Tonight is the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.  The chanting of Kol Nidre draws me.  I look for the old audio tape my father made so long ago.  My aged Walkman no longer works, but I remember one other combination CD and audio tape player I can use.  I slip in the tape, plug in the Yahrzeit remembrance candle, turn out the lights, turn on the tape player, and settle into my comfortable chair.  I wait expectantly as the sounds of the shofar fill the room, and then feel a comforting sense of familiarity as the music and first words begin.

As I look at the remembrance candle, tears for my dead son, brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles fall.  These are the tears of the last branch of our Wiseman family tree; of the senior who is now older than all her living relatives.  My mind imagines me walking into Auschwitz with my friend Ruth, and the numerous relatives I never knew.  If my great-grandparents hadn’t moved to the U.S., I would have suffered the Holocaust with them.

I cannot say I’m religious, but I am very Jewish.  My Jewishness is not by choice.  It is in my genes.   My Catholic Girl Scout leader introduced me to Jewish services when she took our scout troop there.  I was so moved by the service and the singing that I volunteered for the next few years to make the tea and put out the cookies for all the oneg shabbats after Friday services.  After that, I was a regular member of Jewish teen groups and learned more about Israel and Jewish history.  I fell in love at 13 years old with a wonderful 15 year old Jewish teen in my hometown who became my husband 7 years later.

At the age of 40, I began my years of being the proverbial wandering Jew, starting with immigrating to Israel.  It was in Israel that I met the Sephardic Jews of eastern countries, the Ethiopian Jews who were then being brought into Israel in large numbers, and the Arabs both inside Israel and the surrounding territories.  A few years later, I signed up to work in a program to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews living inside Israel.  I lived for 18 months in a small Arab city called Shefaram that held within it Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druse, and one Jew – me.  That ended with the Intifada of 1988 when my car was bombed one dark night while I slept.

I loved so many things about Israel, but in the end I was not strong enough to live in the tension of daily life.  I wanted to believe that Arabs and Jews could coexist, but didn’t believe deep inside me that it would ever happen. Although I kept looking back at Israel, I left and continued my wandering years mostly in Asia.

I may have been the mother of a black child, and become the grandmother to 7 Chinese children, but the wailing words of Kol Nidre still deeply affect me.  Jewish prayers are often sung like crying.  Perhaps that is because most of Jewish history has been sad.  Kol Nidre helps me remember not only the sadness, but also the joy of being Jewish.  The Jewish New Year offers renewal and that elusive word – hope.

Tomorrow, on Yom Kippur day, I will take my thoughts and go to the sea close to my home.  The depth and beauty of the sea is the holiest place I know.

Her death was unexpected, but not a shock.  She was, after all, 82 or so, and had a variety of medical issues she was living with.  She died rather quickly last night.  I valued her friendship above others because she was the most remarkable person I have personally known.

I knew her first as a poet, and then as a newly published author of “The Long Walk,” which filled in the details of her life.  I was born into World War II as Ruth was suffering from incarceration at Auschwitz between the ages of 12 and 15.  As a Jew who couldn’t help reading endless books about the Holocaust, I often wondered what made some people even want to survive such brutality.  When I lived in Israel, I saw numbers on the arms of people holding on to straps in buses.  I cringed visiting Holocaust Museums and memorials, and felt so very strange actually walking through a railroad car that had physically taken many to their doom.  But I had never personally known or talked to a Holocaust survivor — until I met Ruth.

We became friends after I read her book.  I had questions about some things she had written.  This led to deep discussions about how she coped with the unthinkable happening to her and around her in the concentration camp.  I marveled that her active pre-teen imagination had been strong enough to keep her daydreaming about happier days with her childhood family — so much so in fact, that she had once been selected for death, but didn’t hear her name called and didn’t step forward.

When one of our discussions touched on being dehumanized, she gently but quickly refuted that anyone can dehumanize anyone else.  Your self-worth comes from within, and no one can take away your self-worth.  After her book was published, she began to speak to groups of troubled teens in local high schools.   She said there was an immediate bond between her and them because they suffered from others trying to degrade and dehumanize them.   Even in the most inhumane conditions, her self-worth stayed intact, and her message was that no one could take away someone’s self-worth.

