By Wesley Whittlesey
On Thursday January 21, 2016, Dr. Hedy Rose came onto UC Santa Cruz’s campus to give her annual lecture of how life was for her growing up through the Holocaust as a 6-year-old girl in Amsterdam. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, and to say that it was an emotional and ultimately enriching experience is a complete understatement.
Dr. Rose begins by telling the audience how as a girl she was very excited to be able to go to school and learn and to just be outside. It came as a big shock to her when she was told that she was no longer able to go to public schools or to be outside without a jacket that had the Star of David on it. At the time, she was unable to comprehend why this was happening, but these were signs of the early onsets of segregation for the Jews in Europe. Dr. Rose continues to say that through the year of 1940, things were changing rapidly around her: there was now a curfew installed and enforced throughout Amsterdam, and it was no longer safe for her to go outside. Her once good friends, who were not Jewish, now sneered and looked down at her.
For the better part of 1941, Dr. Rose felt completely alone and confused and yearned for some sense of normalcy. But none of her loneliness and confusion would come to pass. Towards the end of 1940 and the early onset of 1941, Nazi soldiers had been coming to and from Dr. Rose’s home to give stiff warnings about the laws that were being enforced in the country. Nothing was thought of it until one day when the Nazi soldiers returned to her home, and she could tell that something was different this time. She looked at her parents, who both had stern looks on their faces. Her father walked towards the door, turned to say that he loved his family, and then departed with the soldiers. She never saw her father again after that.
Immediately after, Dr. Rose’s mother told her and her older sister to gather any belongings they could carry and to follow her out. They left the house, walked down a couple of blocks, and arrived at a local bakery, where a former employee of Dr. Rose’s father would house them in their basement. It was in this basement that Dr. Rose, her sister, and her mother would live for the next four years. Although it was safe, it was dark, cramped, and food throughout was scarce due to the events of WWII. Despite being safe, Dr. Rose yearned to be able to go outside, commenting on how every night she would crawl upstairs, lay underneath the front window, and watch the outside through an air vent, just to be able to feel the fresh air on her face again. Dr. Rose recalled that the highlight of this time was being able to receive postcards from her father from the various places he was taken, until the day when they received a postcard from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Although Dr. Rose didn’t know it at the time, her mother and sister knew that that would be a death sentence for her father.
Despite all that was going on around her, Dr. Rose still tried to maintain any kind of normalcy that she could find: her mother taught her basic arithmetic and she learned to read from the books that their friends had around the bakery. In all of the chaos, she still wanted to make the best of things.
In late December of 1944, a month before the liberation of Auschwitz, Dr. Rose woke up to see that her mother had died during the night. Although Dr. Rose and her sister were now orphaned, the day Auschwitz was liberated was a day that she would never forget. She ran outside elated to be free once again and she couldn’t help but cry because she finally believed that things would return to normal.
As time passed, Dr. Rose went back to school, made new friends, and eventually came over to the United States with her sister to live with their aunt and uncle, both of whom had made it out of Europe before the Holocaust began. The horrors of the Holocaust would continue to haunt her for years to come though. To this day, Dr. Rose comments that her mission is to educate people about what really happened in the 1940s and how truly horrible it was for those who suffered. Although she didn’t completely understand everything that transpired at that time, she has spent her whole life researching and understanding all of the events of the Holocaust so that its memory would never fade.
Sitting in the third row of the Music Recital Hall, I was left absolutely speechless. Going into this lecture, I knew I was going to feel something, but even now, I still don’t really know how to comprehend how to feel. Dr. Rose told me that I wouldn’t know how to feel right away, that it would come with time. Dr. Rose commented how there is a growing number of people around the world who believe that the Holocaust didn’t really happen, and after listening to this lecture, I firmly believe that what happened truly did happen.
Sitting in the third row, I could see clearly the emotion, the strain, and exhaustion on Dr. Rose’s face. If she hadn’t told this story hundreds of times, I believe that she would have been in tears, as many audience members were. The raw emotion and the personal events that were presented in the lecture are things that cannot simply be acted or fabricated; they are things that have to be felt and experienced. The Holocaust and all of the horrors that are associated with its name truly did happen and it’s up to the current and future generations to make sure that the knowledge and memories of these few survivors are never doubted and never forgotten.