BY: ANGELINA LAUS
When I made my first phone call to Mrs. Haas, an 87-year-old woman who had survived the Holocaust in Germany, I felt confident and excited to finally begin my exploration of her story and her experiences.
“Hello, is this Mrs. Tamara Haas? It’s Angelina Laus, Chris Bradshaw’s friend,” I said politely.
“Hello? Hello? Yes. This is she. You are… Angelina?” Tamara asked—the decline of her health that comes with old age was reflected in the frailty of her voice.
After we introduced ourselves, I asked her if I could conduct an interview; however, when I asked her, my voice begun to shake. I was reluctant to utter words such as “Holocaust,” “atrocity,” “suffering,” and “survivor.” I stuttered before every word that would have sparked a painful memory of hers. I did not want to hurt her; I did not want anyone to set a reminder to—in my assumption—a person who has already moved on.
Initially, Tamara and I made plans to meet in San Francisco one week after our phone call. Unfortunately, she called me the night prior to our meeting and cancelled. We made plans to meet once again, but they did not go through because she had an unexpected appointment with the doctors. Finally, we were able to conduct a phone interview three weeks later.
I was in Priory’s Student Center, standing in front of the glass case, looking at the pictures, trying to distract myself from feeling the least bit nervous. I assumed she was in her living room, seated perhaps on an old-fashioned couch, whose fabric may have had floral patterns with a pastel color palette.
“Hey, Tamara, it’s Angelina,” I said. By this time, she and I had frequented the phone, and naturally, we let go of the formalities.
“Hello, so what is it you need to ask me?” Tamara asked. She was a confident woman; she knew what she wanted and despite her weak voice, and one could hear her personality past her voice. I told her that she should answer the questions freely and proceeded with the interview.
“What was your family like? Did you have any siblings?”
“My parents were married; they loved each other, and they had a typical relationship. My father was in charge, made us feel safe, while my mother stayed home with us and made sure the home was arranged. I had an older brother and a younger brother.”
She went straight to the point, as if she did not want to exert any emotion. She wanted to remain separate from what happened.
“How old were you when the Holocaust started?” I asked.
“I was a teenager, I forget. It was difficult, I had friends, I was in love, and I was confused. I had no idea. I was frightened. Things happened. And I did not know. It seems odd. Events just flashed before my eyes, and I did not know what to do.”
“Did anyone assure you? Make you feel safe?”
“Well, I was lost—emotionally and in every way possible. But my father always remained strong. I knew everyone was hurting, so I tried my best not to show any emotion. I did not want those around me to panic.”
“Where did you go when the Holocaust was happening? Where were you sent?”
“My father and my brothers were taken from us in our home, and my mother and I left immediately, to different people’s homes, hiding, in barns. Anything we could do, we did.”
By now, I did not know what to say. I was in awe of how strong she was, but I was also in awe by the way she trusted me. I felt like her confidante.
“Did you eventually lose anyone close to you?”
“My father and my brothers. I didn’t see them since the day the soldiers barged into our house. And, eventually, my mother. We were in hiding. She went off to the market to get some bread, and she never returned. No one would tell me what happened, and I, too, did not want to ask.”
There was a long gap of silence. Our conversation must have been the first time she had spoken abut her mother in years, but I did not hear her cry. It was just a long pause of silence, but we both understood.
“What helped you get through the day?”
“I just worked and was too busy thinking about how I could stay alive. Back then, there was no time to feel. You could not. Otherwise, you would go mad. I heard frightening stories about my friends, my relatives, but I could not be weak. I had to live. I did not know everyone else’s future, and I had no control. But I had control of mine. I looked for food, sometimes ate the dying grass just to get some sort of nutrients. I controlled what happened to me.”
“Were there any defining moments that flashback every now and then?”
“I try to forget. Try not to think of the bad memories. The flashbacks that keep me alive are the happy moments. The moments when my family and I would go the fields and have a picnic, or when my mother prepared our favorite meal. You know, Angelina, I cannot dwell on the past. It happened. And I am still hurt. I would like to know what happened to family members, but it is easier to move on without knowing. I love them dearly. But I continue to live for them. In their memory.”
Our interview ended on that note. Tamara had been so intimidating, so self aware and strong. I wondered if she had any break downs every now and then, and I wondered what she thought of late at night before she went to sleep, when she had nothing to do but listen to her own thoughts. There was no doubt in my mind that she did think of her family, the atrocities, the joys, and the bliss, the mixture of emotions from the past.
Speaking with her made me think of a conversation I had with the school Dean, Mr. Schlaak. He said that often, survivors feel a guilt for having been the one to make it through. He said, “It is as if you are in a plane with all of your closest family and friends, and it crashes. All of them die, except for you.” I think Tamara was strong-willed, but I felt as though she was merely existing. I sensed the lack of spirit when I talked to her. She was living, but not for herself, and I could not blame her. I commend her for merely existing because perhaps, when people undergo atrocities such as the Holocaust, merely existing is more than enough.