This year I worked with Ilse Grief, a Holocaust survivor from Germany. I looked forward to my Sunday afternoon ventures to her apartment, where we talked for hours about the past and present. Ilse, like many others who were not put into concentration camps, did not identify as a Holocaust survivor for many years. She felt like her experiences of discrimination were not as justifiably painful because she escaped relatively early on from Germany. I remember one story she told me; when she was kicked out of school she moved to Frankfurt in order to continue her studies. One day after she finished classes, she and a friend were walking around. They began to smell smoke, and as they rounded the corner they saw books burning and a man weeping. The man, who had owned a store of rare books for the majority of his life, watched as soldiers ransacked his shop and burned the books. In essence, he observed his most prized possessions and life work dissipate before him. Ilse still occasionally dreams of that scene and certain smells invoke the imagery. While this did not happen directly to her, it was still a painful experience. This is representative of Ilse and many other survivors’ experiences after the war. They lived with tortuous memories, yet did not feel that they deserved to be called holocaust survivors.
When studying the Holocaust or any catastrophe, we tend to focus on the most horrific stories. This means that experiences such as Ilse’s aren’t heard. This is one of the many reasons that visits to Ilse’s house were very meaningful to me; I was able to listen to stories that were never taught in my history classes.
I greatly enjoyed this experience and am beyond grateful that the Chabad house provided me with one of the most memorable parts of my first year at Bryn Mawr.
See my virtual cookbook project here