For a quiet moment, I stared anxiously at the beautiful black and white photo that was printed on the small plastic white card I held reverently in my right hand. I couldn’t stop staring at the face of 13-year-old Helen “Potyo” Katz. I couldn’t seem to turn away from the haunted look in her large dark eyes.
“Bring your card over here,” I suddenly heard the young museum docent say to me. “If you place the card into one of the computers, you’ll get a print out about your child.”
I smiled and followed the young woman over to one of the computers that was lined up against the far wall. I placed the card into the slot on the front of the computer. A few second later, I picked up the single sheet of paper that had seeped out of a nearby printer.
Helen “Potyo” Katz
The same black and whiter photo of the young girl with the large dark eyes stared up at me from the page. I quickly read through the text that was printed on the pure white paper. I suddenly found myself choking back tears as I read the last two paragraphs.
“Potyo and her mother were immediately separated from her brother and sisters, and they were murdered. Potyo was 13-years-old.”
“Potyo was one of 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Germans and their collaborators during the Holocaust.”
I took a deep breath and looked at the three tall card dispensers that were stationed at the front of the room. Each dispenser held stacks of white plastic cards. Each card presented a picture and name of a child murdered during the Holocaust…
1.5 million children…
Looking at the stacks of cards I still couldn’t seem to wrap my head or my heart around that number. I was still contemplating this fact when my friend, Allison, walked up beside me and asked if I wanted to go downstairs and attend the presentation by the guest speaker. Affirmatively shaking my head, I quickly followed Allison to the elevators and we rode in silence down to the lower level.
Allison and I had decided to tour the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California, because we both have a huge interest in the Holocaust, World War II and the events of the 1940s. The exhibits at this museum were beautifully and respectfully designed to honor the people of the Holocaust. I was pleased to see though that the museum also paid tribute to all people who were targets of hate crimes. All minorities that have suffered violence and discrimination are respectfully honored at the Museum of Tolerance. Looking at the displays was a sobering and profound experience.
Allison and I took our seats in the large back room on the second floor that had been set aside for presentations. As I sat comfortably in the plastic seat on the end of the third aisle and waited patiently for the presentation to begin, I glanced anxiously around the room. I was pleased to see that the audience contained many young people. A large majority of them were with a school group. Others were sitting next to their parents.
A few minutes later, a short, slender man with dark hair walked up to the front of the room. He introduced himself as Michael though he was known to his family as Miki. For the next hour, I sat riveted to the presentation as Miki spoke of his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. I found myself swept away as he talked about the separation of his family, the condition of the concentration camps, and the brutality he witnessed on a daily basis. Listening to Miki’s words, I couldn’t keep the tears from flowing down my face. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry out loud at the details of Miki’s horrific life story. I had to continually turn my head to the open space on my left and forcibly breathe out to keep myself from screeching.
I was not alone in this grief. Miki’s story was so intensely horrific that the audience reacted in shock and despair. I looked around the room and saw many people in tears. I struggled to hold in my sobs as I noticed a young blond boy gripping his mother’s hand and patting her arm as tears ran down both their faces.
When his hour was over, Miki still had not completed his entire story. As terrifying as the story was, I didn’t want Miki to stop talking. This moment was so incredibly enriching to my soul, I didn’t want it to be over. I have read many books about the Holocaust, but hearing a first-hand account made the events more personal and realistic. I wanted to remain connected to the people in that room, who were joined together to honor the tragedy and awesome courage of another person’s life.
When Miki had to end his presentation, Allison and I stood in the line of people walking to the front of the room to thank Miki for telling his story. Allison and I patiently stood by as we watched audience members move up to Miki one at a time. Now, I didn’t fight back my tears as I watched the young blond boy and his mother approach Miki. Miki asked the boy how old he was to which the boy responded “Thirteen.”
“Thirteen!” Miki repeated. “Aaahhh…that’s the age I was when I was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.”
Now the boy and the man stood staring at each other for a moment of profound silence. Then, the boy suddenly threw his arms around Miki and held him in a long embrace. I watched as the two generations held onto each other, trying to find some peace and understanding in life’s atrocities. When the two separated again, I watched in awe as other young kids—13-, 15-, 17-year-olds—each took a turn to shake hands or hug Miki while thanking him for sharing his story. I watched as one young girl with long dark hair offered her hand to Miki. Her chin quivered violently as she tried to hold back the tears that were swimming in her eyes. Miki took her hand looked into her eyes and said, “It’s okay to cry.” He paused and then added, “And it’s okay to laugh. We are all just human.” The young girl’s tears now spilled down her cheeks as she embraced Miki quickly and then ran from the room.
Allison and I were the last in line and now we stood in front of Miki. As Allison talked to him, I addressed the short, dark haired, elderly woman standing beside him. Miki’s wife and I stared at each other for a second before embracing. As we held onto each other, words just slipped out of my mouth. I whispered to her, “You are beautiful.”
The woman pulled away and stared at me for a minute. “Oh, no, not me,” she now said with a gentle laugh as a sweet blush eased across her cheeks. Her suddenly rosy face and shy smile gripped my heart. “Of course, you are,” I answered as the woman embraced me again.
I turned then to Miki and choked on my words as I said to him, “It was an absolute privilege to hear your story.” Miki and I shared a gentle hug.
As I pulled away and turned towards Allison, I suddenly heard Miki’s wife excitedly say to him, “Did you hear what she said to me? Did you hear what she said?!”
I turned back around to find the woman beaming joyfully at me as she stood next to her husband. She seemed to be waiting anxiously for me to repeat the words. “I told her she was beautiful,” I said even though my tears caused me to choke on the last word as the woman’s smile suddenly radiated out around the room. I wanted to run back to her, take off the big white sunglasses she was wearing, stare into her eyes and ask, “Hasn’t anyone ever said that to you before?” The woman seemed so pleased to be addressed in such a manner. I suddenly realized that it was not ego that made her want my words repeated, but a deep aching need that we all have to be acknowledged and humanized.
I turned around then and followed Allison out the door and down the hallway to the bathroom. I stepped into one of the stalls, leaned my head against the wall, and cried. I don’t think I’ve wept that hard in a long time. After a few minutes, I stepped out of my stall at the same time Allison came out of hers. For a moment, we stood staring at each other as we noted our tears…
And then suddenly we smiled…
And then we started to laugh.
Because it really is okay to cry…
And it is okay to laugh.
Allison and I walked out of the bathroom and back into the main hallway. We looked at a few more exhibits until the museum closed at 5 pm. I didn’t want to leave. I loved being at the Museum of Tolerance. I certainly wouldn’t say it is the place that make me the happiest. I certainly wouldn’t say it is the place that makes me feel the most alive.
The Museum of Tolerance, instead, is the place that makes me feel the most human…
I was always concerned that in years to come people would forget about the Holocaust, that it would simply over time just fade away into the pages of dusty old history books. I think about the evil that people continue to do to each other. I worry about the disrespect we, including myself, demonstrate to each other on a daily basis…
….but then I think about all of those young people who cried, and laughed, and honored a Holocaust survivor…
And I know there’s hope for the next generation. Oh, yes, there is tremendous hope for the generations to come.