Last Friday, I had the good fortune to hear the 94 year old Selma van der Perre speak about her experiences as a Jewish woman during the Holocaust and a survivor of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. I braced myself for difficult stories and a somber afternoon, but what appeared on stage was an absolute spitfire of a woman who radiated hope, energy, and life abundant. I fell in love with Selma the minute she walked on stage–with a cane and on the arm of a younger person, wearing a neat suit, chic French scarf, and white beret.
She was chic, sharp, and a delight in every way. Some of the stories she had to tell made your blood run cold and your stomach clench into a knot, but everything about her being shone bright and radiated hope.
She was a young woman growing up in the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power. Her family was pulled apart, her father died in Auschwitz, and she became a courier with the Dutch resistance, taking a false identity and dodging the authorities while helping the cause. Eventually, she was caught and sent to prison, then transferred to Ravensbruck.
Selma could, and eagerly would, tell you stories all day about those years–each story more fascinating than the last, and many of them heart-wrenching. They are her stories to tell, and I couldn’t do them justice, so I won’t try to re-present them here. You may use this link to hear her tell some of her stories in her own words (from a BBC program on Ravensbruck– “Surviving Ravensbruck”). I promise you that it is well worth your time.
What I will tell you is how she answered a question about what gave her the strength to go on and to not give up, although she was quite ill and weak much of the time. She answered this very simply, taking little personal credit. Yes, what she did in the resistance was dangerous, but it was a difficult time and she wanted to do her part and help people. And besides that, she didn’t want to give the Nazis the satisfaction of crumbling– she wanted to “stick it to them.”
Even as a factory worker in Ravensbruck work camp, she and her colleagues would sabotage the gas masks they manufactured for the Third Reich, not screwing them together properly. Anything they could do to undermine their captors, they did. And they showed each other kindness–she was adamant that kindness from other inmates (and even a prison guard early on–a guard who was later incarcerated and killed for her part in helping inmates) kept her going during tenuous times.
There are very few survivors of the concentration camps still around, and, like Selma, they have reached a ripe age. It is so important that we hear their stories whenever and wherever we get the chance. I very nearly missed hearing her talk. I had a busy day Friday and her talk wasn’t at a convenient time for me . . . and, as you can imagine, I felt a little discomfort about going. It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, and the Holocaust is a heavy, horrific topic which anyone might, understandably, want to avoid. But that would have been a mistake.
When I left the theater and stepped back into the bright afternoon, I was uplifted. The horror of the history had been laid out unquestionably in her talk–I flinched time and again as she told stories– but, I tell you this, the lesson was transformed in the person of Selma van der Perre. “This cannot happen again,” she said, “we must be very aware of such things going on still in our world.” Her message was clear and serious, but in her capable hands it was uplifting and resilient. Our lights should all shine so bright.
Thank you, Selma van der Perre.