Wednesday, November 26, 2014

If it wasn't luck, what was the right word?

      In telling the story of her life and her experience as a Holocaust prisoner/survivor, my mother -- Rose Van Thyn -- was a prolific writer and speaker. She wrote thousands of words in stories and poems, spoke thousands in her presentations as a Holocaust educator.
      Here's one thought that sticks with me. She wrote this in a short piece dated January 1991 entitled "I Found a Silver Lining":
      "People tell me I was lucky. That is not really the word. Lucky is when you win a lottery. I did not win anything. I was given something, the most precious gift, a second chance on life."
     Five years later, when she did her interview for the USC Shoah Foundation (thousands of Holocaust survivors did similar interviews), she included the same thought:
Rose Van Thyn felt that her "mission" was to educate
people, especially students, about the Holocaust.
      "... I know people that said to me, 'You're so lucky you came back.' I say you don't call that lucky. I don't think that's lucky. I said lucky is when you win the lottery, not when you come out of the concentration camp. You can't call that lucky. This is more than lucky. I can't find the right word for it exactly.
     "But I don't call it lucky because always if you're lucky you're completely happy. Although we are very blessed, and I'm very happy about that, I still have a background which never leaves me, which is with me. I always said, when people say, oh, we are free, I'm never going to be free completely. I'm never going to be free because I always have 6 million people I talk for."
      My observation: If it wasn't luck, what was it? What was the right word (or words)?
      I'll go with "good fortune" and "strong will" or "determination." But, dang, luck did have a lot to do with it. (More on that in a moment).
      I wasn't there, of course; I'm a second-generation observer, the son of two Holocaust survivors. I have spent time the past couple of years reading the material written by my mother and written by others on my parents, and listening to the recorded versions of their Shoah Foundation interviews.
      So who am I to argue with my mother? Did I dare question her? Well, I am my mother's son.
      She's no longer here to argue with, but I can assure you: Few people "won" an argument with my mother.
       She was fiercely proud of her viewpoint, no matter what the subject. But when it came to the Holocaust, she spoke with even more conviction than on other matters.
       She took herself seriously, but then the Holocaust was a most serious subject. Yet my mother, who could be funny (sometimes wickedly so) usually worked a little humor into her talks and writing.
       -- About the "meals" the Nazis/Germans provided to the women prisoners in Block Ten at Auschwitz: " ... We got one slice of bread and a little thing of what they called soup -- I called it mud, but I always said if you're hungry enough, you eat mud."
       -- About the work commando she was in, assigned to pick blackberry leaves, peppermint leaves, mushrooms (which, when dried, were made into medicine for the German soldiers)  ... "To be honest, we tried to pick poison mushrooms."
        -- When people asked her if she had seen Schindler's List (which she said was "one of the best movies I've seen"), she would answer, "I lived it."
          Back to the "luck" factor. She survived the "selections" -- the Nazis picked out men and women to work in the camps, but many or most ill prisoners and children were sent straight to the gas chambers shortly after their arrival, including -- as my mother would learn later -- her mother and sister.
           She evaded the Nazis' random shooting of people, in Amsterdam after the occupation in May 1940 through the curfews imposed, and then at Auschwitz and later on the "Death March," shootings for any transgression a German soldier might deem worthy of extermination.
            She was small enough to climb onto the top bunk of a three-layer bed, out of range from the attack dogs the sadistic Nazi women guards would turn on the prisoners at times.
           She survived the medical experiments done on her in Block Ten -- hundreds of shots in her chest and further down, with no telling what. She was among the fortunate women who were told they had been sterilized, but instead found after the war that they still could have children.
           She survived almost a year in a transit camp, then 16 months in Auschwitz, then four months of the "Death March" -- walking hundreds of miles in the brutal German winter, with little clothing, walking -- as my mother described it -- in lieu of shoes on pieces of wood tied to her feet with strings.
           There was even more brutality from the Nazis' SS guards, who must have known the war was going to be a lost cause for Germany. If people stopped walking because of fatigue or lack of strength -- there was very little to eat for months -- they often were shot. Many starved to death.
            She survived. And, as you and I might wonder, how? How?
            "I think God wanted me to live," she said in her USC Shoah Foundation interview. "I had the support of first, three other women, and then nine other women, and I really don't know if each of us would have made it without each other."
           "And I guess the will to live and I think my upbringing had to do with it. My father and my mother both had very strong personalities. And I guess it was the will to live. There is really no rational explanation why I came back and 6 million others who were probably better than I was didn't come back."
           She talked, too, of religion.
          "When I went to Auschwitz, I wasn't religious because I wasn't brought up religious," she said. "I prayed more in 2 1/2 years in concentration camps than I had prayed in 21 years before. I talked to God a lot, and there were times that I asked God to let me die, and there were times that I asked God to let me live because I really wanted to live."                       
           In the last 25 years of her life, she honored her survival by telling her story to thousands of people.
            "I really feel I have a mission, that I was saved," she told the interviewer. "I have a mission to fulfill to not only young people, but it's amazing how many people I talk to my age who were not well informed about the Holocaust."
            She would inform them, and I can say that her mission was accomplished.       
            I have been researching the material on my mother because I intend to write several blog pieces on her, as a follow-up to the 35-chapter series I did on my father and his life/Holocaust story.
          What I write on Mom won't be as extensive as Dad's story because much of Mom's story has been printed previously. But there are some compelling stories that should be shared. I'm lucky to be able to do it.


  1. From Dr. Donald Webb: I was very moved -- and engaged theologically! -- by this one.

  2. From Tim Looney: And we are lucky that you are sharing these stories. Looking forward to reading more about your remarkable mother.

  3. From Ike Futch: This may be your best one yet. Thanks!

  4. From Nancy Nugent: Thank you for sharing her story. What a lady.

  5. From Leo Van Thyn: The words ring so familiar. Thanks for sharing.

  6. From Kitty Wiener: Thank you for sharing and making sure people will not forget the Holocaust. It is important; so many people either do not know a thing about it or -- even worse -- deny it ever happened (Iran especially). She was a remarkable woman. We all loved her and especially her sense of humor and determination.