Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How Anne Frank changed my life.

When I first read Anne Frank's diary, no one told me she died at the end.  

This seemingly small detail in my life could be charted on my timeline, as a pivotal moment of shaping my entire life.

I wasn't reading the book for school, my mother just suggested I read it.  I knew it was about a girl around my age who lived during the Holocaust.  But in my experiences, mostly shaped by Hollywood, children always live at the end.  There are always happy endings.

Once I started, I couldn't put the book down; I read it almost non-stop.  And in the way good books do, she became my soul-mate while I was reading her story.  I connected with her humanity. When I got to the end of the book, everyone in my house was asleep and I was reading by flashlight.  I turned the page, realized it was the end.  And read the part about how she'd been taken to the camps and died.

Even writing about it, decades later, I remember that feeling.  It still conjures up this scrunching physiological emotion through my core.  I was appalled...am still appalled...that children were killed as part of that human destruction. 

It was because of that book...or perhaps more so, That Moment...that took me on a train by myself to Poland, to see Auschwitz and Birkenau.  Reading Elie Wiesel on the train on the way there, feeling so much human emotion that I didn't know where to put it all...didn't know what to do with what I was feeling.  

That same Moment is why I took the 13 hour night-bus to Sarajevo, Bosnia from Croatia -- just so I could talk to Bosnians, who were only 3 years out from the war.  Talking to Alex on the night-bus, and then escaping to the bus bathroom, so I could scramble to take notes and write down all the incredible details of what he told me.  Twelve years later, I'm amazed by how little I need those scrawled notes.  I remember with vivid detail what he told me, what he was wearing, the smell of his cigarette in the seat next to me.

At age 20, I really believed I was going to be a war journalist.  And while that part of me changed after I married Steve, had my children, a part of that never went away.  I owe it to my children to keep myself safe, not to enter war zones or take unnecessary risks while they need their mother so much.  

But from the moment I learned Anne Frank died, I needed to explore why humans do what they do to each other.  What happens to the people who survive those situations.

I also know it's why I was so drawn to the Lost Boys, to working with the Sudanese who survived genocide.  Maybe I felt like I owed it to Anne Frank to care for those who lived through similar human terror and came out on the other end.  Maybe it's because that book taught me that we are ALL humans, and feel human emotion, no matter what our era...race...country...religion. 

I don't think it's a simple answer, but I do know that everything that has come after it points back to that night under the covers with a flashlight, discovering as a young girl that these things exist in the world.  And knowing, at a deep level, that I was supposed to do something about it.  

What to do about it remains hazy at times, even now.  But I stumble across puzzle pieces along the way.  Working with the Sudanese families in Hampton Roads was a large part of the puzzle, definitely, but my dynamics changed when I left to come to Richmond.  I have been hunting for the next clue, the next puzzle piece, since we moved here.

I kept thinking it would happen down the road.  After my children were grown, I'd sit on the UN's steps until they found a place for me, even sweeping the floors.  Maybe there'd be a time it made sense to go into those war areas, and feed or clothe the refugees in the camps.  I wasn't sure.  

When I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC last month, I ended up on a one-on-one tour with a guide who works with the modern-day genocides: Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur (Sudan). He'd given tours for Nobel Peace Prize committees and the UN and knew so much. He and I spent 2 hours together in the exhibit, just standing there sharing stories and talking about genocide.

I told him that I wished I knew then what I knew now, and could have gotten a degree that helped somehow.  That my MBA seems a bit insignificant and I'm not sure how to be used.  That maybe when my children are older, I could go back to law school and specialize in refugee and international law. 

Then he told me about a visitor they had who worked on Sesame Street.  And how he just loved that, because he thought the way to really change the world was through children.  That right now, raising my children to be aware citizens was shaping the world more than I thought.  

That meant a lot to me. I think about that daily, and was ready to come back and "wait" to be able to do something bigger or broader.  

Then on Sunday, my friend Anne, Matt, and I happened into the Holocaust Museum here in Richmond.  I knew it was here, and wanted to go sometime, but really-and-truly did NOT expect much from it.  If it was so great, why didn't anyone ever talk about it?  

