Some came because a class required it. Others came out of sheer interest. But no matter what the reason, all those who attended “Resistance in a Choiceless World – A Holocaust Survivor’s Story” last Tuesday had one thing in common: they came to remember.
The program, held in the Music Building and sponsored by the Jewish Student Union (JSU) during Holocaust Remembrance Week, featured the words, poetry and prose of Holocaust survivor Judith Sherman, now a New Jersey resident.
“It is very important for our generation to listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors, because we are probably the last generation that will be able to hear their stories told directly from their lips,” Sarah Brown, JSU Social Action/Jewish Awareness vice president, said.
Fittingly, Sherman was asked to speak on the eve of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a raid on Jewish synagogues, homes and stores that occurred on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. Today, this night of terror is often credited as the true beginning of the Holocaust.
“Tomorrow is Nov. 9. The anniversary of Kristallnacht,” Sherman began. “It happened in 1938, and became known as ‘the night of broken glass.’ My tale is a part of the darkness foretold by Kristallnacht.”
Sherman’s tale is a dark one indeed. At age 13, she and her family were forced from their small Czechoslovakian village and deported. Although she and her sister were able to hide with a Christian family and later in the forest for a short time, they were eventually imprisoned in the Ravensbr?ck death camp in Germany. Ultimately, Sherman lost much of her family, including her mother and eight-year-old brother, before she herself was liberated from the camp in April 1945.
“Resistance in a choiceless world,” Sherman said. “Everything that is life-directed is resistance, because the goal of the final solution is death. I’m here to demonstrate the resistance that I knew almost 60 years ago.”
Sherman chose to relate her experiences by reading aloud selections from her recently published book, “Say the Name: A Survivor’s Tale in Poetry and Prose.”
While the book has been received with a great deal of praise, Sherman took years to gain the courage necessary to speak and write about all that she had been through.
“It was a long gestation period,” she said. “It took me 55 years to start talking about the Holocaust. I never said anything about it, not even to my family or friends. Not even my husband knew what I had been through. He knew I had been involved, but he did not know the details.”
Sherman was finally inspired to share her tale after auditing a class at Princeton University entitled “Religion and the Terror of History.”
“I was so impressed and moved by the way the professor tried to explain the Holocaust and make it relevant to his students’ lives,” Sherman said. “Afterward, I went up to him and confessed that I was a Holocaust survivor.”
The professor, David Carrasco, encouraged her to speak to the class and later, to put her thoughts onto paper. When the book was published, she dedicated it to him with a simple inscription: “You lent ear to my silence.”
Sherman’s poetry, which is written in the voice of a 14-year-old girl, covers topics including her peaceful life before the Holocaust, her time spent in hiding, her eventual capture and her internment at Ravensbr?ck death camp.
“I think my book picks up where Anne Frank left off,” Sherman said. “Not in terms of quality, but because of the fact that Anne’s story ends when she dies going into camp. And that is really where my story begins.”
Sherman explained how after hiding in a forest, she and her relatives were caught by the German army and imprisoned. Her brother, mother and other relatives were sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again.
“My brother will forever be eight,” she said.
Sherman was slated to be sent to Auschwitz as well, but on the particular day that her transport arrived at the concentration camp, it was turned away. Apparently, the camp was too full and could not take any more prisoners.
“Every survivor has a miracle story,” Sherman said. “Mine – no room in Auschwitz for that one day.”
Even today, Sherman remains haunted and affected by the Holocaust. She refuses to wear striped clothing, will not watch bad news on TV and will only choose fruits and vegetables from the top of the pile while grocery shopping. Rummaging for the best ones, she said, is too suggestive of the selection process that occurred at Auschwitz.
“I live on two tracks, always,” she said. “I am here and there.”
Still, Sherman hopes that her book and lecture can make a positive difference in the ways that the Holocaust is viewed today.
“I think it is important for the world to know about the Holocaust,” she said. “Not just in remembrance, but to stir us into action. These are our future leaders, the people who will have impact on the world. They should remember the Holocaust, and use it as an example of what to do and what not to do. I want to show the negative impact of hate, racism and intolerance.”
Sherman closed her presentation by reading a poem entitled “This Time,” a plea for people to open their eyes and prevent another Holocaust from ever occurring.
“I think this poem sums everything up,” she said. “This is the essence of it. This time we can act, and we can’t claim ignorance anymore, unlike the last time.”
At the close of her program, a line of students eager to purchase her book and meet Sherman snaked through the Music Building’s lobby.
“I bought this book because I was so struck by the words she said and her readings,” Alida Liberman, sophomore English and philosophy major, said. “It was so emotional and eloquent. This is a subject I’m very interested in and passionate about. It’s about survival, human rights, the problem of evil in the world. I think she’s an incredible woman. I can’t wait to read the whole book and share it with others.”
For a woman who has kept her haunting past a secret for so long, it is clear that Sherman has been able to accomplish a great deal in a short time, and to touch the lives of many in the process. But she won’t stop there.
“I think you can sum up what I want to do with a Hebrew phrase,” she said. “‘Tikun Olam’-it means ‘for the betterment of the world.'”