This past summer, in the car ride from the heart of Prague to a destination about two hours away, I got a good sense of the shotgun passenger. She impressed me with her intelligence and curiosity, kindness and soulfulness, energy and fortitude. 91 years old, small in stature but with a presence larger than life, Doris is a Holocaust survivor. The car ride was the precursor to our tour through Terezin, the concentration camp where Nazis imprisoned Doris for five years during World War II.
My parents had met Doris twice before, and made it their mission to introduce her to my siblings and me. Even as Doris impressed me in the car ride, as we neared the camp, I struggled to comprehend why anybody would want to return to a place where they had endured such great terror and tragedy.
In retrospect, I understand that she was making meaning out of her suffering by sharing her experiences with me. I saw the very room where she was crammed in with dozens of other inmates each night, and I saw the fields where she was forced to labor. Though I got nowhere close to stepping inside 1940 Doris’ shoes, seeing her in 2017 walking through the concentration camp enabled me to feel a small part of her pain. I saw and felt a part of history that few people in the coming generation will get to experience with a Holocaust survivor. Just as it was my parents’ mission to introduce me to Doris, it is now my mission to communicate her story to the next generation.
Doris’ story, contrary to my previous conception of the Holocaust, was filled with light even in the midst of great darkness. In describing her life in the concentration camp, Doris did not describe a sullen, lifeless place devoid of any sources of happiness. While she didn’t shy away from the atrocities of the Holocaust, she focused on the light of her experience at Terezin.
Doris talked about the active arts community that put on plays, created music and painted. She talked about the SS guard who warned her not to get on a train leading to a death camp and certain death. And she talked about how, no matter how painful and exhausting her day, she always made sure to smile.
When Doris was my age, she was living in a concentration camp. The darkness in my life primarily descends from homework, college applications, and the New York Giants’ current 1-6 record. Sometimes, when the clock strikes midnight and I still have a stack of work in front of me and it’s only Monday, it’s hard to see light creeping out of the darkness.
But then I think of Doris. I think about her exhausting days and restless nights, and I think about the children dancing. If she could find light in the midst of the greatest atrocity in modern human history, I think I can find light, too. Doris gave me the power of perspective, and that is the greatest gift of all.
Originally published in the November 2017 print issue