It floored me.  I've been to the actual Auschwitz museum in Poland...the one in DC twice...and have read books and books about the Holocaust.  And I was pummeled with information I've never heard or read.  Their exhibits were things I've never seen before, and they were done in a way that really captured the experience.  Climbing into that tunnel and seeing the family of mannequins crowded into the potato hole...where a real family lived for 9 months...was incredibly powerful.  

We stayed until it closed, and then went into the gift shop looking for a book for Anne.  She wanted a book of photos by George Kadish, and this man with a cowboy hat came into the room -- he was in his 70's, with a really kind smile. "George was actually a friend of mine," he said. "I'm in some of his pictures."  And then showed us the brochure of the museum, where he was a small boy on a boat.  The conversation progressed, and we found out that this was a man who had survived the Holocaust.  

I mentioned how powerful the exhibits were, especially the tunnel.  "I lived in that tunnel," he said.  "That was me."

He asked what made us interested in the Holocaust, why were we there? And Anne told him that we both worked with Sudanese refugees.  I told him that I really appreciated how they pulled modern-day genocide into the conversation, because it shows that while we can't fix the Holocaust, we can change what is still happening today.  He went on to say that they're opening up an *entire* floor about current genocide.  

Honestly: It felt like someone reached into my chest and punched my heart.  And then squeezed it.  My conversation from the night before with Steve, about how much I longed to work in the DC museum... and here I'm standing in an incredible museum just 20 minutes from my house.  And, we later found out, we were speaking with the founder of the museum.

He signed our books, one about his mother's life in the tunnel and the Holocaust, and we walked out feeling like we'd just met a celebrity.  

I emailed him when I got home, and heard back within the hour - on a Sunday night! - saying they'd love to have me as a volunteer.  I was supposed to call him on Monday, which I did.  We talked for awhile, and he said they could use me as a researcher or a docent for school groups, and make sure it worked around my family.

I could write so many things here, and completely dive off the cliff into my sentimental gratitude about life and circumstances and how much this means to me.  I'll try to contain myself. 

But I will say this:  As a mother, I really hope that my children's inner passions and callings can find them, the way it's been happening for me.  Not everyone feels magnetized into genocide - and what an imbalance in the world if we all were.  There are so many areas of human experience that need help.  But for many reasons...reading Anne Frank and others....this is where I am supposed to be.  For now, and who knows how it will shape down the road.

And perhaps this one last thought: I am the only one of my siblings to come out of the DNA pool without a disease that chopped IQ more than half and lowered life span.  I have never, ever felt like my life's blessings were my own efforts...because I have seen first-hand how much DNA, country of birth, era, and other variables are actually one of the biggest handouts you can receive.  And since I feel like I won the lottery (born in this era, in this country, with fully-functioning DNA), it makes me feel really lucky to use it to help even things out a bit.  Even if it's just a tiny part of a complicated situation, I can do what I can.

So much more to say.  But that's enough for now.


Dee said...

Sarabeth, you are a truly inspiring woman. What an amazing opportunity and stroke of luck to be able to connect with the museum's founder. I come from a family that greatly values public service and my parents and grandmother are heavily active in community projects, and it sometimes weighs on me that I'm not able to devote more time to helping others at this stage. I'll get there. There was a piece on HearSay on WHRO the other day about the Lost Boys community in Hampton Roads, and it made me think of you.

Sarahbeth said...

Thank you for your kind words, Dee. And you know, I do believe what that docent from the museum said: Raising your 4 children is a service to the world, even if you never step foot outside your home to do "extra" things. If it's part of your fabric that you need to do something, that's one thing, but if a specific thing doesn't connect...brings more stress than joy...then you are already doing SO MUCH. You are an incredible mom, and those kids are going to be amazing additions to society. Were you parents and grandmother so active at this stage in their lives? It's a difficult balance, isn't it? Having that desire to change things, but also having children at home that need us so much. It's a difficult path to find.

Dee said...

Aw, thanks. My grandmother has *always* been extremely socially active, even receiving a British Empire Medal for her contribution to culture/society (seriously). Things really seemed to pick up for my mom when my brother and I left home, so maybe that will be my path.

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