November 01, 2017
by Susan Warsinger
It had been a long time since the Speakers Bureau of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum requested that I give a presentation in a far-off place, so when I received an e-mail asking me to go to Pocahontas, Arkansas, I was delighted. The trip was sponsored by Black River Technical College, and I was scheduled to give three lectures to 800 people at each session. It was to be a four-day trip: two days to get there and back, and two days for the speeches themselves. Museum staff member Emily Potter accompanied me on the trip.
Traveling from Washington, DC, to Pocahontas was an adventure. We flew from Reagan National Airport to St. Louis, then changed to a local airline for the flight to Jonesboro, because there is no airport in Pocahontas. We waited quite awhile for our connection, and when we saw the aircraft coming to our gate, we were amazed. Could such a tiny plane take us to our destination? The pilot, who sat in front of me, told his five passengers not to worry. We soared below the clouds, glimpsing the fertile fields of Arkansas and the colorful autumn foliage sprinkled among the farmers’ squares of green and brown. After landing at Jonesboro Municipal Airport on a narrow strip, the plane taxied to the terminal where Jessica, the college’s representative, was waiting for us.
The 90-minute ride to our hotel was most enjoyable because the day was bright and washed with lush colors. I observed rice fields just like I had seen in China and vegetable crops just like the ones I passed so many times while riding my bicycle in rural Maryland and Virginia. I also spotted a few red-tailed hawks flying overhead and perching on trees, waiting patiently for their prey. Unadorned farmhouses were scattered on the flat land.
Because the population of Pocahontas is only 6,617, I could not figure out where the 2,400 people would come from to hear my talks the next morning, again in the evening, and then again the day after. Jessica explained that high school, middle school, and some older elementary school students and their teachers from all over Randolph County would arrive by bus; also invited were the college’s faculty, staff, and students, as well as the community.
The morning of my first PowerPoint presentation, I wanted my first slide—a map of Europe in 1933—to be on the screen so that the students could study it while they waited. When giving such talks, my goal is not only to tell my own personal Holocaust story, but also to help the audience understand how the Nazis were able to conquer almost all of Europe.
I want them to visualize what Europe looked like and where Bad Kreuznach, Germany—the town of my birth—fits into this geography. Of course, I mainly want them to see what prejudice and hatred can do to people, why we need to be sensitive to each other, and how important it is that we take care of one another.
Before beginning my talk, I spoke with some teachers to try to find out how much their students knew about the Holocaust. I learned that some students were reading Night by Elie Wiesel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank. This information was most helpful to me so that I could adjust the talk to meet their needs.
The audience was wonderful! They responded to my questions beautifully, and I was very happy. After my talk, microphones were placed in two aisles, and many members of the audience lined up behind them for a question-and-answer period. I was very pleased because everyone asked very thoughtful questions.
The last item on the agenda was group photos. I am not sure how many groups there were, but they lined up all around the auditorium so that they could come on stage to have their pictures taken with me. Because the stage was too small to accommodate the large crowd, I was asked to go to the bleachers to be in the photograph with the students who were sitting there. When I went back to the stage, more groups came to be photographed. By then it was a most festive occasion. I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with them. After the picture taking, I must have signed a large number of programs because they all wanted my autograph. Someone said that I was a “rock star.” This, of course, was the ultimate compliment for me.
The evening program attracted mostly adults. When it was over, one lady came up to me and told me that her sister-in-law was also born in my native Bad Kreuznach, although she had been born in Pocahontas and had never been out of Arkansas.
By the following morning, I had become an old hand at having my picture taken and signing autographs. Because I had a lot of free time between presentations, Jessica volunteered to give Emily and me a tour to local points of interest, including the Randolph County Heritage Museum and a meteorite that fell in 1858. Jessica also took us to the Black River Beads and Pottery Gallery located in the town’s Depression-era City Hall, as well as to the Birdsong Peanuts building. The college gave me a $50 gift certificate to use in the gift shop, which contained hand-thrown pottery, blown glass, and glass beads. It was most generous of them, and I appreciated their thoughtfulness. Jessica also took us to the Birdsong Peanuts peanut-processing factory. We discovered that the peanuts in Snickers, my favorite candy bar, are grown and bought at this factory.
The next day, before our flight home, Jessica took us to the Eddie Mae Herron Center, church, and school, built in 1919, that today serves as a religious and educational hub for the African American community in Pocahontas and surrounding communities.
This trip made me realize even more the importance of the Survivors Speakers Bureau. We have the ability to reach thousands of people outside of Washington, DC, who may not have the opportunity to learn about and understand the horrors of the Holocaust. Survivors like me can teach people to take action—not simply look the other way—when we see injustice taking place. We can draw people’s attention to the importance of the past and the lessons we can learn from it to better understand the present and, therefore, make better decisions about the future.
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