An evening with Eva Schloss
I’d purchased a ticket weeks earlier, but as the night arrived I considered finking out. The unfamiliar rental car felt large and ungainly compared to petite and zippy Fiona the Honda, and I would be driving after dark, facing a barrage of headlights from commuters returning home.
I would cross Highway 140 at Kershaw, site of yet another recent fatality. These new frights spring from recent events, but the prod came. You’re a writer. I mean, how often will you witness a Holocaust survivor telling her story of survival? Don’t wimp out, gal!
I arrived at the Medford Armory 30 minutes early and joined a caravan of cars trying to enter a full parking lot. I’d no idea what size crowd to expect, but the level of interest was heartening. Chabad Jewish Center of Southern Oregon had worked and planned for months to account for the gathering. Students from Phoenix High School volunteered time for the event. The young woman at the door scanned my ticket with a smile, and I was in. A friend had saved seats near the back. More than 1,500 curious souls had packed the auditorium.
Two screens flanking the stage helped those of us relegated to the rear. A hauntingly lovely song, “Memories,” with accompanying graphics of the horror that was the Holocaust, was our prelude.
When 90-year-old Eva Schloss took the stage, we stood to receive her with generous applause. From victim to victor, we respected her bravery and wondered at her survival. I marveled at the courage and strength required do what she dared now, and thought about residual fear of repercussion for simply telling the truth. No wonder some people have a hard time believing. The hatred and brutality moves beyond our well placed limits into uncharted territory.
“Why here and why now?” Patsy Smullin, our moderator, asked of her visit to Medford. “I was asked to come here,” Eva replied to polite laughter. “When I came back from Auschwitz, I wanted to talk.”
I considered how it must feel from her chair, looking out at all our faces to share the pain yet again. Does speaking the experiences revive the dread and depression for Eva as happens when I rehash some bleak point? Does the pain ebb with familiarity? As she moved us through her mounting trials, I tried to reach the place beyond acknowledging to feeling. That’s when tears come.
I considered the crowd and realized each of us experienced our time together uniquely. This was no play or concert. It wasn’t a TED talk, and not meant to rev us up to accomplish “big” plans — only to remember, to care and to share with our children and grandchildren, teaching them compassion instead of alienation. In that crowd of 1,500 you could have heard your own heart beating, the room grew so quiet.
Sometimes she turned up the flame on her pain with, “Can you imagine?”
I’ll admit to struggling with that one, but I tried to feel what it would be like to suddenly have your humanity forcibly yanked out from under amid laughter and derision. I saw tears in others’ eyes and felt them. So, while we experienced tears and sympathy, empathy penetrates. Empathy dares to spend time exploring the dark places of fellow human suffering. It is counterintuitive. It pulls from our best, not to dwell there, rendering us powerless, but to try to understand.
The following day I attended a radio play of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the story of a man who wishes he’d never been born. He experiences the consequences of his wish and ultimately views and loves life with renewed perception, despite many challenges and disappointments.
I apologize if this is too preachy on a Sunday morning. I’ll leave you with Eva’s life philosophy taken from a pre-talk interview with KOBI. “You never have to give up because it is not always a downhill. Life goes up and down. Nobody has only the downside. There is always a silver lining.”
If Eva can heal, we can too.
Peggy Dover is a freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.