Surviving the Holocaust: Selma van der Perre


From webpage
From webpage

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.

Selma-vanderperreShe 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.”

Ravensbruck prisoners, from Wikipedia
Ravensbruck prisoners, from Wikipedia

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.


Holocaust Remembrance Day

The evening of May 4th through the evening of May 5th mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah.  In honor and memory of the millions of souls lost in the Holocaust,  this simple photo of a wall at Dachau.  Never again.

nvr again dachau


All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it.  We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.

But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.

“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”  Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Creative Commons licensing

 When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–a uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted.  It was the right sort of house for that:  imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.

I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.

 But then nothing happened.  

Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.

Still, nothing happened.  

After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened.  What a rip off!  I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!?  Not a fair trade off if you ask me.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too, and they have their own agendas.  I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life.  It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life.  What was Christmas like for them?  Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver?  Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage?  Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?

And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area?  Was this a dramatic change, considering this area has always been a source of border disputes?  Was the occupation a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals who must have been haunted by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war?

And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II.  What about those Christmas dinners?  Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark?  Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe?  Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me.  I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided,  like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.

Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either.  I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.

It’s better not to know, I tell myself.

Still, I want a ghost for Christmas.  I can’t shake that feeling.  It’s part of the old house package.

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  -William Faulkner

I had a ghost once, a few years ago.

I know, I know–just hear me out.  This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances.  The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; for that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; at that point, it all makes more sense.  And one more thing–the children aren’t around.  If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.

I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts then).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story tomorrow.  That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.  It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.

Meet me here tomorrow, if you dare, and I will tell you my ghost story.

chistms carol page

Disgruntled Siblings and the French-German Border Disputes

File from Wikimedia Commons.
File from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m sure there is some sort of Universal Karmic connection between my children’s behavior and the long history of border disputes between France and Germany.  Just hear me out.

We made another jaunt over the border into France this weekend.  (I’ll write more about that soon.) We live less than an hour’s drive from the border…but the border wasn’t always the border.  In fact, given the history of the French-German border, I think they should just call it the Sorta-Borda, because (if history is any predictor) it will be shifting again any decade now.  It’s like the San Andreas Fault in California—once the pressure builds, it will shift.  It’s like my kids that way too…but more on that later.

About the “borderlands” of Germany and France: I recall some long-ago history class lecture about the Alsace-Lorraine region of France being  passed back and forth between German and French hands over the centuries.    The cuisine, town names, and architecture  make  this  blatantly obvious.

But I’ve only just learned that this geographic game of “hot potato” has continued into the 1900’s, and included some areas of the Rhineland-Saarland in Germany.    In the 1870’s, the French lost much of the Alsace region—as far in as Metz—to the Germans, and it wasn’t returned again until 1918.    On the flip side,  my husband tells me that parts of  the present-day German Saarland were only “re-Germanated” in the 1950’s.

About Snarky Siblings: This historical perspective makes me feel a little better about the “border disputes” that have been going on in our family since we moved into our Scooby Doo castle-house—we seem to be stuck in the “Hassle in the Castle” episode.  The kids are constantly arguing about which room is better, who gets which room, who then lays claim to the room that falls between the two rooms, who gets dibs on the top floor of the house, etc.

Holy Crum!  I think we are heir to two legacies here—the teen/preteen gimmees, and the French/German borderland disputes.  That equals “land-grab squared,” and it ain’t pretty.  Whatever developmental/hormonal  forces are at play with my kids are ramped up by some sort of historical/geographic energy field that is beyond our control.

That’s how it seems… and it makes for the better story.   Who’s to say that it’s not true?  I grew up in the South, and I’m convinced that the power of place is strong.

With a little parental intervention, our in-house border disputes seem to be slowly working themselves out.  Let’s hope they hold more firm than their European historical precedents.

Only time will tell.


Lines Were Drawn: Simserhof and La Ligne Maginot


DSC_0393 - Copy


You have to draw a line somewhere, right?  And we’re a funny species…we draw lines everywhere.  But lines, once drawn, just ache to be crossed.  I’m not excusing this conduct, I’m just saying it seems to be a pattern of human behavior, or human misbehavior anyway.

