Of all the blessings I’ve received from my time on a High school campus, being in the Auditorium when the Schiffs came to speak is the most profoundly emotional and stirring. But for the miracle of my grandfather’s immigration my own beloved father might have gone up in Hitler’s flames, or died on the Eastern front. The idea that the Holocaust can be denied, that facts are twisted to make it just one more in a long line of human atrocities, is specious at best and horrific at the core.
My school is socially, ethnically and economically diverse. We have students with notched eyebrows, gang tats and some who routinely get sent home for dress code violations when they show up wearing colors. There is sometimes tension between students, for all of these reasons. These reasons are also why the painful memories shared with us that day were so important, and the student’s reactions to those memories nothing less than wonderful, miraculous.
I apologize for the length of this post, but I couldn’t bring myself to edit and thus perhaps diminish the power of the Schiffs message. It’s been almost three years now, and the reminiscence that follows has appeared elsewhere but, in light of a post that seeks to diminish specific atrocities of WWII, I thought it appropriate to repost.
Mr. B sent out a notice that he had invited Holocaust survivors, the Schiffs, Rosalee and William, to speak to some students. It was set for about 100 students in the tech area of the Library. He opened it up to any other teachers who wanted their students to hear this living history lesson and any of us who could come, too. It quickly got moved to the cafeteria to accommodate a few hundred students; by yesterday, it was 1200 students, their teachers, and all of us admin folk who could make the time to go. I decided early on that no matter what was on my desk, I would take the time to hear these people speak.
The Theatre folk and Mrs. W, the Assistant Principal in charge of press, publicity, and events placed six silver pillars graduated in height, an assortment of fresh, green plants, two of our more comfortable chairs and glasses of bottled water on the Auditorium stage. Kids filed in, noisy as teenagers are but they were made to sit with their classes and their teachers kept them orderly, as did the various APs and others of us lining the walls as they came in.
When nearly every seat was taken, first Mrs. Schiff rolled out with her walker, then Mr. Schiff, surprisingly spry after a recent stroke. They took their seats, a sip or two of water and Mrs. Schiff settled her notes across one arm. The seats filled up. Mrs. W took the stage and channeled her cheerleader voice - the good mics were with the Schiffs but she needed none. She gave a warm welcome and explained to the audience how honored we were to have two living members of history here to bring it to life for us. She turned it over to the Schiffs and as the kids applauded in welcome, one by one, they spontaneously rose to their feet and gave this little old couple they had never seen before a standing ovation. They had survived.
As soon as she started speaking most kids were quiet, but when Mrs. Schiff began, a few students and teachers shushed the stray talkers. As Mrs. Schiff talked, no more shushing would be required, for the next hour or so, you could've heard a pin drop in that Auditorium as she told their stories. Sometimes she'd make a small joke, talk about the young man, the friend who became her husband, "He's an old man now..." in that wry way an old woman has, and the kids laughed with her. When she told of her mother, diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the war, having her breast removed without anesthetic because there was none (or none for Jews), while young Rosalee and her two siblings waited outside the hospital listening to her scream, a collective gasp rippled through the Auditorium.
I think she had them at hello. She opened by explaining that she and William were witnesses to something awful and that there are those who like to say it didn't happen at all. She and her husband are witnesses to the horror, reliving it and speaking out so that it won't happen again. One point she made very clear: "White people, Black people, Spanish people.... none of this matters. We are only ONE race. The Human Race," and our rainbow of students applauded.
She told how her friend (Mr. Schiff) would remove his yellow star at night and go in search of food for her, her two younger siblings, her frail mother and his own aunt; of Nazi officers throwing babies in the air and shooting them like skeet; of a street in Krakow literally running with blood and strewn with the tiny body-parts of the children the Nazis had murdered from the Jewish orphanage there; of Oskar Schindler pulling her out of a work line, telling her she was too pretty for that line and to come work for him instead. "Oskar Schindler was an alcoholic and a womanizer. Oskar Schindler saved my life, saved the lives of over 1,000 of us, and when you multiply that by our children, grandchildren.... Oskar Schindler was an amazing man. A very good man… I will always love him.” I love that our kids heard that: Oskar Schindler was an alcoholic, a womanizer and an amazing man who saved over 1,000 people and therefore, all their descendents, too. A complicated, not-so-great man who did the right thing at the right time. Despite his flaws, he rose to the occasion. Do you know how much kids need to hear that these days? That you don't have to be a saint to do good in the world?
