The end of May usually finds me visiting the Brooklyn New School (BNS), the alma mater of my three grandchildren. There I talk to four fifth-grade classes about my book, At The Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust, a memoir that covers the eight years I spent in Belgium before, during and after World War II,.
The news media frequently examines the sad state of New York City’s public schools: absenteeism, lack of learning, rowdiness, poor reading skills; but none of these shortcomings are apparent at BNS. The children are attentive, polite and know more about what went on in Europe during World War II than many adults. They understand the meaning of the word anti-Semitism, which I have to explain to other groups I lecture to regularly.
I realize that my experiences during the Holocaust were benign compared to those who survived the camps. Like Anne Frank’s family, my mother, sister and I (my father was out of the picture because he had been forcibly deported to France, from where he reached the safety of the United States) did not heed the order to report to the alleged work camps.
My mother, my sister and I split up and hid separately “in plain sight.” In the course of the next two years, eight different families, none of whom had decided beforehand to be heroic, offered us shelter, even though they were endangering their own lives. Others saw to it that we received essential food stamps, false papers and other necessities. During my lectures, I spend a lot of time stressing how crucial it is for individuals to listen to their heart and act accordingly.
Some parents question the wisdom of teaching the Holocaust and its horrors, but genocides and crimes of humans against fellow humans is on the increase. It is important to stress that we are all responsible for our acts and that individual courage does make a difference. At BNS we talked about how Paul Rusesabagina, a simple hotelkeeper, single-handedly saved 1,268 people during the genocide that claimed one million lives in Rwanda in 1984.
I love talking at BNS. I identify with my audience because I was about their age when I had to manage to survive under very difficult circumstances. I tell them about my past fears and triumphs. Seeing me now, as a contented, successful member of society, may help them realize that most of us have the power to surmount a difficult youth. By sharing what I have learned, I pay tribute to those who helped me when I was in need.