Wednesday, September 9, 2015

We Are People Too

An exhausted child lies in his mother’s arms as she walks alongside tens of thousands of Syrians, toward a chance to escape the barrel bombs, beheadings, and destruction of cities and towns that once were home. 

Finally, the world is taking notice of the men, women and children who risk their lives to cross oceans in unseaworthy boats, who with grit and determination, walk hundreds of miles in the hope of a life away from violence; a chance to start over.   We woke up, thanks to the image of a little boy lying face down at the edge of a sea that swallowed his mother and brother. 

Why did it take us so long?  Why are governments reacting only now? We weren’t listening, that’s why.  We ignored the stories of children in detention camps refusing to eat, screaming from nightmares. We did not acknowledge the hopelessness of men in off-shore detention centers who sewed up their lips hoping to escape conditions far worse than what they had fled. We called them ‘those people’, ‘it’ and ‘asylum seekers penetrating our borders’ - dehumanizing language that stripped away the tragic stories of people who could be us.

When I look at the pictures and listen to the stories of Syrians and Iraqi’s fleeing the war, I see my mother. Her mother and many in her family had been brutally murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1946, she was smuggled from the rubble of a destroyed Warsaw and flown across the Communist border to Germany, where for a time she slept in the barracks of a D.P. camp inside the former Dachau concentration camp. Two years later she boarded a ship for Australia.  

 It wasn’t easy to integrate into Australia as traumatized Jewswith a German-sounding last name and my mother yelling in German at the children in the playground when they couldn’t understand her. 
Image:Leonhard Foeger/Reuters  Syrians in Hungary
The solution to today’s refugee crisis isn’t easy, but by acknowledging the refugees as human and their suffering as real, we’ve crossed a major barrier.  We can start an open conversation on how to address the fears that exist when we don’t understand the culture and religion of a people that need our help.  We can learn about their suffering and take action.  Because, people, we are human too. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


On a May spring day, in a small town outside of Warsaw, a woman walks by the iron gates of the cemetery. She follows the central avenue that cuts between rows of headstones.  A grey cobblestoned path on her right takes her past a row of white concrete crosses. The broad red wings and talons of the Polish coat of arms affixed to them signifies that war heroes are buried there. Opposite their resting place is an unremarkable plot, a long grey concrete tomb with faded headstone that is inscribed with two names - one Christian, one Jewish.  The woman kneels and lays a bouquet of flowers on the tomb, below a collection of small pebbles that have been scattered by snow, winds and rain. She picks up the stray stones and moves them to where they were when she last visited, nudging the pebbles into a “V”, then curving them at the top, into the shape of a heart. 

I left the heart of stones when I last visited my grandmother’s final burial place. 
Iwona, the woman who visits the grave, posted a story on the internet in 2010, about her grandmother, who had raised her in a house not far from the cemetery.  As a child, she had not been allowed to play in one corner of the garden. She was forbidden to pick mushrooms there, not sorrel, nor flowers.  Years later, her grandmother told her that women who sheltered in her house were shot by the Nazis and buried in that corner.  Iwona moved a boulder to the spot where the women were buried. “I don’t know what to put on this stone,” she had mused in her article.  “Maybe two swallows?”
I stumbled upon her story a few years ago.  Had she not written it, my mother might never have returned to where she was hidden for nine months during the war. The day of those murders, May 23rd 1943, my mother was found by her father, crawling on the floor among the bloodied bodies. She was eleven months old.

The large memorial stone sits behind a timber fence in a garden filled with old trees that sway and rustle in the wind. From time to time, Iwona sends me photographs of butterflies, birds and trees that watch over the stone. 
       For as long as she is alive, Iwona will care for her garden and visit the cemetery, to remember a woman she did not know, until her story collided with mine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

We do not want our past to be our children's future

This week, flakes of snow dropped across my yard forming a thick carpet of frozen white.  Frigid winds howled through the trees blowing snow from the branches, piling it against the side of house into  mounds that drifted up to and over our windows and doors.  Inside, I sat in front of a flickering fire in my ugg boots, the heat set at a comfortable 68F/20C.
        It was Holocaust Memorial Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  I googled the temperature in Oświęcim, Poland, (Auschwitz in German) where the Nazis built the sprawling death camp. It was -3C/26F.

AFP/Getty Images/wsj blog -  A picture taken in January 1945 depicts the Auschwitz concentration camp gate and railways after its liberation by Soviet troops

        My grandmother Ala told me about the cold. “You know..when you came back from work, there were these long, long queues. We were standing there on the platz and they were counting if everybody came back from work,” she said. “And also if you were punished they left you standing. Everyone there for one person, standing in the snow for the whole night.”
        She may have been referring to Auschwitz, or Ravensbruck, where she was sent in November 1944 as the Russians approached; loaded onto cattle cars for the grueling journey to Germany.  It was a miracle she and her husband survived.  It was a miracle anyone survived.
         She didn't say much about her experience in Auschwitz until after Spielberg’s Schindler’s list was released.   We planned to view the movie together, but instead she went with a friend and phoned me a few days later.
        “Karen. You must still go,” she said.  “The scene in the shower room where they push in all the women, and they look up at the shower heads wondering what is going to happen to them, thinking they will be gassed?”
          I paused, stunned. “Yes?”
        “That was exactly vot was like for me. Exactly.”

In today’s fractious world, it’s important to remember Auschwitz. As I listened to the ceremonies, like millions around the world, I was moved by the words of survivor Roman Kent. “We share a common goal. We do not want our past to be our children’s future.   I hope and believe that this generation will build on mankind’s great traditions - that must embrace pluralism and tolerance, decency and human rights for all people. And must include opposition to Antisemitism and racism, of any sort.”
          Do humanity a favor – watch his short speech - Click Here
Survivor Roman Kent - Photo courtesy