Editor's note: This is the text of the speech Sarah Kutler gave on Wednesday, April 7. Ms. Kutler was the featured speaker at the Omaha Yom HaShoah commemoration, hosted by the Institute for Holocaust Education. For more information about the IHE, please visit www.ihene.org.
Good evening everyone.
I am honored to have this privilege of speaking in front of you tonight, unfortunately online and not in person. But for those of you who do not know me, my name is Sarah Kutler. I was born and raised in the good ole’ Omaha, Nebraska, and I am currently working to receive a graduate degree in Social Work at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
My grandma was Beatrice Karp. My grandma went to services every Saturday morning, often taking me with her, and her favorite part of being at services, besides the luncheon kugel, was hearing the rabbi give the d’var torah. I could tell, as I watched her listen to the rabbi, that she found something meaningful in every d’var torah, ultimately changing how she viewed different aspects of the world or everyday life. And I can only hope, as you listen to me tonight, that I can provide a similar meaningful narrative to you.
We all know about the horrific events that took place during the War, the unimaginable actions that mass amounts of humans declared on groups of people considered as “others”. As a strong Jewish community, it is our responsibility to be educated on this topic. Although I think it critical that you all are aware of the brutality my grandma faced during the Holocaust, I am not going to recite her whole story before you tonight. However, I’d rather take the time to tell you of the resiliency my grandmother displayed during World War 2, and how she persisted as a young girl into adulthood to make her life meaningful by educating others. You hear, as a third generation, that it is up to the descendants to keep our ancestors' stories alive, to teach others of the importance of remembering the Holocaust so it NEVER happens again.
But, as I bring a social justice perspective to this speech, you will know by the end that this surely isn't so. As I sit here telling you my grandma’s story, I want you all to think about your grandmas during this time, because we have all had them. And most importantly, we ALL have a story tell, experiences that are unique from the person next to us. And in many respects, a personal narrative is an authentic political form of self representation that holds power to promote change. YOUR experiences are where you stand in a space to promote change for the world. Certain changes that can ensure the Holocaust will never happen again.
My grandmother was born Beate Stern, in 1932 in Lauterbach, Germany. Her mother’s name was Rosa, her father, Moritz, and her younger sister is named Susie. She was 7 years old when the Nazis came to power. She was forced out of her home, ripped apart from her family, and, like many others, had endured some of the most inhumane torture any person could ever experience. Her mother told her she could not play outside, in fear that someone might shoot her. My grandma was bullied harshly by the other kids at school who used to be her friends. Her braids were dunked in inkwells, she was pushed down and called a dirty Jew or a Christ killer. The teachers would call her to the front of the classroom and have her hold her fingers up like so, and smack them with their rulers. My grandma’s life changed forever at 7 years old. But unlike millions of other children, she had forever to look forward to.
Although my grandma was faced with some of the worst people known in history, she never went down without a fight. One day, as my grandma took a risk to play outside her home, she saw two Nazi soldiers standing a few yards away. Infuriated about what they were doing to her beautiful country, she picked up a handful of stones and threw them at the soldier’s backs. My grandma was lucky that she knew the streets of her hometown better than they did because... imagine being chased by two armed men who were killing off your people, one by one… just because. A few weeks went by when a group of Nazis came to her neighborhood to round up the Jews. My grandma watched as soldiers barged in her home and destroyed everything she loved. They told her family to prepare for transportation and pack enough essential items for two weeks. So the first thing my grandma gathered was her porcelain doll. This doll was her most prized possession. A Nazi came up to her and said “Where you are going, you won’t need that doll”. My grandma looked at him, looked at her doll, back at him, and said “If I can't have this doll, you can't have her either '' and she smashed her doll’s face on the floor. She saw the dolls face shattered into pieces, almost as a resemblance of her childhood being shattered in front of her.
My grandma and her family were taken to the railroad station and shoved into cattle train cars, with little airflow, small portions of bread for everyone to share, and a bucket in the corner for you to go to the bathroom. My grandmother licked the windows to try and get any moisture so she could to have some water. When the train rails came to a screeching halt at Gurs Concentration Camp, terrified people filed out of the cattle cars to Nazis screaming “mach schnell, mach schnell”, which means “hurry, hurry”. Upon arrival, the Nazis searched everyone for money, gold and anything valuable. This included jewelry and gold teeth, which were yanked from their owner’s mouths without warning. My great grandmother did not even have the chance to take out her gold hoop earrings before a Nazi tore them from her ear lobes.
