I was recently quoted by a young columnist from a local newspaper, saying that I will speak to anyone who wants to listen and even to those who don’t want to listen. But when I was asked to speak to a Rotary Club in Virginia I was curious to find out first about their organization, what they represent and what their purpose is, before I accepted their invitation. I had no previous knowledge about them, and since this was not arranged by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I had to do my own research.
One day while sitting next to my bookshelf that holds my World Book Encyclopedia (once a very reliable source of information) I reached for the book marked with the letter “R” and located the information I was looking for. I read mainly about the meaning and purpose of the Rotary Club. Among other things I read that this was a men’s club, and I was impressed with their aim and purpose. However, I was not impressed with the time scheduled for my speaking engagement. It was to be in the morning for breakfast, before office hours.
Since my children have restricted my driving long distances on the Beltway, I had to take the train the evening before and spend the night with my son, who lives near where I was to speak. He drove me in the morning to the meeting place. When I arrived I was surprised to see an almost equal number of ladies and men. I assumed that they must be spouses of the members, because in the World Book I had read that this was a men’s club. But during the conversation, the ladies introduced themselves as members of the club. With embarrassment I recalled my old-fashioned reliance on my edition of the World Book, published during the 1970s. Things had changed since then.
It was a very attentive and appreciative audience, listening while I shared with them my experience during the Holocaust. I received from them several mementoes with their organization’s logo.
Sometime later, I received a call from one of the club’s members asking if I would be available on June 22. The club was having their annual dinner to welcome new members and distribute awards to old members, and they wanted me to participate. Since I had no assignment from the Museum for that date, I accepted the invitation. At the time all that was mentioned to me was the date. The date was several months in the future, so I just marked it on my calendar, and there was not much communication between us during the interim.
Only shortly before the event was to take place was I informed that I would get an award. I did not think much of it; I assumed it would probably be another plaque. I inquired what I was expected to do. Was I expected to speak? I was told to just say thank you.
Finally, the name of the award was mentioned to me: The Paul Harris Fellowship Award. It did not make a big impression on me, but my son was curious and looked it up on the Internet. He e-mailed me at once with the information he learned. This was the most prestigious award the organization bestows on only selected, deserving individuals. The recipient must be of high moral character and principles among other things. I was amazed. How can one accept such an award, and by just saying “thank you”?
So when the member who was in touch with me (after reading my short bio) presented me with the award at the annual dinner, I was moved. I started by saying that such an award is a great honor for any recipient, but in my case it has even a more significant meaning. I told them how for several years I existed just as a number—79357. I said how my hard labor was rewarded with starvation. I recalled how dehumanized I had been, that I often wished for it all to end, no matter how. So now each acknowledgment or award, no matter how important or insignificant, has a special meaning to me. Each of those occasions makes me realize how fortunate I am to live in this free and wonderful democratic country. At last, I told them that with deepest appreciation I accepted their award.
On the way back to my table, I noticed that some tears had been shed by several ladies. It was quite a long ceremony; eventually all the acknowledgments were distributed, new members were welcomed, speeches by old members given, and a new president sworn in.
After the ceremony, one of the members who had greeted me before came over to my seat, bent down almost to a kneeling position, and took both my hands in his. He said, “You probably noticed my accent.” I made a joke of it. I thought that he maybe came over to congratulate me or praise my speech. He went on saying, “I am a German. I was five years old when the Holocaust took place. My father was in the Luftwaffe and was seldom home. Now I am asking for your forgiveness. I want to apologize for what my family did.” I was speechless for a moment. Such an unexpected confession. Then I told him what I usually tell others. “What happened cannot be undone. Try to be a good person, and do your best to prevent such atrocities from happening again.” Before he left he gave me his business card in case I would like to contact him.
After he left, I kept contemplating what had just taken place. I thought, regardless of how painful it is for us to keep repeating the horrors of the Holocaust, there is some hope of reaching some of the people.
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