She was saved by Oskar Schindler at just the right time - her family had been told to report for transport the next day, which is why she was desperately looking for work - if you worked, you lived. Her mother wasn’t as lucky and was transported the next day with the two younger siblings. Rosalee never saw any of them again. Her father had fled ahead of the Nazis just before the invasion of Poland when rumors went through Krakow that all Jewish men were to be rounded up and shot. Begged to do so by his wife and children, he reluctantly packed a small suitcase and left, telling Rosalee, "Remember how I lived my life. Remember how important good deeds are to me." He never made it to his destination, and they never saw or heard from him again.
Her mother had insisted on her "friend" marrying her before she was left to work for Oskar Schindler, and so they set up life together in the Krakow Ghetto. William was eventually transported to Auschwitz, surviving two years there, repeated escape attempts, medical experiments (one of the doctors liked him and so shielded him from Mengele's more brutal procedures), starvation, forced labor and illness. At liberation, he weighed just 69 pounds on a six-foot frame.
After the war (nearly dead, she was liberated by the Russians) she spent time in a hospital (Schindler's factory had been closed down by then and the Jews scattered), then made it back to Krakow to see if any of her family had survived. None had, but an old friend recognized her on the street and told her that her husband had made it through the war - was in Krakow looking for her. She fainted, and had to be carried into a neighboring house and revived.
Reunited, they spent a couple years in the Displaced Persons camps; their first child was born there. In 1950 they came here, to Texas, settling in Dallas. Both faced years of recuperation and surgeries to put right the damage done to them. Rosalee admitted that the psychic scars took longer, "It took me many years to come back to God.... but of course God didn't do this. Evil people did this."
After Mrs. W politely, tenderly stopped Mrs. Schiff what seemed like five minutes after she started, Dr. H came out and thanked the students for their attention and the respect they had accorded our guests. He assured them he knew that once they were outside the Auditorium doors they would have much to discuss but, to honor our guests and what we had heard from them, perhaps the best way to leave would be in silence. After another spontaneous standing ovation, 1200 students, their teachers, administrators, etc, left the Auditorium in complete silence. On their way out, they donated over $500 dollars to the Holocaust Museum in Dallas.
I heard that Mrs. Schiff later told Mr. B that of all the schools they had been to, ours was the best reception they received, the best-behaved, the best school they had been to. We are all so proud of our students.
Perhaps the Schiff's message of survival means more to our students. One day, standing and chatting at the front counter with a colleague, she remarked that, "We just don't know what these kids might face at home, in their lives, outside of these walls," and she's right. I was blithely redacting some information on forms for Dr. H one day and noticed in the field where the athlete would list his mother and her contact information, there was nothing. No mother. And maybe that's okay, but it's a hardship. Two students lost their mother when their father murdered her. Last week one of our teachers discovered one of his students living out of his car, parking in the school lot on the weekends. No, we just don't know what our kids go through when they leave our doors. Oh, hopefully they will never go through the things the Schiffs did, but some of them can relate to being treated like garbage, to the loss of parents and siblings, to being displaced.
I'm so glad they had this experience. I know it will be lost on a lot of them, but I also know that at one point I looked around and saw a big kid in a letterman's jacket leaning forward, elbows on his knees and chin on his fists, his attention fixed on the old woman on the stage, telling her horrible tale. Some of them will get it, will get the connection between discrimination and unimaginable violence, the subjugation of a people for no good reason. They’ll get that the most flawed individual yet has it within to rise to the occasion, and do the right thing. And they'll carry that fire forward so it never happens again.