Dear Holocaust Survivor
This letter has been weighing on my heart for quite some time. I’m amazed I didn’t write it years ago. I suppose time has given me a clearer sense of all I have to be grateful for, and the words by which to say what needs to be said. Whatever the case may be, now seems the right time. I have contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Jewish Council for Holocaust Survivors in New York where 200,000 survivors reside and the rabbis I know at a local synagogue here in Nashville and asked all of these places to get this letter to any survivors that they can. And I am posting it here. I believe, and prayerfully hope, that at least one survivor reads it. Not because it is monumental in their history but because they have been instrumental in my healing and I believe in the power of words to help restore meaning, healing and hope. Maybe you had nothing to do with the Holocaust and know no one who did. I have no personal relatives or ties to it, I have only spoken with one survivor ever…. But my heart is deeply connected to the stories of the survivors.
My name is Tiffini. I am not Jewish and have no personal ties to the Holocaust. At least, not as in relatives or friends who were lost. I am writing you this letter, though, because, as a survivor of the war, you have impacted my life in very deep, meaningful and powerful ways. In fact, I don’t think I would have been alright had I not learned of what you went through. It feels really ridiculous to say thank you because I know all your freedom of choice was stolen, and I know how distant and removed it feels when someone hails you as brave or strong just for surviving. Still, my heart overflows with tenderness and awe and gratitude that you were courageous enough to tell your story, even if you’ve only ever told it to your family. I’m a writer so I believe that words have the power to affect someone, to change them, to uplift them–even when the words sound simple to ourselves.
I am thirty-one years old right now. For nearly all my childhood, I was hurt sexually. Mind games were controlling and fearsome. Violence ran rampant in my family and I remember nights where I’d suck in my breath, hold my stomach muscles tight, and roll into a ball, never allowing myself to breathe a full breathe because I was trying to make myself invisible. My goal was to be as small as possible because the less space in this world I occupied, the less likely it was for me to get noticed, or hurt. My mind raced all day, every day with trying to remember the rules–both the spoken and the unspoken ones–but if you are never told what all the rules are, how can you avoid breaking them? Everyone says I was the perfect child. I never got in trouble. I did what I was supposed to do before I was asked. Everyone always called me “good.”. Except one. To him, I was … I don’t know really what I was, but I wasn’t a daughter, and what I felt were hundreds of invisible bugs crawling all over me, inside me. Every time I was hurt, I would “go away.” I’ve since learned that’s called dissociation–when you can’t really feel anything about what’s happening to you. As I said, I write. I always have. I used to pretend my characters were with me while it was happening. When the worst of it came, I hugged whichever character was with me. And then I was alone, and I shook. I shook until I fell into a very light sleep. I had to sleep lightly all the time because I had to listen with one for danger. In addition to this hurt, we moved constantly. No home. Sometimes the car -was- our home. Sometimes we lived in a tent on a KOA campground without paying. And then the violent fights between my parents. Luckily, I had my sister and a wonderfully living mother but it was … It scarred me. Very deeply.
When I was around thirteen, I read Martin Gilbert’s book, “The Holocaust.” I read these horror stories that were part of your daily life. Babies being thrown out windows and caught by laughing Nazis holding bayonets. Book burnings. A yellow star sewn into the clothes and, eventually, into your hearts. Mengele. All the camps. I read a story about a Jewish man in a camp who escaped into the woods, found a woman, showed her his battered hands and told her he was Jesus so that she’d hide him. I am Christian, and Jesus is precious to me. And, under any other circumstance, I’d have been offended at his lie. But instead, I wanted to hug him and celebrate his brilliance with him. Somehow, I could not stop shaking. One story after another after another. Six million. How many was that? What if you counted the future generations that had to grow with that heritage? The evil stole my breath. Over the next two years, I wrote a book that’s called “Mountains of Hope” that showcased all I’d learned. My heart was changed.
