Today is February 23, 2020; the
On Sunday, April 7th at 11 a.m. in the synagogue, in observance of the Holocaust Week of Remembrance (April 7-14), Susan Hessel will be honored with this year’s Gregory P. Wegner Excellence in Holocaust Education leaf on our Tree of Life for her contribution to Holocaust education.
A journalist by training, a veteran newspaper reporter and a writer on many topics, Hessel is a personal historian dedicated to preserving life stories of individuals and a board member of the Association of Personal Historians. She is especially honored to work with those who have stood up in the face of repression and adversity. Thanks to Susan, the stories of eye witnesses to the holocaust will continue to educate and inspire future generations in a variety of educational settings.
The irony of my receiving this award is that I will always remember being forced to watch films of death camp liberations in my Sunday school class at United Hebrew Temple in St. Louis. When I looked away in shock and horror, my Sunday school teacher put her face in mine and said, “Why are you looking away? Those are all Jews you know.”
I avoided anything that had to do with the Holocaust until about 2007 when the opportunity came up to be a co-author with Gayda Hollnagel on the memoirs of an Auschwitz survivor. It was around the time that I heard La Crosse’s June Kjome, still a community activist in her 90s, say, “Silence is the same as assent.”
June’s words resonated with me in a way that convinced me I had to help others speak out against wrongs in this world, as well as speak out when I see them personally. I had to be a part of writing Dora’s story, which became Everyday In My Mind I Have This.
For seven decades, it was Dora Russek’s dream and obligation to tell her story. It went back to the main synagogue in Grovno, Poland, where Jews gathered to be shipped off to their deaths. An elder told Dora and other young Jews “Just remember everything. Everything. Don’t forget. Don’t leave anything out. Tell the world what the Germans are doing to us.”
Writing Mary Rostad’s story, Squirrel Is Alive, became very important because it was the antithesis of remaining silent. Mary, who I had heard speak several times over the years, risked her life as a teenager in Brussels, along with the lives of her family in activities that surely would have led to all their deaths had she been caught.
Finally realizing the danger she presented to them, she left home one morning and began walking through Belgium, France and hopefully into Spain and then Portugal, where she hoped a ship would take her to England to join the free Belgium Army. After walking for several months, she was stuck in France after efforts to cross the Pyrenees failed because the Spanish were turning escapees into the Nazis for the bounty.
I was fortunate that Darryle Clott, Holocaust educator extraordinaire, had wanted a book written about Mary for years. With the help of Mary’s daughter, Denise, we convinced this wonderful woman to let me write her story.
Darryle, Mary Rostad, and my friend Mary Murphy were all honorees of the Gregory P. Wegner Excellence in Holocaust Education award ahead of me. I’ve also met and admired teacher David Nelson, also a Wegner recipient, at Darryle’s Holocaust Educators Conference.
I don’t consider myself a Holocaust educator in the traditional sense. I’m a writer who wants to break the silence through the books I write.
I went into journalism in the height of the Watergate era, believing reporters can help make the world better. I was young, idealistic and naive.
I left the La Crosse Tribune in 1984 and became a freelance writer, which led to my becoming a personal historian, someone who helps individuals, families, organizations, businesses and even communities preserve and share their stories. I see myself as the bridge between generations.
I always encourage my clients to write about the difficult stuff in life because I believe it shows resilience for future generations who will face their own challenges, although hopefully nothing like the Holocaust.
Since writing Dora and Mary’s books, I’m insatiable in my desire to read books about the Shoah and watch movies about it – even those showing death camp liberations. I’m trying to understand the un-understandable.
If there is any message from all this it is not that those liberation camp films showed “all Jews” as that Sunday school teacher once said to me. It is that they show any people.
I am sorry that I didn’t develop this passion sooner, when I could write more of these stories. We have lost and are losing many survivors, who need to “just remember everything” so we don’t forget.