A friend and colleague stopped me in the hallway at school this morning. I was frenzied and behind schedule. There was an ice storm last night, so I was late to work. The ice bubble that covered my little Toyota Yaris was like glue. It took longer to bite into it with my scraper than I’d expected. There were swear words and mutterings. I don’t like being late. I berate myself more than anyone else could. I’m my own worst enemy. Anyway, Dan stopped me in the hall and said, “Eva Olsson’s giving her talk tonight in the Valley.” I thought, “Oh, my morning has been horrible. I have lots of marking to do this week and a play to work on this weekend. I have a new writing group starting on Sunday. How will I find time?” But, as the day went on, I kept thinking….”Kim, she’s 90. She is a Holocaust survivor. Your ‘stuff’ can wait.”
So, I asked my sister to come along and we headed out to the Valley for 7pm. The next two hours changed my life and my view of the world. I love history. It was my minor at university. I learned about the Holocaust, but there is something raw about listening to a survivor. Just nineteen when taken to a concentration camp, Eva Olsson’s story is one that shakes you to the core. She speaks to school students each year. She’s 90, but you’d swear she was more like 66 or 70. How she tells her story over and over again is the question. How could you live through that sheer hell, that inhumane and evil torment, and still have a heart that opens and forgives so widely? It amazed me. If she can forgive the Nazis and Hitler for what they did to her, and to her family, how can I have issues about ‘little things’ on a daily basis? Her talk jerks you out of your self-involvement, asks you to question your own thought process in life. Eva says that no one should use the word “hate.” You can say “dislike,” but not “hate.” What she tries to do is to educate and banish hate, person by person, talk by talk. She succeeds.
Visiting schools, she speaks about the scourge of bullying, and of bystanders who are just as bad as the bullies. She calls on parents to raise children with love. She calls on teachers to speak up against bullies and to be role models. She says that, for her, each day is Remembrance Day. She thinks of her mother in the corner of a cattle car, on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, weeping. She recalls the women and children who waited, in clumps, outside the showers, not knowing that they were going to their deaths. Hearing these stories, not from a textbook or documentary, breaks you.
Born in 1924, she was a Hungarian Jew. (It makes me think of my uncle, Jeno Tihanyi, who escaped from Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution back in 1956. He escaped from the Communists, and I remember being amazed by his stories of hiding and escaping….but even those stories can’t even compare to Olsson’s horrors.) In May 1944, she and her family were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She lost family members, as quickly as Mengele could direct people either to the left or right, separating the weak from those who were healthier. She spoke of human hair being taken and made into pieces of fabric, and of the ‘surprise soup’ fed to the prisoners and consisting of human hair and bone. Her recollections are far worse and harrowing than anything I had read or studied at university. Her talk was far more potent than any viewing of “Schindler’s List” or reading of Anne Frank’s diary.
Eva says, at the beginning and end of her talk, that she only hopes to reach one heart. From what I could tell tonight, in that old school gym, she touches far more than she expects to….and that ripple, one can hope, will shift outwards to our daily interactions with our fellow humans.
Be kind, she says. Be generous, she encourages. Speak up against injustice. Do not be a bystander….because, if you are a bystander, you are am accomplice. How can we not listen to her story? Recognize her bravery? Applaud her spirit and heart?
I wish everyone could hear her talk….I think the world would be a better place.
You can read more about Eva’s life here….at http://www.evaolsson.ca