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.