Read by Ruth Wade at Yom Hashoah Service
Temple Beth Emeth, Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2004
In 1994, my father started speaking about his Holocaust experiences. In 1997 he was invited to speak at a teachers’ institute in Arkansas, and this is where he met Mary Bryant, a teacher from Cabot, Arkansas. What follows is my father’s story about his speaking experience in Cabot.
I got out of the car and walked with Mary, into a crowd of 120 children. All the kids were very excited and immediately surrounded me. The kids had raised eight hundred dollars by washing cars, walking for ten cents a mile and doing a bake sale to bring me to their school. All the young people then proceeded to individually hug me, one by one. They sang Hebrew songs and danced Israeli dances; they had learned all this just to make me feel welcome.
I saw a sign on the south side of the building proclaiming in large letters “The Future Home of the Sidney Finkel Survivor Garden.” What was happening here was far beyond anything that I could have imagined occurring to me. Mary could read my mind and said, “Yes, Sidney, it is true this is your garden forever. The kids and people from the community have worked for weeks getting ready. We have big plans for this garden.” They were going to put in a bench, and a stone with my name on it, and more plants. This was all joy and happiness. I couldn’t help but think that my Higher Power had something to do with this. How else can you explain such an outpouring of love?
For a moment it washed away all my humiliation at being persecuted for being a Jew. Here were Christian people that were welcoming me with open arms.
I entered the school and walked on red paper that lined the corridor, in honor of me. There were signs on the walls saying “Welcome Sidney.” The principal pointed to paper links that were hanging on the walls and explained that the boys and girls had worked for months linking the chains, which stood symbolically for the six million Jews that had perished in the Holocaust. They had actually been successful in making 150,000 of them!
Mary had built the kids up so much that they considered me already a hero. I just hoped that I could meet their heightened expectation of me. I spoke with a lot of energy, gesturing with my hands and raising and lowering my voice. Lowering my voice to no more than a whisper when I told them of the tragic death of my family. These kids, all of them eighth graders, were paying attention. They were following my words closely, and there was a minimum of movement. I had reached them. My story was completely out of the realm of their experiences, but they could follow the adventures of Sevek. They could relate to being discriminated against and picked upon themselves. Many of these kids, Mary told me, came from broken families. At the age of twelve, some were doing drugs and were in trouble with the law. These kids crowded around me hugging me, and writing their names on the back of my school tee shirt that I wore. I had to sign my name on their books and have my picture taken with them.
Dear Ruthy and Scott,
I want to share with you the feelings I am experiencing now as a result of the talk I gave at the Julian School. It is going to be hard to put into words, because in a way, what happened there had little to do with me. I was nervous but confident that if I was myself, and just told my story, I could get through to these nice youngsters. There were more than fifty of them, and at first I could tell by the expression on some of their faces, that they had this attitude of “why do I have to sit through this.”
As I began to tell my story, I could slowly see a transformation in their disposition. They became very attentive and followed my speech with interest. I was able to relate to them partially because I told them that I was experiencing these events when I was their age. I talked about how I felt when I was lined up to be shot, or my horror at being put on a freight car. I told them how at first all of these happenings had a quality of adventure about them. It was only later on when I had lost my brother and father, that I became frightened and felt powerless. I related to them meeting my uncle and favorite cousins, in a separate camp, and how I had to turn off my feelings and emotions and my natural desire to stay with them, because I somehow knew that if I remained in that place I would have died. That is what happened, but many times I have felt the guilt, that if I truly loved them, I would have stayed with them. I told them that you, Ruth, had turned to me at Passover, and told me that you felt so lucky that you were born. That meant a lot to me. By now a few of the girls were crying. Some of the faculty had come in and sat spellbound.
After I finished there followed a half an hour of questions. I have never before been so impressed with our young people. All the questions were searching and penetrating. They asked many of the same questions that I have been asking myself for years, and to be able to think aloud and express my views was very rewarding for me. I am very glad that my friend Harvey drove me to the school. Harvey was totally spellbound, and he called the talk “very powerful and moving.” Myself, I didn’t think of the talk being anything special. I was simply telling my story.
I am so pleased that I have the two of you with whom I share today.