I know so many brave people. Both of my parents are Cuban immigrants and made terrible sacrifices and took serious risks to escape dictatorship and build a better life. Most of my relatives have similar stories. Today, on International Women’s Day, as we celebrate the brave, bold, and beautiful women in our lives and around the world, I can say that I know one more. Yesterday, I had the privilege to hear and meet Mrs. Bronia Kraus, Mrs. B, as she is affectionately called, one of the few Holocaust survivors still alive today.
This small woman who stands awfully close to 5 feet (she was grateful I bent down for the picture 😆), lived through one of the biggest moments in our world’s history. And she stands here now to tell us her story and to teach us that we have so much to remember and so MUCH more to learn.
it’s never an immediate impact
Mrs. B told us that when things began to change, they did so gradually. And I had a thought that I never had before: Of course they did. It’s the proverbial boiling frog analogy. If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in cold water which is then gradually brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. With an immediate impact, you feel the blow – your instinct is to fight back. But when things are gradual, you don’t see them coming as clearly.
It Absolutely can happen… anywhere
One of the most chilling parts of her talk was when she reminded us all that Germany, at the time, was one of the leaders in the world. A cultured and refined country, Germany had great composers and artists and brilliant minds. How could this have happened? Mrs. B asked us to think about that. “And, believe me, you wonder… you try and understand how something like that [Holocaust] could happen. How could this happen? And, I tell you… I don’t know. 78 years later and I’m still wondering.”
I, in my naïvety, can offer only this: because we think it can’t. It’s an interesting thing the human mind does. It convinces us that those things don’t happen to us, they happen to other people. And then we blind ourselves to think that just because it isn’t happening here, that it isn’t happening. Or that it won’t happen here or that we know better this time or that we’ve learned from such mistakes. Have we?
She was 10
It was heartbreaking to hear that she was 10 when her life blew up in her face, probably more so now that I am a mother. Throughout her story, I could only think about my daughter’s curls, frolicking in the wind with a life of their own as she runs and plays. Carefree. Her smile is big and laugh is even bigger. My son’s squeals of delight are contagious. On so many occasions he’ll sneak up behind me, bury his face in my legs and tell me he loves me. They live a beautiful childhood full of family and love and sunsets and birthday candles, the kind off life we hope for for all of our children. Safe. Happy. Pure. I am sure it was Bronia’s life too as a child. Until it wasn’t.
Her mother was 38 when she died in the ghetto. It wasn’t lost on me that she was my age. How terrified she must have been to leave her child alone in such a place. And equally as heartbreaking was that Mrs. Bronia watched her mother die of tuberculosis because there was nothing to help her, “What do you want me to do,” the doctor of the ghetto said looking at Mrs. B as a child, “I don’t have any medicine.” She watched them roll away her mother’s body, stacked on top of other dead bodies and rolled to a mass grave. “It was like they were telling us that she never existed. That she didn’t exist when she was alive and that she didn’t exist when she was dead. I know the area she was buried but I don’t know exactly where.” My tears were steady at this point.
I saw this chilling video recently that put a lot of this into perspective for me. And just yesterday, I saw the sequel. Just as heartbreaking. Just as poignant. The thought of my kids wandering alone in a world, cold and scared and confused, is honestly enough to keep me in bed for days. I cannot imagine. And yet Syria. Aleppo.
So I ask again, have we learned?
Never believe one person can’t make a difference
Throughout her story, Mrs. B dropped little pearls for the students to take with them, among them, she points to the students and says, “And don’t ever believe that one person can’t make a difference. One MAN changed everything so one person can absolutely make a difference. You just have to decide if you will make a difference for good or for bad.”
What a bomb! We forget how powerful one voice could be. We vote and results don’t go in our favor and we think we weren’t heard or that our voice wasn’t counted. It does count. History has been made and changed by movements, movements that were started by a few individuals.
the power to Do the right thing
She mentioned more than once the importance of doing the right thing, the kind thing. She told us a story about bringing chicken noodle soup to a sick man. When the war ended, the son of that man saw her name on a list at a displaced person’s camp (DP Camp). Remembering the grace she showed his father, the son claimed her from that camp. “You don’t know when something will come back to you. It isn’t the reason you should do it. Maybe it never comes back to you but you should still do it.” Because isn’t helping someone who needs help always the right thing?
Do you believe in God
When the talk was over and there were only a few of us left, someone asked Mrs. B about her faith. And what she said was resounding. She said, “I believe that God exists for everyone through the Godly things they do. It doesn’t matter what your religion. If I saw someone drowning, I wouldn’t stop first and ask them what religion they were. I’d help them. That’s the Godly thing to do.” But there was more. She continued, “And the Godly thing to do is what is right for that person. Not what is right for you. Because we are all in need of different things and it is not for us to say what someone else needs. Maybe you have a spot on your dress and you have a headache,” she said, pointing to invisible people, “what you need isn’t what you need.”
It made total sense. Would I give you medicine for your dress or soap for your headache? If we are truly trying to act in a Godly manner, through acts of kindness, than we treat the need, not our opinion of the need.
Humanity will save the world
Maybe the single most important thing I took away from Mrs. B is her belief and hope in humanity. On more than one occasion she said, “There were terrible people, yes, but there were also good people.” Only a strong and resilient woman could have so much faith in humanity after the cards she was dealt and yet here she stands. Urging us to forgive, to not be vengeful, to not let bitterness poison us.
There are so many things I learned from listening to her in that short hour and a half and I believe this is her superpower. She tells and retells her her story for the same reason mothers tell their kids cautionary tales: so we could learn from mistakes and learn how to do better next time. Mrs. B shares her experience, not to break our hearts but to open them. She recounts her tragedy to help us understand that humanity is not lost and that human connection, above all else, is what will save the world.
Happy International Women’s Day!
She has written a very brief account of her full story. I’ve linked the pages here if you’d like to read it.