In November of 2006, I began my first job as a personal injury litigator at a law firm in England. One of the first things I was taught to do was how to take a Statement of Evidence from my client at the start of their case. My supervisor described the process as painting a picture for the reader as to who the client was, the circumstances of the accident, and how it has impacted their life both physically and emotionally. It was paramount that my Statement of Evidence was as detailed as possible. I had to make sure all my t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted as no one should read the Statement of Evidence and have any further questions about what had happened to the client. I was also told that every interview with a client should be different and tailored to that specific person and their circumstances.
Over a year ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Anna Waller, PhD, an 84-year-old woman, who works as a psychotherapist in New York. Ms. Anna was looking for someone to help write her life story. Ms. Anna was born on December 11, 1938, in Tarnazsadány, Hungary and she lived there until her family moved to Budapest after the Second World War began. From the summer of 1944 to January of 1945, Miss Anna and her two sisters lived in the Budapest Ghetto and remarkably they all survived the war. Ms. Anna’s parents also survived the war and were reunited with their children. In life, we have so many roles to play, and we evolve into different characters almost like in a play. Ms. Anna is a psychotherapist, a mother, a wife, a friend, but most importantly she is a survivor.
For years, Ms. Anna was not ready to share her story and it was only in the mid to late 1980s that she felt ready to speak, but also most importantly to start healing with the assistance of a child survivor group on Long Island. Over the years, Ms. Anna has provided her testimony to many organizations such as Yad Vashem, Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Whilst at first glance when you hear Ms. Anna tell her story it all sounds good after all she and her family had survived the Holocaust, the greatest tragedy to befall the 20th century. However, as I began to interview Miss Anna about her life, I was shocked to learn many unpleasant things about her life after the war that were never mentioned in her previous testimonies. When I asked her why she had not mentioned it previously, Ms. Anna explained that the interviewers never asked the questions that I was asking her. I learned that the testimonies previously provided only scratched the surface as Ms. Anna’s story contained additional tragedies, sadness, hurt, but also her ability to survive and thrive that helped shape her into the formidable woman that she is today.
Ms. Anna does not want any child to live through what she suffered. “After many years of reluctance to speak up and bear witness I no longer feel it is a choice for me, but an obligation. Child survivors are the last living witness of the Holocaust with actual memories of the atrocities and Adolf Hitler… My message to the younger generation – Don’t be complacent. Guard and protect our democratic values. Be active in whatever level you can. Be involved in your community and give a helping hand.
Speak up for justice and equality for all. Protect everyone’s right to vote. Defend our ability to live in peace in spite of our differences.”
We have very little time to have the opportunity to fill in the gaps of Holocaust survivors, who probably have more to say. It is never easy to discuss difficult and uncomfortable things such as antisemitism, mental health, and abuse, but by obtaining detailed Holocaust survivor testimony, we can tell the current and next generations about a time in history that society does not want to return to. Esther Bejarano, a survivor of Auschwitz, who played orchestra in the camp would use the power of music to fight antisemitism and racism after the war. When addressing young people around the world, Bejarano would say, “You are not guilty of what happened back then. But you become guilty if you refuse to listen to what happened. You must know about everything that happened and why it happened.”
Listening to Holocaust stories, we learn how survivors suffered, how they coped, why many of them kept silent for so many years, and why they were ready to come out of “hiding” to tell their story. We learn there was no such thing as a mild case, or only suffering a little as the Holocaust did not end at liberation. Every survivor suffered in unimaginable ways, during the war, afterward, or both. As antisemitism is on the rise and there are fewer Holocaust survivors alive, we have a moral obligation to tell and share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us history and the time to do it is now