Perhaps her biggest impact upon the troubled teens, and me, was that she had never let vengeance and hate inside her.  When the teens asked her what she would like to do to those who were her captors, she replied simply, “nothing.”  In spite of being the child victim of so much hate and cruelty directed toward her, she truly did not have any hate within her.  Even more than her book, her poetry lets in the excruciating pain and the darkness she lived in, but hate and a desire for retribution never entered.

Literally ripped away from her young sister whom she never saw again, and denied a normal life with her parents, Ruth eventually created a new loving family — husband, three sons, and grandchildren.  She had explained to a recent Interfaith meeting of over 600 people that Thanksgiving was always a very happy holiday in their family.  She was extremely grateful for each fine member of her close-knit family.

I am grateful for personally knowing Ruth.  Along with our deep discussions, her ready wit and good humor will stay with me.


The events and experiences happened long ago when Ruth Treeson was a teenager.   She wrote her book, “The Long Walk,” only a few years ago and has been both surprised and heartened to find out how meaningful her words are to today’s children in America  when she speaks at local schools, often with at risk young people.   Although these children are far removed geographically and politically from the Holocaust,  Ruth has found an emotional link between her and the children who eagerly listen to her and ask pointed questions.

Teryl Zarnow of The Orange County Register wrote an article that followed some of the questions and answers with 8th graders in Santa Ana.  Here are some of the exchanges that appeared in the OC Register article between the author/Holocaust survivor, and the students.

Why did you feel guilty about your sister?

I was the older sister; I was responsible.  When they pulled her away from me, I could not save her.  I felt I failed.

How could you sleep knowing you could die?

You sleep in terror and exhaustion, with no dreams … It was already one long nightmare.  Imagine you don’t know when your turn will come.  I feel proud that I persevered.  I won’t be destroyed as a human being.  I thought, “You will not change me,” and they didn’t.

Were you ever about to be killed?

Yes, I was chosen once during a selection, but I was daydreaming about eating breakfast at home and didn’t realize.  The guards were so certain prisoners would follow directions, they never counted.  I survived by my imagination.  I wasn’t there.  I put myself somewhere that I liked better.

What did you learn about yourself?

It is important to endure that which is unendurable.  You must turn yourself into the type of human being you want to be.

If you could, what would you  do to a German who was cruel to you?

I would do nothing.  In order to get even, I would have to become like that person.  I would have to turn myself into a beast, and I don’t want to be like that.

In these exchanges with students, Ruth gently but resolutely pushes her hard-won and tough-tested philosophy of life to the children.  Many of the young students are dealing with difficult life situations that have turned them pessimistic about themselves and society.  They are often burdened with anger and the desire to strike back.  Ruth gives them strategies for survival such as:

“Young people need to understand that hope doesn’t come from the good nature of other people.  You need to build on what is within yourself.”

“Hate is a railway that leads only to destruction.”

“It is much better to  listen, not to judge people, but to accept and understand.  If you are less concerned with anger, you will discover an ability to improve.”

Even after the war ended, coming to the United States at 15 and having to deal with a new culture, a language she didn’t know, and classmates who had no understanding of what her years in the Auschwitz death camp had been like required Ruth to continue to call upon her inner strength.

Many people talk easily about staying optimistic and keeping peace in your heart, but talking to Ruth Treeson gives a much deeper dimension of what’s possible – then and now –  in the most indescribable of horrible, even in the tender teenage years.

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The quiet composure of petite Jaycee Dugard, timed with the release of her book, “a stolen life,” is a current example of the phenomenon of how some ordinary people become extraordinary in circumstances of extreme tragedy.  They serve as inspirations because their coping skills and resilience helped them rise above the horrors they were forced to experience as children.   Instead of hating themselves, their tormentors, and the world in general, they can become enthusiastic, optimistic, and yes, happy adults.