A typical day at Gurs consisted of being awoken early in the morning and by 9:00 am, my grandma and the others had to line up for roll call outside no matter what the weather was like. Then, all the children had to walk. For such a long time that my grandma would never ask if she could use the bathroom, she would just walk. Some days the children were able to clear sticks and stones so another barrack could be built. However, I want you to think about doing these things when you are sick. You would not want to walk all day or pick up sticks if you had a sore throat. Well, imagine doing this if you had sores all over your body from itching the lice in your hair and on your clothing, or having to stuff your shoes with leaves because all the miles you walked created holes on the soles of your shoes, or worse.
One day, my grandma and her sister Susie decided they wanted to try and see their father on the men’s side of the camp. They marched up to a soldier and said: “We would like to see our father”. The soldier laughed. Irritated with the man towering over her, my grandma called him a “dirty pig”, kicked him in his boot, and grabbed her sister’s hand as they walked towards the men's side of Gurs. She told Susie, “Whatever you do, don’t look back” hoping they wouldn't be shot in their backs. Remember how I said my grandma didn’t go without a fight?
Surprisingly, they made it to the men’s entrance on the other side of camp and saw their father. While trying to catch up during the little time they had, the Nazi’s handed out a single egg to each of the male prisoners. My grandma had never seen an egg in the concentration camps before and surely thought that her papa would share. She observed him carefully crack the egg and stir the white and yolk together. However, she could see that there was blood in the egg and watched as her father became agitated. My grandma was raised as an Orthodox Jew, which means that they were not allowed to eat a blood stained egg as that indicates that life must have begun. She thought he would make an exception, considering they were starving. But suddenly, he threw the egg against the barack wall. My grandma thought of running to lick the oozing yolk off the wall, but believed that it was not worth her father’s anger. My grandma always said that this was a valuable teaching moment during her time in the camps. My great grandfather’s reaction demonstrated that while he had no control over what the Nazis did to him physically, he still had a choice. The choice of not eating the egg was his way of maintaining his Judaism and his humanity despite being dehumanized and treated like a someone who did not deserve respect.
My grandma and her family were held at Camp Gurs for some time before being transferred to another camp called Rivesaltes. My grandma’s sister had become very weak and thin from the disease she had developed. Their mother had been coordinating with the French OSE, a humanitarian organization that rescued children, for a way to get frail Susie out of the camp in order to save her life. One day, before my grandma had time to process…. her sister was gone. Without her sister to talk to, my grandma made friends with the rats and mice in the garbage cans, as she shared whatever crumbs from leftovers she could find. Soon after, my grandma became very sick with cholera. Again, Rosa had to make the difficult decision of not keeping her baby with her in the concentration camp and gave my grandmother to be hidden by the OSE and be cared for by strangers. However, she hoped that Susie and my grandma were better off hiding with strangers than living in the horrid conditions, catching life-threatening diseases, slowly starving, and witnessing terrible atrocities.
The first OSE home that my grandma was taken to was a large chateau, with 3-4 adults per 100 children. The children had daily chores and learned survival skills in case they needed to hide in the forest due to another Nazi raid or the threat of bombs. To better keep them hidden, the OSE had all the children change their names to make them less vulnerable of being discovered. My grandma's original name was Beate in German, and it was changed to Beatrice which she kept for the rest of her life. They were also given a street address in Paris to memorize to give to anyone who asked where they were born or where they lived. Since the children were hiding from the Nazis, they did not stay in one chateau for too long and were constantly being moved from place to place. My grandma remembered being moved 14 times. One day, at the chateau Cheuomont, one of the largest of the OSE homes, a little girl brought my grandma a blanket. This girl looked familiar but she could not quite put her finger on it. This girl's head had been shaven, as it was a common way to get rid of head lice. After a few moments, my grandma realized it was her little sister, Susie.
Months later, while walking down the streets of France, my grandma saw American planes fly overhead. And at that moment she knew the war was coming to an end. The OSE had put an ad in a German/Jewish newspaper that circulated internationally stating that Beate and Susie Stern were looking for any living relatives. With the two girls still being very weak and sick, they set out on a journey to London where one of their uncles lived. While living there, my grandma continued to look for information about her parents, still hoping they were alive. But their names were never found on the lists of survivors.
A few years pass by when my grandma and her sister set out on a journey to the United States to live with their two aunts in New York. Without knowing much English, my grandmother took an exam to attend American high school at the age of 15 and soon became an honors student. By the age of 18, she graduated with her high school diploma. In New York, she met her late husband Robert Pappenheimer. Eventually, they moved to O’Neill Nebraska to work for his brother-in-law, and together they started a family. They had 4 daughters; first my aunt Roxy, then my aunt Jeany, next my aunt Debby, and lastly, my mother Nancy. Between her four daughters, my grandmother had seven grandchildren, including me being the youngest. She always told me that we were the best revenge she could have had against Hitler, a man who wanted to wipe all Jews off the face of the planet.
