I did not
come to the conference in hopes of finding lost relatives or
friends. Most of them are gone. But I did hope to
meet others whose experiences paralleled mine and I was not
disappointed. At times, I felt as though I had been
cloned, so similar were some of the stories to mine.
Not having been
raised in the Jewish tradition and uneasy in the gentile world I
had come to embrace, I found at the conference -- for the first
time in my life -- a sense of truly belonging. Some 1,600
people, who had been total strangers to me and to each other,
suddenly became family. I could now proudly proclaim my
heritage. I could say "I am Jewish" without
having the word somehow getting stuck in my throat.
In our group of 22
people who came to the gathering from Poland was a woman who, as
a baby, had been thrown out of a (transport) train, wrapped in a
pillow -- carefully, delicately -- so that she would not be
hurt. The child was found and taken care of by a good man.
Today, she is a mother and a grandmother but of her past she
knew only that her mother's name was Ida (Aida). During
the Gathering, a man who once lived in her town of Zamosc
approached her. He had been a friend of her mother's
father and knew all the family. . . her older brothers. He
recognized her out of the thousands of people at the Gathering
because, he said, she resembles her mother.
There are moments in
one's life that rise above all others, branded in one's memory
forever. This conference was one of those moments.
At one luncheon, a
woman at my table turned out to be from my hometown in France
and her parents were friends of mine. At a workshop for
French Hidden Children, my sister and I met several people who
had stayed in the same home for orphan children as we did after
the war. We went back together in time. . . there was so
much to talk about. Meeting these people was very moving.
I also met a woman whose best friend in Paris was a cousin of
mine, with whom I had lost contact many years ago.
For me, the afternoon
workshops were the highlight of this unique gathering.
What does it mean to be a Hidden Child? It means that the
1,600 people who came for these two days had thousands of heroic
stories to tell. The emotional excitement filled the
rooms. I was an infant during the war. My mother
died two years after my birth in the ghetto of Lukov, Poland.
About a year-and-a-half later, my father and grandfather felt it
was no longer safe for me in the ghetto and hid me with a
Christian family in the town. I was three-and-a-half when
the war ended and they returned me to my father, unwillingly.
Because that ended my relationship with the family who sheltered
me, I have no memories of them. This gathering was a
discovery for me of how other children survived and how it
affected their lives.
The conference was a
testament to an often unspoken victim of the Holocaust -- the
world of feelings and emotions. Many who were fortunate to
survive Hitler's ovens physically have never stopped mourning
the loss of childhood, the loss of a sibling's kiss, the warmth
of a family's interaction of sharing and caring. Pieces of
their shattered childhoods remained hidden in repressed
memories. For 50 years, these bits and pieces have been
scattered over the world. This meeting provided the first
opportunity for many to confront the Hidden Children within
At the conference, I
met a woman who was holding a photograph of me as an infant
which had been taken while I was hiding in Lvov during the war.
When I asked her what she was doing with my picture, she told me
that she works for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in
Washington, DC. She explained that photographs of babies
in hiding were very rare. Apparently, the picture will be
used in the museum's permanent exhibition. (Little did I
think that one day my picture would hang in a museum!)
was a rare experience of witnessing a discovery or the
recollection of a precious memory assumed to have been
irrevocably lost. For me, it was a treasure. I hope
it will be the basis on which we, the Hidden Children, will
build our shared future.
at the Memorabilia exhibit about Belgium, I noticed an item
about Namur, the town near where I was hidden. I remarked
about this to a man standing next to me and he said he had also
been hidden nearby but did not know how he got there. He
told me he had lost all his family and wanted to meet a person
he knew as "Mademoiselle Andree," who he remembered
had taken him to a nearby castle.
Just at that moment,
one of the Belgian rescuers came into the room. I
introduced them and she told him she had his name in her wartime
diaries. He broke down with happiness at finally having
found someone who could give him clues to his past.
While organizing the
Gathering, I had met a Hidden Child who always seemed sad and
talked about the terrible time of the war when her father had
been deported. As the date of the conference approached,
she became more and more tearful and nervous and even thought of
therapy. When we met two days after the Gathering, she was
laughing and relaxed. She told me for the first time in 46
years she felt truly liberated.
Another woman, who
had been hidden in Belgium, told me that the Gathering was one
of the three most important events of her life: the first,
when she was taken in by the foster parents who sheltered her,
the second, the day of Liberation, and now, the Hidden Child
conference, my older brother and sister and I had never
discussed our childhood wartime experiences of being hidden.
That day, we sat down together and cried. It was the first
time we felt free enough to begin discussing it.
This conference was
probably the most emotional couple of days I have ever spent.
It was bittersweet. . . there was pain but there was relief.
In a way, I did not want to leave.
We who were children
then are the last generation, in effect, still alive to attest
to the fact that the Holocaust did occur.
What stands out above
all else are the stories, the incredible tales we shared:
the horror, the fear, the sadness, the luck, the love, the
hatred, the loss of innocence, the pain, the memories. In
the workshops especially, there was the space and time and trust
to really tell and hear our stories. I could not get
enough. As a workshop leader, I hated to say that we were
out of time. I wanted to stay and continue for a week or
Contrary to my
expectations (because there are no Righteous Christians in my
story), the Monday luncheon tribute to the rescuers moved me the
most. Not only the goodness and courage and simplicity of
these people, but the fact that they are not Jewish, that all
the good things that they express and symbolize belong not to
the religious but to all of us as fellow travelers on this
earth. This theme of human brother and sisterhood, of
ecumenicism, of the family of man -- this theme touches my
The conference is
over. I feel a wholeness I never felt before. I want
to hold on to the vision of these two special days. I see
before me an endless procession of people going up and down the
escalators, in and out of elevators.
There is so much
energy around me. . . everyone is transported to another world,
another time, another place, trying to recapture our lost
childhoods. The smallest clue to our past brings so much
joy. The photographs bring such moments of happiness.
Maybe, just maybe, I will see someone from my past, my town, my
orphanage or my convent. What a joy to meet beloved
friends. We embrace, hold hands and cling to each other. .
. little girls again.
There is so much pain
and sorrow. If only I could find a way out of this inner
inferno. Such a need to touch the deep, painful part of
myself that was locked up for so long. Now all those
memories are flooding out. How sad. How young and
little I was. So lonely, no one to love me, so scared.
I must reclaim my
childhood and become whole again. I must put together the
puzzle of my life in spite of so much suffering. Looking
into the eyes of the people around me is looking into my own
soul, my own past. A past with no language to express its
anguish and loneliness. In the eyes of others, I finally
experience healing. Just a quick glance or a long gaze, a
gentle touch or a long embrace bring so much happiness. A
time to heal, a time to finally become whole again.