Sunday, December 11, 2011

this history

I've been thinking a lot about history lately, since Victoria came to speak to my students.

I wonder sometimes what sort of history I'll have to pass on to my children. History, the real, deep parts of history, is becoming more distant. I've never lived through anything that's worthy of a chapter in a history book (not that I'm complaining because the things worthy of a chapter in a history book are usually big and scary). I've become more cognizant of what history there is around me, what things I should ask about and talk about, things that are big but maybe aren't in a history book.
Like how both of my parents had their blood types tattooed on them during the Cold War. Apparently blood type tattoos were done in the case of a nuclear attack from Russia, but--understandably--it was not widely done. They had it done during elementary school, walked down as a class and given tattoos. Can you imagine something like this happening today? My mom jumped, so hers is a blur, but my dad still has a clear, though faded, A+ tattooed on his side.

My mom is a polio survivor. She has this amazing collection of dolls and as a child, I remember learning that she got them when she spent a long time in the hospital as a child herself, with polio. I remember learning about Franklin Roosevelt in school and asking her later why she wasn't in a wheel chair or crippled in any way. She explained that she had the form of polio that attacks the respiratory system and showed me the dimple in her throat from the tracheotomy. When you look back at pictures, those were the kids in iron lungs. My parents both talk about what a scary time this was, because no one knew how polio was spread and Jonas Salk hadn't yet created a vaccine. There were quarantine signs on houses. People were afraid to let their children go public places. Can you imagine? I can't. This isn't my history, and yet, it is.

Back to this powerfully tiny woman...

You're probably tired of me talking about her, but I can't help it. I've been irrevocably changed by the depth of the lessons she taught me and my students. Again, there is the history that you read in books and then there is history. When she came last week, I introduced her to a colleague who teaches history. She said, "You teach history. I AM history." She is. I remember reading Night for the first time at fifteen and putting down the book and bursting into tears at his description of how the SS men threw babies in the air and used them for target practice. It was a moment of knowing but not knowing. I knew the horror of the Holocaust was extreme, but this was a level that I didn't know and then I did and it was almost too much to handle (yet, out of respect for those who LIVED it, I had to read it--I had to know).
It was like this with Victoria. I knew the horrors. In the years that have passed since reading Night, I've read countless books and watched countless documentaries on the Holocaust. I knew.

And yet, I didn't. I didn't know what it was like to watch the eyes of a 90 year old woman cloud with tears as she talked about watching an SS man take a crying baby and throw it into a wall and then, when she fainted at the sheer horror of it, she was beaten. I didn't know what it was like to watch the tears blink away, her voice thick with anger as she explained, "Because I was supposed to CLAP for him, because I was supposed to applaud him because everything they did was right. NO." I knew about the selection process at concentration camps, but to hear her talk with shame at having to take off her clothes while the soldiers stood around and watched and told them Polish people were dirty and still all these years later, she feels she has to explain, "We were not a dirty people, this was not true." To bite my lip against the tears as she tells how the old women and children under seven went one way, while she went another way and they never saw those women again. Just like that. I knew this, but I didn't. Because this is her history. It's written down in books, but it isn't. The words in the books aren't the same as looking into the bright green eyes of someone who lived it, someone who faced these atrocities and is not afraid to stand up and say how they were wrong and how it taught her to channel her anger into good. imagine, learning a lesson from the hurt. We could all use to do this.

Just when I started to think I couldn't be more in awe, Victoria came back to speak to the rest of my students on Thursday and handed me a Christmas present. I didn't understand. I stood there dumbly, because why was SHE giving ME something, when it was me who owed her so much? She said, "Open it, tell me if you like it." I pulled out a beautiful table runner and again, stood there dumbly as her daughter said, "She made that for you." This. She made THIS for ME.

I don't know what I did to deserve it and looking at it makes my heart twist in a million ways, ways that I can't even tell you. We have the perfect table for it, too, but the words are failing me. She gave herself in so many deep, raw ways to myself and to my students and yet, she went home and crocheted me a table runner, like she had to give more. The lump in my throat grows each time I look at it.

I don't have history of my own, but I have this table runner that was made by the hands of a woman who survived the Holocaust and kept with her a spirit that refused to be broken. I have the words to teach my children when they're older, to share her history with as much depth as I can muster. It's not written in a book. Instead it sits on my table, it lives within my heart and mind and my promise to never, ever forget.

