Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Survivor Stories

I spent much of the morning with my power out. I'm not sure how long it was out. I took a walk (a little more than two miles), got home, did some stuff in the living room, then headed into the bathroom (the only part of the house that doesn't get natural light), flipped the switch, and nothing happened. My first thought was that the bulb was out, but then I thought to check for power and noticed that the alarm clock, cable box, etc., were all blank. I think it may have been neighborhood-wide, since the lighted sign across the street is dead, and there were people coming out of houses and looking around when I was walking. Fortunately, my laptop battery was charged, so I could write, but I couldn't get online. It finally came back a little while ago.

After bailing on almost all the entertainment options over the weekend, I did go out last night. My city is doing one of those "one book, one city" things, and this year's book is The Book Thief, and since it's set during World War II and has some elements relating to the Holocaust, they sponsored a talk last night with an Auschwitz (and Dachau) survivor. It was mostly me, the library staff, and all the little old ladies on the library board and with the Friends of the Library group, and maybe a few other people from the community, but that was still a big turnout.

This lady's story was absolutely fascinating. If you wrote it as a novel, no one would believe it because her survival came down to a lot of very fortunate twists of fate. Though, really, in those circumstances, probably everyone who survived did so because of odd little bits of fortune, and maybe having the presence of mind to take advantage of those bits of fortune. This lady missed being sent straight to the gas chambers because she didn't go straight off the train upon arrival. Her grandmother had wanted to comb her hair, so her hair was down, and then they realized they were arriving at their destination and her grandmother made her go look for something to tie her hair back with. Everyone else was herded straight off the train, but they missed her somehow and she ended up in the line with people selected to work. From that point, she had a few more lucky breaks, but it sounds like she also developed the mentality of surviving rather than giving in, so she was conscious of strokes of luck when they came to her and was able to take advantage of them. That's how she ended up volunteering to go to Dachau to work in a munitions factory near the end of the war, so she was on the last train to leave Auschwitz before everyone else was sent on what ended up being a death march away from the camp ahead of the Russian advance. She figured that since they were asking for 200 people, it wasn't a ruse to send people straight to death and the job wouldn't be so hard and dangerous that they'd run through a lot of workers. That got her away from a death camp and into one of the earlier camps to be liberated by the Americans.

It was amazing hearing this sweet, bubbly, very funny lady talking about these horrible things she went through as a teenager and managing to find the humor and sometimes even the beauty. I was very glad I went. I watch all those documentaries on TV, but I don't know that I've ever actually heard directly from a survivor, and I feel it's important to bear witness as these people are aging and dying.

I got there early because the flyer suggested doing so. The event was held at the National Scouting Museum, and you got in free if you were coming to the event, so I explored the museum a bit. It would be a fun thing for kids to go to because there are a lot of activities, but it mostly made me wistful that the Girl Scout troops I was in never did fun stuff like the boys got to do. I did enjoy the gallery of scouting-related art. They had a lot of original Norman Rockwell oils. And then I hung out both before the talk and at the reception afterward with the ladies on the library board. They were fascinated about me being an author (the librarians recognized me, and I went to high school with one of them, and they introduced me to the board), but we ended up mostly chatting about books and PBS shows. They get together for Downton Abbey parties. They sound like a fun group.

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