After the Eichman Trial in 1961, people became increasingly curious about what had happened during World War 2 and the Holocaust. My grandma was asked if she would speak to a group about her experiences and what she suffered. Hesitant about reopening that traumatic chapter of her life, my grandma eventually accepted the invitation, and soon word spread. People were calling from all over to have my grandma speak to different groups, especially school children. And from there on, public speaking had become my grandma's passion and a significant part of her life. Many students would write to her after her talks and tell her what they had learned about prejudice and bullying being terrible things. A quote from my grandma I want to share with you is: “I feel I am doing something good. I learned from my experiences, and I learned how to cope with life no matter what happens to you and you have two choices. One is to give up and say, “poor me”. The other is to go on with your life and pick up the pieces and do the best you can. I feel I am more resilient because of the war. I want others to know of the struggle and the horror so that it never happens again, but I also want them to know of our ability to persevere, and that good can come, even after what seems like the worst”
My grandma died two years ago, and it was one of the hardest times of my life. She was a beloved member of the Jewish community, she was my best friend, and she was a hero to many people. She devoted her life to the obligation to present her personal narrative for over 50 years to thousands of students in schools and others because she wanted to make sure that something like the holocaust never happens again. The point of her message was not to tell people what had happened to her, but to speak for the individuals who had their voices taken from them, the millions of innocent lives that had been murdered for just being who they are. Of those who survived the war only a handful of individuals went on to speak about their experiences, as going through such a brutal trauma can be difficult to discuss.
Because many could not, my grandma provided an opportunity for individuals to have a face-to-face interaction with the last witnesses who can speak about the atrocities of the Holocaust. As time goes on, however, we are losing survivors every day, and therefore, losing first-hand accounts. This is why I feel compelled to be here today, to give you my insight on how we can accomplish a goal like make making sure something like Holocasut can never happen again, together.
So, one thing that always struck me is that when we think of the Holocaust, we think of the War against the Jews. Rightfully so, as this was the largest population affected during those tortuous times. However, I also want you all to acknowledge the other groups that were impacted. While my grandma lived in England with her relatives, she once asked her aunt “Is the war against the Jews still going on?” and her aunt responded, “it wasn't just a war against the jews, it was a world war”. There were 17 million lives taken during the holocaust, and to name a few were the Jews, Soviets, gypsies, disabled people, gays and lesbians, blacks, Roman Catholics, and so many more. A question that always puzzled me growing up was, how could someone like Hitler obtain such immense power and get away with genocide? A host of factors contributed to the environment under which these atrocities were committed, ranging from general racism, anti-Semitism, blind obedience, political opportunism, coercion and xenophobia.
When the Great Depression hit, Hitler took advantage of people’s anger and economic fear by offering them convenient scapegoats and making promises of restoring Germany, which included getting rid of the Jews. But why didn't anyone do anything to stop him? Because he gave them a reason to be silent, and this silence is what creates the bystander. Being a bystander means that you see someone in need of help, but you do not provide it. This inaction is amplified when other people are present. Take a car crash, for example. When you are the only witness to an accident, more than likely you will get out of your own car to provide some form of assistance, whether that's calling 911 or seeing if anyone was injured. However, if you witness a car crash on a busy street, your first thought is “Well, I have to go to work and surely someone else will stop”. We can relate this concept to the Holocaust, where millions of people were being murdered and it took years for action to take place. Similar to the bystanders during the War, WE see and hear about horrible things that happen every day, whether that's with our neighbors or strangers on the other side of the world. And all too often, we do nothing just because it is the easy way out. But instead of doing nothing, it’s important that when we learn of such misfortunes, to empathize with those who are affected, rather than sympathize. Sympathy is feeling sorrow or pity for the hardships that another person encounters. Empathy, on the other hand, is putting yourself in the shoes of another. I know it might be hard to imagine what it's like when horrible things happen to other people. In fact, we hear so many bad things happening in the news that we sometimes feel numb to them or desensitized, especially when it does not affect us directly. Although it is hard to imagine that something like the Holocaust ever occurred, it did, and it can, and sadly it is, again.
Let's look at the patterns and connect the dots. My grandma was told by her mother that she could not leave their home to play outside in fear she might be followed, harassed, captured, or even killed. Today, there are black lives screaming from the rooftops that they are tired of being followed around the department store, or risking their lives to go on a run in a neighborhood because they might get shot. What about Rosa making the difficult decision of separating from her babies to send them out of the concentration camp to live with strangers. Today, our friends south of the border or other immigrants are on treacherous journeys to seek asylum from the dangers in their neighborhoods knowing that their babies will be separated from them and put in detention centers. And there are plenty more patterns to unveil. So although Holocaust Remembrance day is very critical for us to observe, important for us to never forget, the real importance lies in what we have learned from our history and perseverance. Minor forms of the Holocaust are happening all around us, and if you say that you would have shown up during the War and not been a bystander then, tell me… how are you showing up for the people subjected to injustices now?
