I didn’t even realize I was crying until I looked down at my notepad and saw the smudged ink on the paper. And then I looked around the room, and realized I was not the only one who was coming undone.
Several weeks ago, I attended a talk Dr. Eva Olsson gave at an elementary school in Arnprior. I had never heard of Olsson before, but I was well aware of the story she was going to tell. Olsson is lucky to be alive. She, along with her sister, were the only members of her family to survive the Holocaust.
Born in Szatmar, Hungary (now part of Romania) in 1924, she was one of six children in a poor Jewish family when her life was forever changed as the Nazi party began its systematic eradication of Jews across Europe. Eleven million people – men, women and children – were killed.
“Hate murdered millions of people,” she told her attentive audience. “I was bullied by the Nazi bullies. I was bullied because I was Jewish.”
During the war, Olsson’s family was imprisoned in a Hungarian ghetto before being shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. From Auschwitz, Olsson went to Bergen-Belsen and then was a slave labourer before being liberated in 1945 by the Allies. “I have been in Canada for 60 years. In my heart, there is no room for hate and no room for bullies,” Olsson stated. “Being Canadian is about acceptance.” Her words rang true with me on so many levels. For starters, listening to her speak was like listening to members of my own family speak. While her last name threw me off, the minute she started talking I knew she was Hungarian. Her diction sounded like my father’s, my aunts’, my grandparents’ – all Hungarians as well. My father never talked a lot about living through the war in Europe but his experiences affected him deeply. While he was not persecuted like the Jews, the level of fear he experienced as a child was high and impacted the rest of his life.
He too talked, like Olsson did, about how things just happened overnight in the war. One minute you were happy and carefree living your life, the next moment everything was different. Olsson said the Nazis whisked her family away very quickly. Recalling how Auschwitz-Birkenau was “a killing factory,” she said she never saw her mother after they arrived there and were separated. During her talk, Olsson urged her audience to never forget to tell your parents you love them. She said the moment she was separated from her mother forever was a moment she wished she could have back. I thought about my mother, my father – who passed away in 1987 – and my son, who was asleep in his bed as I sat in my chair in the auditorium crying, and my husband. I love them all so much.
I remember my father telling me how, around the time the Nazis started rounding up Jewish Hungarians, he woke up one day to find the Jewish families on his street were gone. As a child, he did not know where they went. He, like the rest of the world, found out the true horror later.
My father was the proudest Canadian I have ever known. He appreciated what the country gave him and was all about acceptance. He had no prejudice and was open, giving and kind. Those qualities shone brightly in Olsson too. A woman who had lost so much in her life had the capacity to love and forgive. She urged her audience to never take their families for granted, to teach our children not to hate and not to be bystanders when bad deeds or bullying take place, and to fill our lives with grace and compassion. Olsson said she does not “hate” and would never use the word. I sat in my chair almost cringing at the thought of how many times I had used the word that week alone.
We need to think twice about the words we use and what they mean. It’s not just about bullying, it is about being kind to others and ourselves. Olsson referred to the Nazis as “bullies” and at first, I didn’t see the connection. But the more she spoke about how they treated her and millions of other Jews, I realized she was right. Bullying is defined at the “use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” That is what the Nazis did.
As I wiped tears from my face, I realized I was crying for what Olsson had to endure, and for seeing in myself some qualities I didn’t like.
Since the presentation, I have been consciously working to be a better person. I continue to be honest, sometimes bluntly so, but I am trying to be less judgmental and make sure I pass on good values to my son.