December 14, 2007

Humbled in His Presence

Last night I was going over the boys’ school assignments on line when I ran across an item highlighted on the school online bulletin board. It was on the front page. A holocaust survivor was to speak at the school for the 7th graders and parents could attend.

I’ve known holocaust survivors and I’ve read about the various accountings. I’ve spoken to men who were there when various camps were liberated. But, knowing that this man would be there to speak to our children, I had to hear him. I had to hear HIS story and his recounting of history as he lived it.

And so I attended. The 7th grade boys and girls filed in single file, sitting on the floor and in chairs. They were quiet. I had asked my eldest if his teacher had been properly preparing them for what they were going to hear. He said they had.

Mr. Leon Rubinstein was probably one of the most wonderful speakers I have heard. I will tell you, that listening to Mr. Rubinstein has altered something inside me. He has seen evil in its purest form and he has seen good appear when surely there was no hope.

As I listened to his story, I cried. This afternoon when talking to one of the 7th grade girls, she said to me, “I didn’t cry or anything. I just found his story amazing.”

And THAT is the difference in a 12 year old girl and a 42 year old woman. She views it all as a black spot in history and Mr. Rubinstein’s survival is truly a miraculous story. It is one that rang a continuous song in my heart, “There are no coincidences, it was not his time, he was meant to be here.” To hear him speak of his life, you cannot help but think that his voice was meant to be here, to tell of the darkest time of our modern history in first person, to teach other generations, to be an example. Listening to his story, there are so many reasons he should NOT be here. I don’t understand why others were not meant to be… why evil is allowed to be at times and good people, wonderful people are taken from us… but in listening to him, by having his story speak to our hearts, you feel that he is where he should be… teaching this next generation.

Yes, his story is amazing, as the 12 year old girl told me, but to me, it was far more than that. At 12, you do not know of the ills and evil of this world. The world is perceived so differently in the eyes of a child than that of an adult. And that was the difference for me this time in my life, as I listened to Mr. Rubinstein speak of the history of WWII, his visit to Auschwitz in 1988 where his father was murdered most probably immediately after his arrival in the extermination camp, his own story in escaping the holocaust with his mother, I viewed it now as a wife and mother.

I realized I was his mother’s age during these horrible years he was describing.

And as he held up the picture of his two beautiful cousins, who were murdered at ages 10 and 14, I saw the faces of two boys who were probably like my own sons. And as he spoke of his mother, I thought of the horror of seeing the evil take her husband away, thinking at one point her only son was gone as well, knowing she would never see her soul mate again, knowing all their family was dead or dying, and running for her life with her son, from country to country and town to town, praying for the kindness of strangers and knowing that at any moment, she could lose the life of her son or her own… or both.

The despair is what overwhelmed. I felt the despair. Upon his showing the pictures of his cousins, I started to cry and tears streamed down my face for the next half hour as I sat intently, listening to every word.

What a loss for the world. What a loss for humanity that dark time was. He explained, 1.5 million children died. As our children sat there listening he said, ‘But you cannot comprehend 1.5 million children, so let me explain…’ and he said to them that it was 50 stadiums filled with 30,000 children. But still, he realized, that was not comprehensible to the 7th graders and he explained further it was nearly 1000 children, every day, for three years. Two of our schools a day, every day, for three years, emptied. Look to your right, look to your left… everyone of them… gone.

He explained to our children, that all of them would be gone, not having met the criteria of keeping for work, with the exception of two larger boys (over 5’6”) who would have been worked to death.

That seemed to hammer it home for the children more… but still… as adults, we understand the magnitude. Children do not.

It was such a privilege to hear him speak. I cannot tell you how truly blessed I am for having heard him… He touched all of our souls.

And whereas the kids look at this as a horrific oddity in our history, I look at it as something that could happen again. Evil is there. I thought of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and what he did to his people and the Kurds. The absolute nutcases are still out there… we are never safe. We must always be diligent.

I bought his book, Escape to Freedom. I want to know his entire story. I only wish everyone could hear it.

And as I proof this for the 3rd time, I struggle with the gut instinct to hit delete, because the words I write can never do justice to Mr. Rubinstein, his story, and his courage and tenacity to continue to speak to our children, this being his 10th year at our school. He is a remarkable man.

Posted by Boudicca at December 14, 2007 08:53 PM | TrackBack

Your words do more justice then you know. Not sharing this would have been an injustice.

Wow, between you and Morrigan, you all run into some very interesting and special people.

Posted by: Sissy at December 14, 2007 10:13 PM

Glad you posted. Mr. Rubinstein's story is important. And just as his talk was a way to reach out and share with the kids, your blog spread the story to others who might never run across it. Now I plan to get his book. Thank you, Bou.

