Allison Hoff is an 8th grader at Forest Ridge School and already a published journalist in the Kirkland Reporter. After a trip to Poland that included a tour of Auschwitz, Allison was inspired to learn more and interviewed local survivor, and member of the Holocaust Center Speakers Bureau, Tom Lenda, about his experiences. (Photo: Allison Hoff with Tom and Rose Lenda)
The Times Change and We Change With Them:
The inspiring story of a local Holocaust survivor
By: Allison Hoff
As we pulled up in the van I felt my heart beating. I was nervous—how could I begin to express my sorrow and pay my respects to the many souls that died in the Holocaust? As I climbed out of the car, I caught my first glance of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the famous sign, "Arbeit Macht Frei," or, "Work Makes You Free."
I was overwhelmed seeing the vast place for the first time. As I took my first steps on the grounds of the concentration camp, I thought about the many people who had stood there and never got to live their dreams and share their stories. I attempted to comprehend all the pain and suffering that was experienced not long ago, but I had a hard time wrapping my head around everything. I was flooded with inquiries as I walked through Auschwitz that rainy day in August.
Having been to Auschwitz, my perspective regarding not only past genocides around the world, but also current situations our world faces, such as the Syrian refugee crisis, has changed. After learning about how Jews were persecuted during the Holocaust, I can't help but make a connection to the way the Syrians are being treated now, particularly after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Seeing Auschwitz was a very meaningful experience for me, and it raised many questions. I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust from someone who had witnessed the concentration camps first hand to educate myself about how the lessons we have learned can be applied today.
I felt exceptionally privileged to have the opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor with the help of his daughter, Hana Kern. Tommy Lenda lives with his wife Rose in the Seattle area and has written and published a book, Children on the Death Row, the Hate and the War. Mr. Lenda wrote his book under his given surname, Lustig, however his last name was changed after the war and the family has used the name Lenda since 1945. Mr. Lenda speaks frequently in schools to sixth graders, and although it can be emotional, he enjoys sharing his stories with the new generation. I was honored to be invited to his home to talk with him in person and hear his inspiring and motivational story. I knocked on his door one evening with my notebook in hand, nervous and eagerly awaiting our conversation.
Mr. Lenda began by describing to me how as a young boy, he entered Terezín, a concentration camp in the Czech Republic, in 1942 at the age of six. Young Tommy survived Terezín, and left when it was liberated in 1945 at age nine. From the ghettos, Jews were often taken to camps like Terezín before being sent to death camps like Auschwitz. Over 15,000 children inhabited Terezín at some point, but in Tommy's age group of children under nine years old, only 48 survived the Holocaust.
Little Tommy faced many frightening experiences at Terezín, but from our conversation I gathered that he doesn't just want people to pity him. He wants people to learn from what happened in the Holocaust and use that knowledge to make our world a better place. By sharing his story with students, Mr. Lenda has healed himself and found lessons in the Holocaust. "We must eliminate hate because it's usually the source of bad happenings," added Rose, Mr. Lenda's wife. Mr. Lenda explained to me that eliminating hate is something we can all do to make our world a better place, and it could be as simple as standing up to a bully or advocating for what you believe in.
As I left the Lenda's home, I thought about how we strive to learn from the painful events of WWII. It occurred to me that history doesn't always repeat itself in the same way. Certain aspects of a situation are often similar to something that has happened before, but we don't always make the connection.
Europe is currently being flooded with Syrian refugees seeking a new home, similar to how the Jews were seeking safety from anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, many see the Syrian migrants as potential terrorists. A brief article in the September 25th issue of The Week described how some people in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are holding signs that read, "Today's refugees, tomorrow's terrorists." Just like the Jews faced hate and anti-Semitism during the war, Syrians today are facing stereotypes and rejection.
As Pope Francis encouraged during his recent visit to the United States regarding the Syrian refugees, "We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories." This reminded me of Mr. Lenda's message to eliminate hate and inspire love and acceptance.
Mr. Lenda's evolving understanding of the Holocaust relates perfectly to one of his favorite Latin proverbs, "The times change and we change with them." Mr. Lenda hopes that his stories will affect the way we change and inspire us to eliminate hate. As Tommy emphasized to me on the day of our interview, not hate but "the good feeling" helped people survive the worst genocide in history.