22 comments:

nicole said...

Oh geez, this is amazing. Thanks for sharing. As I said in a comment on Instagram maybe (?) you did give her something by giving her another opportunity to tell her story. To continue to tell people what happened and why it matters to continue to talk about it. This is just beautiful.

Lyndsay said...

While there have been terrible things happening around the world for our lifetimes, I think 9-11 is the capital "H" History moment that our generation has so far. And I hope that's it. I hope nothing more terrible happens.

*Lissa* said...

Tears. Just beautiful.

Bari said...

We can never fully understand the horrors Victoria & others like her experience, but by inviting her into your classroom, she not only touched your life but the lives of your students. Thank you for continuing to share here.

pinkflipflops said...

what an amazing woman.

Adam said...

Thank you, Erin. (I really don't know what else to say.)

Becky said...

Wow!!
This is just so beautiful and your relationship with this piece of history makes my heart swell.

p.s. you can't talk about it enough.

Julie said...

So, I've wanted to comment on this, like, 4 times, and the words keep not coming out right, so you get this. HI, I'm commenting to let you know how awesome you are-- please pretend this comment is profound.

Tonya said...

Your writing is beautiful. It is special because it makes me feel something. Thank you for sharing Victoria with us.

Crooked Eyebrow said...

ok, can we come in as guest students to hear her?

i keep rereading your posts on her because I am in awe of her and you.

Nichole said...

She sounds like a really amazing woman with a lot to share with those who grew up in other generations. And it was beautiful of her to crochet that table runner. It's gorgeous.

But Erin, you have a history. We all do. History isn't just tragedy. It's not to devalue hers or any other person who had to endure a horrific time, but history is about good things as well. History is remembering chicken pox parties, neon slap bracelets, a time when metal detectors in schools were unheard of. A time when we could write dark poetry and not be sent to the principal's office, and a time when we had to call 1-800-COLLECT and say, "Mom come pick me up from school," because cell phones weren't the norm.

We wrote notes, not email. Our cutting-edge video games were 8-bit and arcades were still around. And remember when Southlake Mall had fountains?

Erin, you have a colorful, wonderful history to share with your kids. I know it will be one that will fill them in awe and wonder of a "time now gone."

Anonymous said...

I am not a emotional person at all, this made me cry.

keli [at] kidnapped by suburbia said...

absolutely amazing. i really have no words.

when i was in high school, i had a history report about ww2 and was able to interview my grandmother's neighbor, who survived life in a concentration camp. at the time, i didn't realize the gravity of what i was getting to do ... but i'm honored that she sat with a snotty little teenager long enough to give me a view into that awful life.

Adah said...

Your words capture so much and it's like we are sitting there listening instead of reading. What an honor to have something that Victoria made for you. It's something that you will remembers always!

One crazed mommy said...

Can't swallow right now because of the lump in my throat. What a remarkable woman, and what kindness she carries in her heart, regardless of the horrors she has not only seen, but been part of. That is history she has given you, and one day, generations from now, one of your family members will be saying "This belonged to...and was given by..." - truly awesome!

quicklikeabunny said...

Beautiful in so many ways.

Kaycee said...

Oh. I have no words, only tears. This is amazing. What a beautiful soul Victoria is.

ZDub said...

Oh mah gah, that is gorgeous.

And I might have cried a teeny bit. :)

Stephanie said...

oh wow. i got all teary eyed reading this. a-MAZING! and i was going to say the same thing Lyndsay said - 9/11 is definitely a chapter for the history books. i don't think i'll ever forget that day...

InTheFastLane said...

She is a survivor in ways I can't even imagine. And I am so thankful that those kids got to hear her and learn and hopefully carry that forward for the rest of their lives.

Sharon - MomGenerations said...

Your words mesmerize and move me... xo

Sue said...

Just now reading this psot and am moved to tears. What an amazing and humbling experience to hear her speak and to know her.

As a side note, my father also is a polio surviver. His affected his legs and was confined to a bed for a long time. His legs are different lengths and must wear two different size shoes. He now suffers from Post-Polio Syndrome and has difficulty walking. His Polio affected leg needs a brace because he has little muscle control to keep it from colapsing while he walks or stands.