This wasn’t happening! I was an hour early for the event, but the line to the entrance was depressingly long? It’s funny how accommodating we are with our requests for divine intervention and thankfully it happened to be my day! I was in before the event filled to capacity.
The Last Book Store at downtown Los Angeles, is much more than a hotspot for Instagram shots with its creative mélange of art, décor and lighting. Something about the vibes there, they mystically invite you in and you find yourself lost in the tunnel and vaults of books and their distinctive musty smell. So when their Facebook page listed the event ‘Lessons of the past : An evening with an Auschwitz survivor’, I hit the Going button with no second thoughts. Apparently many had done the same thing. Feet stretched on the floor with my back resting on the book rack, and a coffee for company, I had settled for the intense evening. Another enthusiast who I had befriended while waiting in the line, squeezed next to me, commenting about the overwhelming crowd. We had no illusions as to why the parents had brought in their kids on a Saturday, to hear from a holocaust survivor. Sadly, such are the times we are living in.
At around 7.15 PM, Mary Bauer walked in with Jennifer Lynne, the facilitator for the event. Petite and 89 years young, Mary’s energy and confidence engulfed the store in distilled silence. The event was organized to be a Q&A session between her and Jennifer, post which the stage would open up for audience questions. I wish I had recorded or taken notes immediately after the event. Nevertheless, am listing below some of the questions that moved me much, not verbatim though, only what my memory helped me with:
What happened to you during the war?
In Hungary, we didn’t realize that the war had escalated until the time Jews were forbidden to attend public schools and had to wear yellow stars stitched onto our clothing. Before we knew, our family was deported on a train to Auschwitz. My grandfather assured me & my mom, holding his medals from World War 1, believing that the German army would appreciate his patriotism and service and let the family go. But that wasn’t what happened. When we arrived there, the men and women were separated, and subjected to the selection process in which we were identified either fit enough to work or to die. I & my mother were sent to work in the weavery, and that’s the last time I saw my grandfather. At the camp we were made to undress, shaved of all body hair, disinfected and forced through showers that were either extremely cold or painfully hot. That’s when they handed us those infamous striped pajamas and smocks to wear.
We weren’t just stripped off our clothes, we were stripped off our identity. From that day on at the concentration camp, we were a mere registration number tattooed on us.
What happened at the death march from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck?
My mother was very ill and was often falling down, unable to walk. When the SS guard walked towards us, I knew what it meant. I am not quite sure what came over me at that moment, but I heard myself speaking to him in German – “Why do u want to waste a bullet, she is anyways going to die”, and he left. These days, when am speaking to kids or college students, I insist them to learn other languages. You wouldn’t know when it would help.
Were you able to forgive them?
I was 14 at the time this happened. When I survived and moved to the United States, the people who did those ghastly things to us weren’t alive any more. There was no point harboring hatred towards them, so I was eventually able to forgive them.
What would you recommend today’s generation to practice forgiveness?
That unfortunately isn’t something I could help you with, how much ever times I may share my experience and insight. You alone should try to find it in your heart to forgive others.
Didn’t you feel like giving up? How did you survive?
I surprisingly held on to the will to live, I held on to hope. There were no wits, no smarts and no intelligence involved in my survival. It was just chance that they did not have enough time to kill us (smile).
How did they treat when you were back home in Hungary?
I went back to the same school which I used to attend earlier. To my surprise and shock, I met a girl who used to be my friend, wearing my clothes. At the sight of me, she said, “You’re back?” It terribly hurt. Thankfully many other students and teachers were very understanding and I had no contact with that girl since then.
Followed by many members of the audience expressing their gratitude, Mary Bauer wrapped up with this note:
There aren’t many survivors alive now to tell their stories. Am hoping you’ll will share these lessons to your kids and generations to come, so that we don’t end up repeating history. Thank you for coming!
Jennifer concluded the event quoting Elie Weisel, a Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor – “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Apparently this is the first event of a three part series, and am sure planning to attend the rest as soon as they are scheduled. I & my friend bid our goodbyes with heavy hearts, but glad we made it in. This wasn’t an event to be missed.