving experience, but nothing like what your students experienced today.

Elaine A. said...

I'm so very glad she survived that horribleness and was there with you today and I'm sure that she enjoyed your cookies more than you'll ever know. Even just the thought... ;)

Crooked Eyebrow said...

your words left me speechless and the thought of her speaking to our youth leaves me with goosebumps.

amazing

One crazed mommy said...

Wow - I envy you and the students being able to listen to her speak. What a memory she will leave to all who hear her. I got teared up just reading about it - I can only imagine listening, and can't even begin to imagine the horrors she, and so many others, lived through. Noone should ever, ever have to go through anything like that in their lifetime, and it's just amazing to think that there are people out there evil enough to try. Very scary - heartbreaking.

Kim said...

This is so very beautiful. I told Jeremy last night about your visit and we were both envious of those students. To be able to learn from this woman, to hear her stories, to have it really come to life for them. What an amazing experience you have given them.

Cameron said...

I remember the gravel crunching, and the piles of suitcases, shoes, HAIR. We went to Holocaust museums in many different countries when we lived in Europe, but there's nothing like being THERE.

I'm so glad you could arrange this for your students. xoxo

Sara said...

I have goosebumps on my arms and tears in my eyes as I read your post today. What an amazing experience. Your students are lucky to have a teacher like you. :)

Laura Seymour said...

this brought back many memories of hearing a survivor that used to come to my grade school, and once having the privilege of hearing eli wiesel. we will never, ever know (god willing) this horror, but it's SO important for our children to understand that these SURVIVORS are real, living, breathing people. i can't quite put into words what i'm trying to say...what an experience for you and your class. i'm so glad it went better than you could have ever expected.

Leah said...

I know your students will never forget this, Erin. I am so proud of you for making something like this happen for them. Lessons in humanity are so vital. I wish I could have heard her speak!

Jaime said...

Wow. Tears...as one who comes from Polish (Jewish) heritage...thank you. What a powerful message and gift given to your students. You're an amazing teacher.

Foursons said...

I too visited Dachau at 16 years old. I remember the same things, it is not something easily forgotten. Haunting for sure. And, the weather was the same. Eerily the same.

I wish I could have been in that room today with you. What an honor to be in her presence.

Kaycee said...

What a powerful lesson. An amazing experience for your students and for you. It gives me chills. Her stories are so powerful and so tragic. We have to keep teaching the next generations to keep it from happening again and to stop the atrocities happening now.