Posted by: jck at December 14, 2007 10:59 PM

I am glad he has written a book. I think I'll find a copy. When I was in the 6th grade, I read a book called The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (nee Rudomin). She told the story of her life growing up as a well-to-do Jewish child in Vilna, Poland - until the war intruded and Esther and her family were shipped off to work in a labor camp in Siberia. It is another World War II story, only the Russians are the evil force in this tale. That is one reason I think it is interesting - kids generally know who Adolf Hitler was; they are not so aware of Stalin.

At the start of the story, Esther tells how the war was just something they heard people talk about - how they were aware it was going on but it didn't affect them. Then one day they find their world abruptly shattered and nothing is ever the same again. I guess it was the ability of the writer to convey the complacency, followed by the shock, followed by the acceptance and resilience that impressed me. I think because it tells the story through the eyes of a 12 year old, it does manage to speak to kids.

Posted by: Peggy U at December 15, 2007 02:59 AM

Sissy- I was so lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I do have a dear friend whose husband was a tank commander under Patton. (He's obviously not our age!) I believe his tank (what do you call it? Tank squadron? Fleet of Tanks? Platoon? Tank Pod?) group stumbled across one of the concentration camps. His mind is as sharp as Mr. Rubinstein's and so I've asked the school if they want me to have him speak. The Weather Channel interviewed him for a special they are doing in January regarding the incredibly awful weather during the Battle of the Bulge.

JCK- I cannot wait until the book comes in. There are so many missing pieces in his story because there was only an hour. I want to know all of it, including the before and the after. He was absolutely tremendous and his thinking was extraordinarily linear, so the children had no problem understanding and connecting the dots.

Peggy- That is what hit me so hard, was this woman who was my age... one day she was doing all the things I do. She was gardening, cooking for her family, simple marital disagreements as we all have, pushing her son as mothers do, normal relationships in a normal life, getting together with family to celebrate birthdays and her religious high holidays and the BAM! Hitler is in charge and they're escaping Germany, and then years later they are no longer safe in France, and her husband is gone, and her son has become a man on the heels of protecting himself and his mother on a race against the Nazis.

It just absolutely blew me away.

And the explanations of things I had not thought of, like Auschwitz being selected because 42 rails run through it... easy to transport so many people from all over to the main extermination camp. The horror. Good Lord.

Posted by: Bou at December 15, 2007 08:28 AM

Bou, thank you for writing this entry. For some reason, I've always been interested (if that is an appropriate word) in WW II, Germany, and the Nazis. I guess because it's hard to understand how evil could go unchecked like that, a hell on earth. How could people do that to other people? I just can't understand it. We lived in Germany twice when my husband was in the Army. I'd read about World War II and what happened at the places we lived, and then whenever I was out, I'd look at older German people and wonder all sorts of things, like how could you let that happen? Di you know if was happening? Why didn't you do anything? Could you do anything? What side of the concentration camp fence were you? My dad was also stationed in Corsica and flew missions over Germany as a gunner-photograhper. His ancestors came from Germany approximately two generations earlier. I don't know what we will do when everyone who was alive during WW II pass on. But sadly, there will be others who will live through man's inhumanity during other times and in other places and can bear witness to the evil and good that goes on in our world.

Posted by: PrimoDonna at December 15, 2007 01:31 PM

There have been few movies that scratch the emotive surface of what the VE troops experienced coming on those sites. One recent that does come to mind was "Band of Brothers"...just harrowing. I'm glad Peggy brought up Stalin, that is always so overlooked and i've often wondered why. He doubled the body count in Russia, but yet very little is devoted to that...why is that? Over the centuries there have been many such evils unleashed on humanity, they will certainly continue. But you...have faith, in God, without fail.

Posted by: Jay- the friendly neighborhood piper at December 15, 2007 01:33 PM

Thank goodness you didn't hit delete.

I hope you realize that it is just as much a blessing to have peeps like you around to pass on these stories, as it is Leon Rubinstein. His generation is the last of a rapidly dying breed, and the “revisionists” are out there, in full force, trying to erase this “horrific oddity in our history,” as though it had never happened.

I do appreciate your sharing this story, I cannot tell you how much. It honors my own ancestors who died in the Holocaust, and though they cannot be brought back, the evil forces which saw to their destruction can be stopped if enough people just listen to and learn from the stories of people like Mr. Rubenstein.

Posted by: Erica at December 15, 2007 02:28 PM

Everyone else got here before me, so let me just say, I'm glad you didn't hit delete. We may not be as eloquent as Leon Rubenstein, but letting people know about him and his story is just as important.

Like Peggy I read The Endless Steppe when I was in school. I felt so very bad for Esther being sent to Siberia just because she was Jewish... it made no sense to me (even now it makes no sense!).

