'I'm a survivor, but I'm different'

  • January 16, 2010
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Confusion surrounds my mother’s identity — not only as an immigrant, but also as a survivor.

Ruth Gruber

My mother and I attended a speech by the rescuer Ruth Gruber, who in 1944 was assigned a secret mission to Europe to escort one thousand Jewish refugees and wounded American soldiers from Italy to the US. Scanning the audience of several hundred people, Gruber began her speech by asking the group, “How many of you are survivors? If you are a survivor, please stand up.”

My mother looked at me, panicked. She tightly held the arms of her chair and slowly shifted herself to the edge of her seat. Just as she was about to rise, she stopped. Unsure, she froze.

“Stand up, Mom,” I told her. “Stand up.”

Looking around at all the survivors, she lifted herself off the chair and stood for a few seconds. Then, as the audience warmly applauded the standing survivors, she sat down.

My mother doesn’t know if she is a survivor.

Even Steven Spielberg doesn’t know what to call her or her group. He wanted to include them in his Shoah project since their lives had been defined by the same losses as the survivors — family and homeland. But since they hadn’t experienced the death camps, he didn’t know how to refer to them. Eventually, for lack of a better label, Spielberg included refugees, hidden children and children in the camps in one category, “child survivors.” But survivors of the camps reject this label for anyone who didn’t endure the death camps.

Consequently, my mother doesn’t know what to call herself — except “lucky”.

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