See, to me, it wasn’t just a history lesson. Because, interspersed with all the horror, were incredible stories of miracles and then I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and realized that those who had survived hadn’t just lived in a shell the rest of their lives. No, you went on to marry, have children, smile. There’s a survivor’s club called Miracle in New York where a thousand of you gather each week. At one meeting, Ella, a survivor, said, “I was seven when I was in a concentration camp.” She teared up but then waved a hand and said, “Go on. Let’s have the music. Here I am happy.”. Another survivor I spoke to as a teenager told me that her goal was to enjoy “the beauty of life.” And this week in Israel, 14 survivor women participated in a beauty contest. The winner said, “It is my revenge on them because even through all my family lost and endured, they couldn’t take my happiness and my beauty.” The article made me cry.
Here you were, having endured pure evil, having endured more than I could have ever survived, and you were -capable- of surviving. You were -living-. In comparison, pretty much anything that could possibly happen to me paled. What right did I have to complain, or to cry, or to even feel sad for myself when I had the greatest sister and mother, ever? When I had never been forced to dig a single grave, never stood paralyzed with fear during morning counts? I was lucky. I was very, very lucky. And, furthermore, even though it seemed like he’d never fall, Hitler did die, the war did end. Death wasn’t a constant companion forever. It was changed, it was never going to be the same… Innocence was lost, families were scattered, trust and faith undoubtedly demolished. But life went on. Morning dawned. The symphony of the birds was heard again. And sweet new memories, compassionate and honest people would birth reasons to get up out of the bed. Your legacy wasn’t what you’d seen, done or felt: it was what you did with yourself afterward. Viktor Frankl said, of course, that what could never be taken from us was our attitudes, how we chose to react to whatever came our way. I have visited synagogue. I have talked to members of the Jewish community and I haven’t seen anything but reverent, respectful, creative and compassionate souls who have always awed and humbled me.
My childhood hurt me. It did. And it hurts me still sometimes. There are still areas, especially concerning intimacy and trust, that I struggle with. Sometimes the self-disgust and shame make me walk with my head down even though I don’t know exactly what I did wrong. Nightmares still dog my nights sometimes and my writings are often in stark contrast to my overbright, cheerful smile. Sometimes the memory of loss and fear overwhelm me. But, like you, I have come a very long way. I have two daughters. I speak in front of people now. I’m successful at writing. And I believe in a sweet God. My hope comes from Him, from my mother, girls, sister and from you. You remind me that the pain did end. I’ll never be the little girl I was again, but that little girl wasn’t free to be herself. She wasn’t free to fulfill her potential. She wasn’t free to feel confident, or to trust herself. She was a shadow of who she should have been and who she can still be now. If I had not known of the war, of you, then I don’t know how I would have been able to trust that it was temporary, it would end, it wasn’t forever. If you could live through what you did, then I could live through this. You infused me with strength and the belief that there was more than just pain. You shared your stories, and I want you to know I listened. I cared. A little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes cared very, very much. And I won’t forget. I wrote and taught in schools a program about the Holocaust. I have written about it and I remember the stories I’ve heard, and read. They mattered then, and they matter now. They can and have made a difference, around the world–and in the life of a Nashville, TN girl. You haven’t told your stories to deaf ears, or in vain. Our stories are very different. Mine still seems very insignificant compared to yours. But emotional warfare always involves shame, degradation, unnecessary guilt and a sense of worthlessness that can choke the life right out of you. You fought to the death over a piece of bread because no laughing, demon-possessed Nazi could drive out your will to live. I beat myself up, deliberately tried to waste away by not eating, because I felt so ugly, but no violation, no evil mind game, could steal my belief in a God that held my hand, or my passion for children. We both dream in color, in horrific flashbacks that leave us gasping and crying, feeling alienated from everyone “normal.” Trauma is trauma and we’re connected because we hurt. We’re connected because we are human beings who have experienced life-altering damage. But only through sharing do we find strength in unity. Thank you for sharing.
I hope that, as you advance in age, God grants you peace and clarity. I pray that the memories are buffered with joyful ones. Most of all, I hope you know that the Holocaust didn’t make you an extraordinary human being–you were that already, before the war. The Holocaust didn’t make you strong or brave–you already were strong and brave. It shaped you, molded you, yes, but the reason you’re a remarkable person is because you were born one. You’ve loved, you’ve laughed, you’ve worked, you’ve built generations of goodness and inner beauty that defy everything your tattoo symbolizes. You’ve played, and you’ve fought. You’ve lived. Your light shines and you are beautiful to me.