From the other side of an iPhone screen, the connection stretching from Washington, D.C. to Crescent City, Susan relays her family’s history. It’s one of horrible atrocity that hardly anyone can comprehend but it is also a story of hope, of resilience.
Elisabeth, Susan’s 91-year-old mother, was 18 when she was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. The Holocaust robbed Elisabeth of nearly her entire family.
Upon their arrival to the extermination camp, Elisabeth’s then 13-year-old brother fell ill. While being placed in a different line — apart from their mother — by the Gestapo, he asked Elisabeth if he should go with her or their mother. Elisabeth urged him to go and join their mother, thinking it would be in his best interest to stay with her. Sickeningly, that was the line destined for the gas chambers. To this day, Elisabeth blames herself for the death of her little brother.
What happened recently in Charlottesville, Virginia may seem like nothing more than a mere, tiny threat carried out by a bunch of ignorant, grotesque racists but that is exactly what many Germans thought when the Third Reich took power. Any act of racism should be viewed as a threat to every citizen of America and every living human being.
Currently, there is an ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar, Burma. This is not this first liquidation that has taken place since the Holocaust; genocides are a constant phenomenon. If humankind wishes to progress, we must stop these ridiculous ideas that we are better than someone because of our lineage.
Susan said her childhood was extremely difficult. She described it as “painful, challenging, and sad.” Susan explained, “We kind of grew up learning that when your parents are in the Holocaust, everything that happens to you is kind of second rate. It just doesn’t even register as relevant.”
Not only has Susan been deeply impacted by her mother’s experiences, Grace, Elisabeth’s granddaughter and lives in Crescent City, has also had a rocky time with her grandmother. “I think she’s still traumatized pretty horribly,” Grace said.
Although Elisabeth endured unimaginable pain and suffering, she never let go of her hope for a better future. When asked just how Elisabeth found this hope, Susanexplained, “She used to say things to me like, ‘Never give up.’ What kept her alive was hoping that she could see her family again.”
Elisabeth now speaks weekly about her experiences, feeling she has a duty to act as a witness and keep genocides from reoccurring, and to teach the importance of tolerance and peace. Ever since she laid eyes on the killing machine that Auschwitz was 74 years ago, her being has been forever altered by her experiences. Yet, somehow, she always prevails through her struggles. “I think she sees the good in people, which I’m very impressed by,” Grace said.
When Susan was asked what is most misunderstood about the Holocaust, she stressed how many believe because the genocide occurred so long ago, it is no longer as prevalent today. However, the horrors of the Holocaust are still very much alive. “Trauma breeds more trauma. When parents are traumatized, there is secondary trauma that gets passed down to the kids, and even the grandkids.”
Elisabeth, like many Holocaust survivors, was a fighter. Her testimony serves as a poignant warning to future generations; we must never forget, nor bury, the past. Susan cautions: “People have the potential for evil, and, unless we really are conscious of it, it (genocide) happens.”
Susan believes that, if we recognize our own capacity for evil, we can rise above it. “Can’t change what we don’t see or know about,” she explains.
A very wise, brave man named Elie Wiesel once said: “A destruction, an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent.” Please, stay informed, be aware and speak up. Don’t be silent accomplices.
Jessica O’Rourke is a student at College of the Redwoods Del Norte and a volunteer at the Del Norte Historical Society Museum in Crescent City. She is pursuing plans to become a Holocaust historian and author.