Making sure people hear the stories and know what evil people will do, that's what keeps the evil from taking over. It's the only thing. Without people passing it on - the stories would die out. That can't happen.

Posted by: Teresa at December 15, 2007 03:15 PM

A remarkable man indeed... Wow.

Posted by: Richmond at December 15, 2007 05:12 PM

I'm glad you had the opportunity to hear Mr. Rubinstein's personal recollections. Holocaust survivors are getting thin on the ground as that generation passes into eternity...but their stories must continue to be heard.

To me, an even greater tragedy than the loss of the millions murdered by Hitler is the loss of all of their ideas, the contributions they could have made to the world...and the loss of the children they would never live to have. Just how much the murderous policies of Nazi Germany impoverished the world will never be known, for we can never know what might have been.

Thank you for a very thoughtful, heartfelt post.

Posted by: Elisson at December 15, 2007 05:24 PM

PrimoDonna- I have been the same way... interested, for all the same reasons. You stated it well... how could people let it happen. And as I read your comment I thought, "Yes, I would do that too." I would wonder as I saw people. I would wonder about their pasts and if they did anything to help or if they were part of it. I know a neighbor of mine was German and he had to leave a neighborhood here in America because all the Jewish people gave him and his wife a hard time because surely if they came from Germany (they spend 6 months in each country) then they must've been Nazis. But I spoke with him and he said he lost many family members in the holocaust due to trying to help and they were not Nazis. He has a stigma attached to him and that is sad too. But... I wondered as well when I met him. I immediately wondered how he fit in the puzzle. And funny thing is, when he first introduced himself to me and I asked him from where he came, he replied, "Europe". He would not say, 'Germany'. I said to my husband, "Can you imagine introducing yourself and saying you are from North America?" But he is aware of what we all wonder when we meet him.

Jay- It is funny, because my middle son has learned so much about Russia, even though they were not on the side of the Axis, he refuses to put them in the Allied camp. I believe it is from what he has learned of Stalin. When we spoke about it, he said Russia was all confusing in his head.

Erica- I hope the children listened. I hope they will remember what an amazing man they met. I keep bringing it to the forefront to my son. They are dying too quickly. As I sat and listened to him and he spoke of his failing health, I thought of all those who are left... the few voices who are left and how they will soon be silent.

Teresa- I don't even remember The Endless Steppe being talked about when I was in school. The Diary of Anne Frank was spoken of and read, but not the Endless Steppe. Since you and Peggy read it, I'll have to look into it.

Richmond- He is amazing. Absolutely amazing. And guts. The man thought so quickly and was able to use each situation the way it was needed... and he had to be bold. I'm still blown away by his story. And that is one thing one little girl said, "How did you think to do these things?" I think all the adults were thinking the same thing...

Elisson- He spoke often of the children. It was the part that made me fall apart. We parents were in the parking lot later talking about it, and one of the Moms said, "yeah, poor Bou, she had a really tough time keeping it together." I said nothing, but I was thinking, "How could you not cry for the children? For what should have been, but will never be?"

You are right, we will never know what they did to this world, the full magnitude of how far they set the world back, by the massive homicides. It is mind boggling and horribly sad, although that is not a strong enough word. It is beyond sad. It is haunting.

Posted by: Bou at December 15, 2007 10:49 PM

You have a way with words yourself, Bou. Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here with tears running down my face. I'm not young and have read about the Holocaust many times, of course, but Mr. Rubinstein, and your account of his speech is overwhelming.

You did him and his story justice.

Posted by: pam at December 16, 2007 08:16 AM

I am very glad that you didn't delete. My husband is fascinated with the Holocaust. The parents at my son's school have been racking our brains to come up with special "events" for our kids. Long story with the teachers but they are not participating in any events including speakers, assemblies, and field trips. This would be a wonderful idea for us. I will have to check to see if it fits into the cirriculum.

Posted by: Lukie at December 16, 2007 12:59 PM

Wow. We should never ignore the opportunity to show history to our children. We need to remember. ...even when it hurts.

Posted by: Sugar Britches at December 16, 2007 02:41 PM

Thanks for not deleting. Stories such as his need to be told and retold time and again. While serving in Germany after serving in Vietnam, my landlady took me to an obscure mass burial site marked only by a granite obelisk with the number of dead (which I can't recall) and the date of execution. A solemn place which caused her to weep and curse the former leaders of her country who could do such a thing. She was 22 years older than I and lived thru those times.
If we are not vigilante the monsters of political correctness would have us forget this history. We must all vow "Never Again".

Posted by: kdzu at December 16, 2007 08:29 PM

I am humbled by people who have been put through such a test and live to tell their story. Because only through them can we avoid a repeat. To hear all the deniers say it never happened... Evil still lurks.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Posted by: Jody at December 18, 2007 06:20 PM