‘And now I hear the Nazis are back...’
The Friday before school started, my grandma sent me a text: “Planning to visit my friend Irma. Interested?”
My sister has made this visit with my grandma before, so I’ve heard about Irma — heard about her house down the street, her loud sense of humor and her tell-you-how-it-is personality. But it was my turn to make the visit with my grandma, so I drove a block down the street to meet Irma Freudenreich.
At the age of 100 years and five months, Irma is the oldest Holocaust survivor living in Dallas. The second you walk into her house, you get that softly-lit feeling of home — pictures suffocating each room, dirty dishes in the sink and family mementos scattered on shelves.
She sits in an armchair as her caregiver makes dinner in the kitchen, and after I introduce myself, she motions her hands for me to lean in so she can give me a hug. Then, I turn behind me and move a chair next to her.
She starts by telling me that because of the Nazis, she never had a true wedding — just a skirt and blouse two women had given her as a dress. She jokes and asks if I want to get married, and we laugh as I give her an awkward shrug and jokingly say yes.
“Would you like to tell Kobe about the article?” My grandma jumps in with strong voice so we can all hear.
Irma points to her picture in the Advocate magazine feature, and she begins to tell me her story.
She walks me through images of Auschwitz. Shaved heads. Divided groups. Sleeping outside in the cold until the people sleeping inside had died. When it wasn’t Auschwitz it was Bergen-Belsen, where she was whipped when she didn’t walk fast enough. She tells me she once jumped out of a moving train to escape the Nazis and wonders if I would’ve done the same. The answer is I’m not sure — I’ve never had to answer that before.
“I don’t cry because it doesn’t help. I don’t complain because it doesn’t help. Everyday I wake up, I thank God. Because any day I could be gone.”
There’s silence, and I’m stuttering for the right words to say if there are any.
But then, she says it.
She says something that still haunts me today, makes my head spin in circles and puts a pit in my stomach at the sound of her voice and the way she said it.
The way she weakened at the thought, the way her eyes wilted to the floor after saying it.
And now I hear the Nazis are back…
And for a moment everything collapsed. For a moment, I didn’t care whether it was the 8 million Nazis in the 1940s or the hundred-some Nazis or alt-right or white nationalists — or whatever we’re calling them in Charlottesville. I didn’t care about the conversations we’d been having for weeks after Charlottesville and weeks before that Friday afternoon before school started on whether we’d do something to the statues or keep them up or how else we’ll respond to everything going on in the country. And I for sure didn’t care about the President and whether he was condemning them or not or whether he even cared or whether Steve Bannon had a say or whether tweets were being sent out or not.
For a moment, all I could think of was the 100-year-old woman in front of me and the thought that made her eyes melt to the floor. The thought that after all she’s done — after jumping out of a train, after being whipped, after sleeping in the cold, after losing her family, after being denied the wedding she wanted and after coming to Dallas thinking she’ll never have to look at that red Nazi flag ever again — she’s here in the country today at the time in her life when she says “any day I could be gone.”
Here in the United States.
Watching Nazi flags fly through the streets on the news — struggling with the rest of us to figure out how to respond.