All the stories are important

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Former Jewish refugee talks with All Spencer Reads

To accompany the 2013 All Spencer Reads selection, "The Year of Goodbyes," Spencer Public Library staff organized a Skype conversation with the author of the book, Debbie Levy, and her mother, Jutta Salzberg.

Although the book was written by Levy, "The Year of Goodbyes" consists of pages taken from Salzberg's poesiealbum, a book her friends wrote messages in when her family left Nazi Germany in 1938.

Decades later, Levy went through the poesialbum, talked with her mother about what was happening in her life at the time, and researched what was happening in the world.

"Each entry was dated," Levy said, "which helped us talk about what was going on with the world, the Jews, Germany, and with the world as a whole. I got an idea of what she, as a child, understood about Germany and what she didn't understand."

Levy and her mother had "always been close," and two Amtrak rides from Washington, D.C., to visit Levy's son in Chicago allowed them plenty of time to talk about Salzberg's childhood

"I've been trying for decades to figure out how to tell my mother's story," she said.

Salzberg was 12 years old when her family left for the United States. Initially, she was separated from her family and sent to Washington, D.C., with her great-aunt and great-uncle. Her parents ended up in Detroit.

It wasn't until Levy was in high school that Salzberg began to speak openly to her about life under the Nazi regime.

"I wasn't in a concentration camp," Salzberg said. "Who was I to tell my story."

What she realized later, however, was "people wanted to know all the stories."

"All the stories are important," Salzberg said. "We survivors have to speak and have to tell people what happened. Once we're gone, there are no more witnesses. We are the only witnesses. If we don't speak up, people won't believe it existed."

One audience member wondered why the Jews didn't fight back against the persecution from the Nazis.

The answer, Levy said, was two-fold.

"They couldn't," Levy stated. "When the government controls the police and the resources to enforce the persecution, the discriminated don't have an army and they don't have weapons."

She continued. "It's easy for us now to look back and see where the beginning persecutions led to. In the late 1930s, however, the people assumed that this government would run its course and another would take its place. Nobody foresaw what happened -- not the Jews and not the other countries of the world."

At such a young age, Salzberg didn't understand what was happening to her friends and neighbors.

"People we knew just disappeared," she said, "they just weren't there anymore."

Since leaving Germany, Salzberg has been back to her hometown of Hamburg. Each year, Hamburg officials offer an all-expense paid trip to a small number of Jewish survivors, as an attempt to "make it good again." They are treated to a meal at the mayor's home, and are able to tour some of the memorials and concentration camps near the area.

"Not every city did that," Salzberg said. "It was very nice of them."

Because of her visit, Salzberg was able to connect with seven of her former childhood friends, who had been scattered around the world.

"One of my best friends from over there lived right near me," she said.

The seven friends reunited for the first time 13 years ago, and have gotten together every year since, until recently.

Thinking back, Salzberg has "no good feelings" about the former German government.

"I don't understand," she said. "I will never understand. The people now are pleasant and understanding; they opened their homes and hearts to us. But Nazi is a dirty word to me."

Life in America wasn't any easier for Salzberg. Because of her German accent and lack of English, she was bullied in school. This time, however, she fought back, both against those who tormented her and against her challenges here. Within a year she had learned English and lost her accent.

"We worked hard," she said, "but this was the land of golden opportunities and freedom. Mainly freedom. We could talk, turn on the radio and walk down the street."

In preparing to leave Germany, Salzberg's mother began packing months in advance. Dishes and crystal went into crates, though no one knew if they'd see them again.

In her own suitcase, Salzberg packed "things that mattered to a 12-year-old," including her poesiealbum, her diary, a selection of "movie store material," a series of pictures of family and friends and a collection of Shirley Temple postcard pictures that she treasures to this day.

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