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< Echoes of Memory

Memories and Defining Yourself

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By Susan Warsinger

In an interview at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a few weeks ago I was asked, “Do your experiences in the Holocaust define you as a person?” Before writing about my answer to this question I would like to review some of my thoughts and questions about this matter. Do memories make us the person we are? Sometimes I have wondered if I would be a different person if I had not been born in Germany when the Nazis and Hitler came to power and when they immediately set out to implement anti-Jewish policies.

I was there when they boycotted my father’s store. I was there when we were not allowed to walk through parks without being accosted. I was there when we were not allowed to go to public schools. I was there during Kristallnacht when our neighbors broke down our glass front door. It was ordinary German people who were complicit with the Nazis and who created havoc in every Jewish community in Germany. Because of this hatred, our parents sent my brother and me away to France to be safe, and we were separated from them for two years.

I was just a little girl when I left France and came to the United States. When the war was raging against the Jews in Germany and then in the other countries of Europe, I was here in the United States, safe from the horrors and atrocities. My parents did not talk about their experiences and their hardships before emigrating from Germany. When they arrived here, they did what they could to help the needy Jews in Europe. We had a ping-pong table in our basement of our rented house, and once a week Jews from our community in Washington, DC, gathered in the basement, which had been loaded with very used secondhand clothing. They came to make packages to send to the Jews in Europe. Perhaps some of them felt as guilty as I because we were here safe, eating, sleeping, and going on with our lives while our fellow Jews were suffering some kind of hell. So we boxed and wrapped all the items that had been donated.

It has been so many years since then. I put my young experiences in the back of my mind and tried to obliterate them. I did all my physical, emotional, and intellectual growing up here in Washington, DC, and was determined to become a normal happy American girl. What environment and what memories have made me the individual person I am now? I am grateful to my father who showed me much love, encouraged me, and helped me attend the University of Maryland. My great marriage to Irving, which lasted 56 years, was filled with new experiences and adventures. Our three wonderful daughters gave us much pleasure as we watched them grow into beautiful, intelligent, and independent women and who are important contributors to our society now. They gave us nine brilliant grandchildren with whom I have such fantastic rapport.

My experiences in the Holocaust so long ago do not define me as a person. It is the loving relationships that I have had during my life with the people I deeply and sincerely love and loved and who loved me. It is the tender and devoted friendships that I established over the years. It is the countless and diverse students that I taught in the public school system. My passion for classical music developed because of my contact with a good friend. It is my companions in my travels all over the world and my yoga, swimming, dancing, biking, birding adventures that have given me many pleasures and wonderful memories. It is the books that I have read, the post graduate degrees and courses I have taken, the lectures that that I have chosen to attend, and my appetite for art, that are all part of me. When, at times, adversity occurred, I faced it and turned negative events into learning experiences. I am mostly the person that experienced relationships and the environment as an adult. After all, they have been the happiest.

I read somewhere that memory is a phenomenon that is related directly to our perception of the past and is always influenced by the present; therefore, it is always changing. I feel compelled to renew my memories of the Holocaust so long ago. They are important to me now, because it is essential to me to teach the visitors to our Museum that we cannot be onlookers when we see injustice taking place. I want our visitors to understand what prejudice and hatred can do to people. When I give tours of our Permanent Exhibit to law enforcement officers, I want them to realize their role in the community when encountering atrocities. I want people to know that we need to be sensitive to each other and that we need to take care of one another. I feel that this is part of my contribution to future generations.

©2015, Susan Warsinger. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   susan warsingerechoes of memory, volume 8

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