I Sit Watching About a Hundred High Schoolers

Today I want to share an essay that Paul Kempler (my husband) wrote a little while back during a high school Holocaust presentation. I meant to re-blog his post but, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from simply writing an introduction to his exceptionally moving piece, and wrote my own blog post here.

A friend of ours, who stumbled across the post by accident, told Paul that she had looked into his heart after reading his words. So before I run on and on, I present Paul’s thoughts on his father’s Holocaust presentation.

Hug High School Holocaust Presentation:

April and my dad spoke to students at a local high school today and while they spoke, I wrote down my thoughts on the event. I’m posting them here. I called it my creative writing assignment.

I sit watching about a hundred high schoolers. These aren’t the most refined kids. They are the type that are always being torn in different directions. Many don’t have complete families and what family they do have is sometimes very challenged. Drugs and gangs are never far from the world that they live in. Often, their teachers say, they are disinterested and disrespectful.
These young ones sit in rapt attention. They are listening to a story of a man who endured many trials and this interests them. He is a holocaust survivor from Poland. When he talks of near starvation, beatings, hard labor and survival, they listen. Maybe the world they face isn’t that different from what this man’s experience is. He claims that his only thought was how to survive that minute. You didn’t think about the future. If you did, it was a death sentence. For to feel, was to allow emotions through and emotions were a recipe for death. These children or young adults in the high school auditorium can certainly relate to this. The modern world creates distance. What young one today really feels comfortable with their own emotions. If their experiences don’t damage them enough, so many are actually causing harm to themselves due to the need “to feel”. Cutting, addictions, even suicide are on the rise. This old man speaks to their hearts. They don’t fidget, they don’t whisper, they don’t sigh. Their eyes and seating inclination are both forward.
These are history students. Usually, there is a great disconnect from what they learn. So many years have passed. In this case, though, history comes to life in the person of an 87 year old man who lived through an important part of history. Some people deny that his story, like so many other holocaust survivors, is based in fact. Once these living historians are no longer with us, it becomes easier for those who challenge the story to gain traction for their statements. So, even though this man struggles to speak clearly and fluidly, it is important that he pass on this information to the newest generation. He tugs at his sportcoat lapels, tries to sit up straight as though this action will trigger his mind to return to the times when his photographic memory brought every detail to his tongue. It doesn’t work anymore. The twirling of his thumbs in a circular motion while the rest of his fingers are interlaced doesn’t work either. He tries smacking his lips and tongue, making small noises. But they don’t bring to mind the words either. He has a spokesperson though; his daughter-in-law. She spent 6 years interviewing him, chronicling the account of his life and tabulating all the information into a written document. She knows his story better than he does now. It is a shame that he is a shell of his former self, but it may have benefits too. If there was something traumatic you wanted to put behind you, memory and cognitive issues might be a blessing in disguise. He still claims to not sleep and have nightmares based on his past, but under these circumstances, he struggles to tell these children many specifics. His memoirist fills in the gaps for the eager ears in the auditorium.
Questions that the students asked were varied in content:
Did you ever go back to visit your home town? Was it hard to go back?
What did you weigh after the war?
If Hitler were here, would you forgive him?
What was the first time you saw a dead body and how did it make you feel?
Were any of the soldiers nice?
Would you like to take revenge if you could?
What happened to your family?
Did you ever think about escaping?
What motivated you to survive?

What do these questions teach us about the students? They want to connect with family. They want to believe that there is good in all people. They want to believe that there is a way out of any situation.
These are common threads to humanity. We all face similar challenges and evils, regardless of our background. I’m guessing that the children that sit in this room with the Survivor don’t have access to special treatment in the world. Their backgrounds are very similar, though separated by 70 years and the Atlantic Ocean. Both were very interested in their freedoms, though they were pressured from all sides. Both wished for closer connections to family. Both learn to survive using whatever skills or manipulations they can.
In the end, we are all damaged in some manner. The scars are not always visible. But, sometimes they are. Maybe it is a tattoo of a number on your arm, given while a prisoner in a concentration camp. Sometimes it’s a burn mark on your hand where an overzealous parent has put out their cigarette in an attempt at discipline. But these scars withstanding, the majority of damage we all endure is internal. It is good for these students to realize that no matter what we face, we have the opportunity to persevere through them. Conquer or overcome might be too strong of a word. This survivor has a special gift. He has developed something that helps him. Faith.
I’m not sure how these young students view faith. Do they possess it? The Survivor claims to have begun life as a practicing Jew, then as a result of his experiences a God-hater, then an atheist and finally religious again, via a different path. He claims that his search for “God” has helped him endure. Most holocaust survivors had a very different path when it comes to their relationship with a higher being. Most became quite anti-God, assuming that he had abandoned them. They returned the favor. This is a common reaction when having gone through something traumatic. The Survivor didn’t get on this road to faith until far after the war had ended. What will bring these students to the same place of faith? Will they ever grasp for it or will they rely on their own strength to overcome whatever comes their way? Only time will tell, but the story they are hearing provides a key to how to find that path. Maybe they recognize this. Why else would they pay such close attention? No one is looking at their phones or acting otherwise distracted.
Humanity is closely connected. In any group, there are leaders and followers. In this auditorium of young souls, some would have been Nazis and some would have been persecuted, while others would be observers. Would those observers have stood for what was right or would they looked away as atrocities occurred under their noses. (The smell of human flesh burning is pretty hard to ignore.) This is the message of the Survivor.

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