Just when I thought I had all this scholarship thing knocked, the Holocaust Fellowship people go and trot out the survivors.
That sounded disrespectful, but it wasn’t intended to be. The fact of the matter is that Wednesday was, by far, the most challenging day thus far for me. I was able to make it through the first two really hard-core days of lectures and lessons. I managed to keep up – and comprehend, even! – the politics and the ethical questions and the history lessons (I’m loving the history lessons!). I’ve taken (hang on, let me check…) 35 pages of type-written notes as of 7:00 on Wednesday evening. I am learning a lot and loving the intellectual aspect of this conference.
And then Ernie got up to speak.
Ernest Michel is a Shoah survivor. The man radiates humor and humanity and love. My first contact with him came on Tuesday night when he came to my table while we were eating dinner. I was chatting with the woman across from me when I felt warm, gentle hands on my shoulders. I looked up to find this man, this lovely, joyful man, smiling down at me. I put my hand over his on my shoulder and introduced myself. I loved him already.
He told us the wonderful story about his survival. He told us about how proud he is of the tattoo on his left forearm (#104995) and about how he is compelled – compelled – to speak about his experiences. He puts everything on the table, he says, because he feels a responsibility to bear witness for those who didn’t survive, and to tell those who can carry the story on to others. He survived – he doesn’t know how, but he survived – and that’s important enough to tell.
I needed the break between sessions – which happened to be lunch – because I could not stop crying. I still haven’t figured out what button Ernie’s testimony pushed for me – perhaps it’s the idea that someone could endure this unendurable thing and come out the other side such a warm and loving person, or maybe it’s the incredible responsibility I feel to carry on the work that he’s doing in my own life – but I was entirely knocked off of my center by this afternoon’s session. It was wonderful, but it was difficult all at the same time.
Later, we were treated to a roundtable discussion between Ernie, the Baroness, whom I’ve mentioned before, and Martin Rumscheidt, the son of an executive of I. G. Farben. Farben essentially built the Auschwitz camps, and Ernie had been used as slave labor in the factory in Auschwitz Buna. It was the first time the two had met, and I wish that I could have been a fly on the wall while they had their lunch together apart from us.
I have seen Martin speak before, and felt an instant connection with this man. I can’t quite articulate what it is – I’m hoping that spending some time with him this week will help me form words around this feeling – but I can tell you for sure that something that resonates in him is moving at the same frequency as something that’s resonating in me. He carries the responsibility (not the guilt, mind you, but the responsibility) of the child of a perpetrator – a perpetrator who didn’t tell his son about his activities during the war – and Martin struggles with how to live up to that responsibility in his own life.
Anyway, I had hoped that this roundtable conversation would be a bit more – I don’t know – more than it was – I felt that it was diminished by the fact that one professor and one staff took part in (and, I and a few others feel, manipulated and monopolized) the conversation. Despite that, it was lovely to see the spirit of cooperation and concern that these survivors had with one another, and to recognize the vastness of the experience that each of them was generous enough to bring to us.
All in all, it was a profoundly moving day. Wednesday marked the halfway point, and I’m eager to see where we go next (though I’m planning on bringing some tissues with me today…)