Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Listen for the Cherries

          You hear it all the time, if you're listening - Holocaust survivors are fewer every day; soon, only recordings and memories of their testimonies will remain. Sadly, this is true. As I listened to Max Glauben discuss his experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto, imprisonment in four concentration camps, and the murder of his family, I understood the responsibility that came with bearing witness to his story. We must nurture empathy for all people in all people we interact with by sharing the best and worst of our human history. As Max spoke, I appreciated his ability to find humor and beauty in the world and share those gifts with us. I marveled in the little details - the things you don't learn from books.

          I took some notes as Max spoke, and my notes are marked by some roughly drawn cherries. You see, I found that a lot of what I wrote represented the facts: dates, locations, Max's age at liberation. In essence, I copied down the more standard details in a neat, bulleted list, but the truly interesting facts - the details that make Max's stories unique and deeply touching - inspired me to give them more attention. When Max shared how the first cherries he tasted after enduring starvation were "the best in the world," I couldn't help but imagine that experience and compare it with those who would take cherries for granted. I once heard another survivor, Magie, speak just as lovingly about the first orange she ever ate. On her way to live in England via kindertransport, a stranger handed her the fruit, and like Max, she still enjoys it today.

          All of this is applicable to everyday life, whether you're listening to a Holocaust survivor or anyone else with a story to share. For example, I treasure the stories my grandmother shared about her daily life during the Great Depression and WWII. There's a huge difference between learning that nylon was used for parachutes during the war (and therefore difficult for civilians to purchase) through books or history class than hearing a first-hand account of how that meant that nylon stockings were unavailable to women while they were still expected to wear them. My grandmother humorously explained how she and her friends would draw a line down the backs of their legs with a makeup pencil, careful to make the "seam" straight, in an effort to mimic stocking seams and fool the eye. Of course, care had to be taken so as not to smudge the mock stockings. She also talked about the scarcity or outright unavailability of many of the fruits we take for granted today.

          My grandmother recounted in great detail how she learned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. At that time, many families shared phone lines, or "party lines." If one picked up the phone to make a call and heard others conversing, the polite thing to do was hang up the phone and wait. Of course, much eavesdropping occurred. On December 7th, 1941, my grandma picked up the phone to call her friend and heard frenzy and distress. She listened as the news about the attack in Hawaii was described, and she ran to tell her parents the news that would change the course of history. The stories and lessons of my grandmothers are many and varied, and I hope to record them all at some point.

          I know that blog posts should be brief, and I probably lost many readers by now, but the point is this (and it's an important one): when we truly listen - and more than that, actively listen and probe for details, we gain knowledge and understanding that can only come from connecting emotionally to the storyteller and the event, item, or persons of memory that they describe. This knowledge can only be alluded to in print. We must never miss an opportunity to really listen, for everyone around us is a potential storyteller.

Cherries for Max