When injustices occur and people are oppressed, most people do not understand the ripple-effect or the ramifications of this wrong and how it influences other individuals or groups who are not directly affected. Like the world looks at the Holocaust as the War against the Jews, we tend to focus on how one cohort or group of humans are impacted rather than the larger picture. For example, when a person comes out publicly as gay, their chances of being bullied by other children and adults is 3X that of their heterosexual peers. This then affects their families on a meso level, where family members could be subjected to hate crimes. This also affects the LGBTQ+ community on a macro scale, because they internalize to suppress who they truly are when they see bad things happening to members of their group. On a different note, black mothers are 4X more likely to give birth to a premature baby than white mothers. The reason being is discrimination, as women of color are given altered care and treated differently during their pregnancies. So the baby is already feeling the repercussions of oppression before it is even brought into this world. Hatred does not just affect a single individual. It may not affect us directly, but it does indirectly by creating an imbalance in our world. It creates war. And although blatant forms of discrimination have been prohibited in our society, we must be mindful of how systemic oppression has been manifested through our unconscious biases or our own ignorance. One of my favorite quotes is by MLKJ: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”.
So how can we drive out the darkness and hate, to not become a bystander to the oppression of others, to empower people to not feel alone, and to make sure something like the Holocaust never happens again? First, I want you to enlighten yourselves. I gave you some statistics about the LGBTQ+ community and pregnant black women, but there are so many injustices regarding other groups to be educated about. Its important to go into situations with humility and curiosity for groups and cultures different from your own. Being cognizant about the multidimensional real-world obstacles that others face can help you be more aware of their struggles. Like I said at the beginning, we ALL have a story to tell with unique experiences that are different from the person next to us. The second thing I want you to do is to check yourselves. Check yourselves of your judgments and challenge your biases. Instead of telling someone they are wrong or bringing them down for how they live their lives, try to understand their distinct points of view and consider their thoughts as being valid. You don't have to adopt their opinions, but you can agree to disagree and accept different lifestyles. If everyone in the world acted the same way and thought the same things, the world would be SOOO boring. But imagine the world of knowledge you would have if you went beyond your comfort zone to get to know other populations, whether that involves going across the world or talking to someone at work you have never talked to before. This also involves having the ability to engage in open conversations with individuals who have those dissimilar beliefs. Having open conversations with your children at an early age is equally important. Parents, I know it feels impossible sometimes to put into words the really big issues and loaded topics. But in the age of cell phones, streaming video, and 24-hour news coverage -- when even little kids are exposed to really serious stories -- it's important to face this challenge head-on. This not only allows kids the opportunity to have their questions answered by you and not some other source, but it also helps them feel safer. And when you show them how to gather and interpret information, ask questions, and cross-check sources, they become critical thinkers.
Lastly, I want you to be open to change. This includes opening your minds to others’ perceptions, but this also includes allowing different paths to be present and considering the options to go in either direction. As humans, we are deeply rooted in how we think things should be and are always trying to maintain the status quo. For example, we are slowly moving away from societal norms that constrain us to the expectations of going to college, getting a steady job, getting married, and having kids, retiring at age 65. Social media and other forms of media reinforce the idea that things should be a certain way or another. But most people fear the idea of personal change because we think that to give something up, we must sacrifice something else. But humans are so innovative and resourceful. And when we combine those characteristics with love and compassion as our guiding truth, we can develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all living beings and our environment.
So I want to challenge you to be empathetic, to not take the easy way out, to be educated, to be bold, and to be open. Dont be a bystander, when you see something wrong, speak up. All of these skills surface with practice, they dont always come naturally. Dr. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”. We dont just show up and then magically wait to know better. We show up, and then when we are corrected, we keep working and continue to persevere. If anything, our Judaism and the history of our ancestors has taught us there is so much power in the unity of our community. Our strength allows us to say that we are all survivors. Because our unique narrative is the story of our ancestors, equally those who survived and those who perished during the Holocaust. My grandmother, Beatrice Karp, instilled in me the importance of knowing where I came from and my strength as a third generation holocaust survivor. My power is keeping my grandmother’s legacy alive, and teaching others how to combat hate so something like the Holocaust NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN. And as my grandma would always end our conversations, bye bye for now. Thank you.
Learning to know better is a commitment. We must be ok with getting it wrong, because it is the closest you get to then getting it right.