So when you build a massive defensive fortification on your country’s border–though it may be a project of mind-boggling innovation and preparation, though it may seem impenetrable–well, it just seems like pressing your luck to call it The Maginot Line.   You are just begging for trouble.

But, of course, no one had to go begging for trouble in Europe in the late 1930’s.  Trouble sat on your doorstep with a capital T.   And I’m sure all of France slept better at night knowing that  the Maginot Line held its eastern border safe when the Third Reich escalated its rumblings in Germany.  Slept. . . until the rumblings got louder and louder.  Until countries to the east fell: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland.  Then the north: Norway, Denmark.  The border:  Belgium.    Until the line did not hold.

For the most part, our local expeditions these first two weeks in Germany have been uncomplicated:  vintage car shows and pastry shops. . . and more pastry shops.  Mindless, sleek, or sugar-and-cream-filled offered a nice counterpoint to the stress of the frantic first two weeks: jet lag, radical re-orientation, frantic house hunting, and a litany of drivers’ tests, briefings, and meetings.  But as life is beginning (just  beginning) to normalize, it seemed time to pull our heads out of their eclair-induced stupors and really SEE something.  And the first something that we really ventured out to see was pretty heavy stuff–perhaps not so much as a statement of gravitas on our part, but just owing to proximity and rainy weather.

We ventured just over the French border to Simserhof, to tour a fabulously intact section of the Maginot Line: a series of  unfathomably huge underground fortifications that were built  to defend the French border from the sort of threat that had manifest itself in the nightmarish realities of World War I.

A tunnel into the living and working areas underground at the Maginot’s Simserhof location.

For all of the brilliance of these fortifications–and they are truly amazing–the battle that arrived at their doors was not the First World War’s long drawn out trench warfare, but some new beast.   Where “the line” was static and uber-hardened, the blitzkrieg was fast, arguably  precise, and offered an element of surprise.  And surprises abounded: many thought the Ardennes Forest of Belgium was impassable to German tanks.  Mistake.  The Ardennes proved passable, and because of the break in Maginot line (it did not run along the border of Belgium), the Germans simply came around the fortifications.

It doesn’t pay to judge: hindsight is always 20/20.  But foresight is harder won.  (It’s true in our national foibles, and it’s true in our individual lives.  Personally, I’m questioning the decision to buy an entire box of eclairs at Cora Market in France–it’s calling to me as I drink my morning latte and just begging to be polished off before lunchtime.  Ouch.)

I wish I had taken more photos inside the facility, as it was fascinating and extravagant— not in it’s lavish interior (the interior was austere) but in the audacity of its scale and hopefulness.  It is like a military base built underground–with weapons and munitions, electrical generators, a “trolley system,” a filtration system for gas attack defense, multiple levels and elevators, chow halls and a modern (for its time) kitchen for officers, a pantry stocked with wine and cheese, bunk rooms, a state-of-the-art infirmary, etc.  It was optimistic:  after the hellacious First World War, this facility contained the hopes and promises of a secure border and a fighting force that could be effective from the shelter of a secure and dry “trench” stocked with coffee and wine, with relatively warm beds, with fresh air to breathe, full bellies, dry limbs, etc.  It was a desirable set up, but flawed.  War is a trickster and a shape shifter, and the Maginot Line was inflexible.

DSC_0390 - CopyI didn’t take more photos because my hands were shoved into my pockets and shaking.  This underground facility is very cold!  Our walking tour lasted maybe an hour, and the chill had plenty of time to seep into my bones.  If one hour of subterannean life and lack of sun can do this to you, what would it be like to be underground for months on end, even without a battle raging above and around you?  Mmm, I shudder just thinking about it.

It’s a somber subject, but a fascinating place to visit.  Simserfhof is located in Northeastern France, near Bitche (yes, Bitche)  just over the border with Germany.  Bitche offers it’s own sights to see–most notably its citadel on a hill.  It was too rainy for us to tour the Citadel yesterday, but we drove through the town on our meandering way back home, and were delighted to see the following art above one of the town’s squares.  A little levity was just what we needed as we left the Maginot Line and planned our own attack on the pastry counter of the Cora Market.