At the age of 9, Denee Stockman came home from school and found the bloody bodies of her parents heaped in a murder-suicide.  Now adults, Denee and her five siblings have defied the odds and are well educated adults with their own families, living fulfilling and productive lives.  Living in an abusive home before the death of their parents was traumatic.  Afterward, they faced separation in different foster homes.  There were helping hands and hearts along the way, but these children not only survived, but were able to thrive as adults.

As a Jewish child born as World War II raged, I was morbidly fascinated by novels about the Holocaust.  The question always on my mind was how concentration camp prisoners, especially children, psychologically survived horrors beyond imagination.  In just the last couple of years, I have become friends with an Auschwitz survivor who was imprisoned from the ages of 12 to 15.  She is the personification to me of how concentration camp prisoners survived psychologically.   Reading the book Ruth Treeson wrote, “The Long Walk,” and talking to her personally, has given me confirmation of  what was in the Holocaust stories I have heard and read.  As with other victims, there were small slivers of kindness along the way that kept her going and gave her faith that not everyone was cruel and inhumane.  She became and has remained a firm believer that hatred destroys both the one who hates and the one who is hated.  She refuses to hate.

After her years of solitary confinement, being constantly raped, and bearing two children all before the age of 15, Jaycee Dugard refuses to waste energy hating the pedophile who twisted her life so cruelly.  She said quietly, “He didn’t get all of me.”  Ruth Treeson understands that in her own very personal way.  She recently went to a high school class in Santa Ana and told those children that, no matter how extreme the situation,  no one can take away from you who you are inside.

There are genuine heroes and heroines among us — ordinary people whose lives challenged them to become extraordinary.

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Viktor Frankl, in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” talks about the “human something” that helped him survive the crushing mental and physical blows of concentration camp life.  There were among the prison guards sadists who took pleasure in giving pain, and there were guards whose feelings “had been dulled by the number of years in which, in ever-increasing doses, they had witnessed the brutal  methods of the camp.  These  morally and mentally hardened men at least refused to take active part in sadistic measures.  But they did not prevent others from carrying them out.”  But there were those among the guards who took pity on the prisoners and showed some forms of kindness, the smallest of which was “profoundly moving to the prisoners.”

I remember a time in Israel when I read through many books on the Holocaust, trying to understand how anyone could have survived mentally, if indeed they could survive physically.  My general conclusion from that intensive time of reading was that there were what I call “slivers of human kindness” that kept them going mentally.  Physically, they were very small deeds — a piece of bread, a piece of fruit, a drink of water, but the human connection nurtured their spirit and their will to survive.  Ruth Treeson, author of “The Long Walk” wrote in her book about some of these slivers of human kindness that helped her to keep going.  Still a young teenager, she didn’t give in to the belief that everyone was bad or didn’t care.

In Frankl’s words, “Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths.  Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?  The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”

The end of the war and release from the camps did not bring an immediate end to psychological suffering.  “A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could still suffer more, and still more intensely.”  Of course, this applied to women and children as well as men.  The majority of Ruth Treeson’s, “The Long Walk,” deals mostly with how the daydreaming that had kept her spirit alive during her years as a prisoner had to face the reality of the death of her parents, sister, and indeed her entire former pre-war life.

I am grateful for having known a few of the Holocaust survivors personally.  Although their situations differed, they each had to face incredible cruelty and overcome obstacles that thankfully the majority of us will never know.  Now in their last years, each has chosen writing and personal appearances as a way of paying tribute to those who didn’t survive that inhumane time.   The readers of their books, and the groups they speak to, will carry on the memories.

I have never personally visited one of the concentration camps.  Nor do I think I ever will.  Other than the very moving Yad Vashem and some other Holocaust museums, the closest I have come to understanding the horror was in a small basement Holocaust Museum in the Jewish Community Center in Dallas, Texas, which you enter by going through one of the actual cars of a train that had transported Jews to their deaths.

I used to think that surely the Holocaust was the most inhumane of all, but then I realized that it was only one of too many inhumane times in human history.

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