This morning I went to Mount Pleasant Library to hear Hedy Bohm tell her story of survival. A quietly charismatic woman with a vivid orange scarf, Hedy didn’t waste a moment of the pre-talk waiting time. She greeted the two classes of grade 7 and 8 students and passed around large photos of Auschwitz, Birkenau as it looks today. She also showed us a memory book which dates from her school days in Oradea, Romania before the war. Later she told us that her aunt, who was married to a Christian man and escaped deportation, had managed to save the book for her.
Hedy’s storytelling style was deeply engaging, and she had a gift for recollecting details that helped the audience visualize scenes from her past. The smell of fresh wood shavings in her father’s furniture shop. The grade 10 assembly where she and her classmates learned that schools for Jewish children had been closed. The single window with barbed wire on the cattle car. Fanning her mother with a hankie because the car was so stifling. The single pail that served as a toilet for 80-90 people trapped for three days in a dark box on wheels.
Most excruciating of all were Hedy’s final moments with her parents. When the train stopped at Auschwitz, the German soldiers immediately began separating the people into groups. Hedy’s father was sent to the left and she didn’t even have time to say good-bye. Her mother was ordered to the right. When Hedy tried to run after her, a soldier blocked her way with a loud “No!” She started to cry and then yelled her mother’s name. “She turned and looked at me. I’ll never forget it. She didn’t seem to know where she was. Her face is seared into my memory. Within a few minutes, I became an orphan.”
At Auschwitz, Birkenau she lived through chronic starvation and the terrifying uncertainty of daily “selections” from line-ups. Eventually she was sent to a former Volkswagen factory in Germany that had been turned into an ammunition plant. A slave labourer, she worked on V-2 rockets and landmines for twelve hours a day and often had to hide in an air-raid shelter. To raise morale during bombings, Hedy and her companions would recite poems, sing together, and exchange recipes. “One woman told us the secret of her stuffed cabbage recipe. She used a little bit of caramelized sugar that she burnt on the stove.”
The final segment of Hedy’s war-time nightmare occurred when her group of munitions labourers was sent back to a concentration camp. After a week without food, the camp was liberated by the Americans, much to the inmates’ disbelief. They were allowed to go into the local village and take what they needed from the textile shops and grocery stores, even the candy shops. She smiled when she remembered the material she picked out for a peasant skirt, “which was very fashionable at the time.”
Ms. Bohm’s passionate mission to share her story shone through every single word she uttered. When she told us that she had kept silent about her unspeakable experiences for 50 years after they occurred, I was struck by the courage it took to wrench words from a place of anguish in order to help us comprehend what she suffered. What caused her to break her silence was outrage at Holocaust denials and the imperative to speak now for the sake of future generations.
Near the end of her testimony, the entire room was electrified when Hedy looked all of us in the eye and said, “I want you to remember what happens when good people do nothing. From now on, you be my witnesses.” Encouraging each of us to stand up and speak out against discrimination, she had us on our feet when the talk finished. The schoolgirls sitting to my right had tears in their eyes, and they waited patiently in line to speak to Hedy. She was busy receiving warm hugs from some of the other kids, shaking hands, and inhabiting the centre of a huddle of students who wanted to talk to her. My throat constricted as I witnessed so many people responding to the presence of a truly beautiful and resolute spirit.