We, the survivors who volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, often receive letters from students who wish to engage with a Holocaust survivor as part of a school project. Tansi is a 15-year-old sophomore in high school in California. She must have researched our survivor biographies and been moved by my experience and wanted to learn more. Her sensitive letter prompted me to reply to her and praise her for her perceptive questions.
I was very happy to read your letter in which you describe your hobbies of dancing and swimming. I am so proud of you for doing Bollywood dancing for ten years and being part of the Bollywood dance team at your high school. I am also happy to hear that you have been jazz dancing for three years and like to swim for fun. However, most of all, I am greatly impressed with the depth of your thinking about what happened during the Holocaust and your question about how it affected my life. I take pleasure in providing the following responses to your well thought-out questions.
Why didn’t my entire family escape after Kristallnacht instead of just my brother Joe and me? It is an important question that you ask. My family, all five of us, my father, mother, and two brothers, wanted to immigrate to the United States. However, as most countries did, the United States had very strict, biased quotas. Hundreds of thousands of Jews in Germany tried to immigrate to the United States. To enter, each person needed a visa. It was difficult to get the many necessary papers to leave Germany, and visas were difficult to obtain. The process could take years. If you wanted to present your paperwork to the United States consulate in the hope of getting a visa, you needed to register and get on the waiting list. My mother and father understood all of this. So while they were on the waiting list, they saw the urgency to save their children. They had heard of a French lady who was smuggling children across the border from Germany into France for a fee. My father gave this lady all the money he had saved so that my brother and I would be safe. I know it must have been very difficult for my parents to send us away.
You asked about the incident in front of the Palace of Versailles where I translated for the mayor of Versailles who spoke only French and the German officer who spoke only German. Yes, I was terrified because I thought if the German officer realized that I was a Jewish child, I would be sent back to Germany to face everything that was happening there. That is why I told him that I learned to speak German in the French schools. You might be interested in reading my essay that I wrote about this incident for Echoes of Memory (Volume 5, page 43) here at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is called “The Interpreter.” You can find it on the Museum’s website (ushmm.org).
After my parents sent my brother and me to France so that we would be safe, I prayed to God every day that I would be reunited with my parents and that nothing would happen to them or to the rest of the Jews in the world. I knew that it was not God who was committing the atrocities. It was the Nazis who were perpetrating the cruelties against innocent people. Yes, I prayed that eventually everything would turn out ok. I was so lucky that my parents sent us to France and that we never had to go to a concentration camp. No, I never wanted to commit suicide. I wanted to live and be part of the future.
Of course I was happy when I learned that I would be reunited with my parents here in the United States. They were able to come here because my father had a cousin who owned a pickle factory in New York. She filled out many papers stating her income, her taxes, status of her health, and promised the US government that my father would never be a burden to the United States. Therefore, my parents were able to immigrate to America. As soon as they arrived, they searched for us in France with the help of many fine organizations such as the Quakers and the HIAS. They found us, and we came to New York on a Portuguese ship called the Serpa Pinto. I remember how wonderful it was to see the Statue of Liberty, because it meant that we would be reunited with our parents and that we would live in a democratic society where there would be no killing of Jewish people because of their religion.
Does talking about the Holocaust bring back sad memories, is another critical question that you asked. The memories are always there. However, I want to tell my story to my children, my grandchildren, my brothers and their families, my friends, and the visitors here at the Museum so that they can rejoice in the fact that we are living in a democratic society, and that all of us should make sure that no dictatorship will ever usurp our liberties. We need to remember the atrocities that happened to families during the Holocaust and pass this information on to our descendants. We need to learn from this horror in our history. We cannot undo the atrocities of the past. Besides remembering, we have to take action to confront hate. When we see injustice taking place, we have to do something about it. We cannot be onlookers. We have to be sensitive to each other and take care of each other. By talking about my experiences, I hope that people learn what harm hatred and prejudice can do. We cannot be bystanders and definitely cannot be collaborators.
I want to praise you, a 15-year-old girl, for writing such a sensitive letter with such perceptive questions. I hope that you get a chance to discuss the Holocaust with your family and friends. Please give them my regards. I also wish you a successful tenth-grade learning experience and that you continue to enjoy your hobbies of dancing and swimming.
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