Sunday, October 22, 2023

TY House Speech Competition 2023

On Sunday 8th October we held the annual Transition Year House Speech Competition. There was a high standard overall, and the judges awarded equal second place to Rebekah Fitzgerald Hollywood and Safia Walker. A clear first place, however, went to Grace Koch, whose speech about her great-grandmother is now below.

“In one day it all came crashing down— like falling into an abyss, the sudden shock reverberating long afterwards into the years that followed.” 

I’m sure that most people here have learned about, or at least heard of, the Holocaust. It is widely regarded as one of the most important topics in history. However, when we learn about it, I think that we tend to focus on broad details and statistics. Not to say that there is anything wrong with that, but I think it is equally important to listen to personal experiences. Today, I want to share with you my family’s personal experience with the Holocaust.

The quote that I just read is taken from Vienna Revisited, a book written by Freda Ulman Teitalbaum, also called Grandma Freda, my great-grandmother. In it, she talks about her journey of self discovery and reflection in visiting her childhood home with her daughter Marcia. She was born in Vienna in 1924 and grew up in the Judengasse, the Jewish district in Vienna. Freda describes her childhood to be joyous and carefree, albeit sheltered. She enjoyed school, despite her general aversion to math, and was particularly fond of languages and literature. In 1938, the Anschluss, the union between Austria and Nazi Germany, happened and my great-grandmother’s world was shattered. In her book, she writes of the day that she learned about Anschluss. She was walking in the park with her parents and her younger sister Susi when suddenly the sky was filled with planes adorned with Nazi flags that dropped pamphlets. Freda, only thirteen, picked one up only to read the words “Death to the Jews”. She was devastated and taken by surprise, her idyllic bubble popped.

She also tells of a common occurrence for Jewish women in Vienna at this time. Anyone over the age of 15 could be summoned to the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, and forced to strip naked in front of them. They would then cut off a lock of the woman’s hair. This would be a humiliating and devastating experience for anyone, but especially for a teenager. When Freda was 14, she and her mother got the summons. As a young adult, she felt extremely self-conscious about her body, saying that she was too afraid to even undress in front of her mother, let alone the Gestapo. While they ended up being dismissed because Freda was only fourteen, it was a traumatizing experience nonetheless. The Nazis completely changed her self worth as they constantly degraded her place in society as a Jewish woman.

Fortunately, after months and months of waiting, Freda, her mother and her sister were able to get visas for the United States, but their father, who was Polish by birth, had to wait. He told them to go anyway, and he was able to join them after a few months. Many of Freda’s family members would join them, but her beloved uncle Josef would die in the Buchenwald concentration camp and her paternal grandparents would disappear during the war. They refused to leave their home, saying that God would protect them. Even today, we don’t know what happened to them. Freda went on to graduate from high school in Chicago and begin working almost straight away. In 1982, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of university and graduated from UCLA with a degree in English.

As I was thinking about what I would do for my speech, I felt a pull towards my great-grandmother. I’m still not quite sure why, but I think I have an idea. Grandma Freda passed away last year at the age of 99. It was sad, of course, but not so much personally. To be honest, I barely knew her and rarely saw her. Last spring, I visited my grandparents, my grandmother Ruth being Freda’s daughter. Together, we looked through some of Freda’s old jewellery. Most of it was cheap costume material apart than two sets of pearl necklaces and two small watches, one silver and one gold. My grandmother gifted the two necklaces to me and my sister, as well as Freda’s college diploma from UCLA, which is now in my bedroom.

As we were looking through the collection, my grandmother very gingerly grabbed the watches. They were both broken, but had clearly been taken care of. My grandmother told me how the watches had belonged to her grandmother, Regina Ulman. She had brought them with her when she travelled from Vienna to America. These watches are some of if not the only surviving heirlooms from my family’s time in Vienna. Shortly after the Anschluss, Austrian Jews were forced to give up all valuables to the Gestapo. Before this happened, however, Regina and her husband Bernard were able to smuggle some items out of the country via a Christian friend living in Italy. Most of these items ended up being sold once the Ulmans reached New York.

As I held these artefacts of my family’s history, symbols of their pain, suffering, and grief but also of triumph and promises of hope, I noticed a sense of deep connection to my ancestors that I never truly had before. I felt a responsibility to keep their memories alive not only to commemorate them, but to learn from them and maybe help others to do the same. I know we can all agree that what happened in the Holocaust was disgraceful and despicable, but that is not enough. We have to actively fight against anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry. I think that this sentiment was certainly shared by Freda, and it is made clear in her book that there were still many things she thought needed to change. She ends Vienna Revisited with words that power my own desire to share her story: 

“From time to time the same question arose to haunt us: why were we saved, why were we the lucky ones to survive? The only answer to this enigmatic question could be that we were meant to live so that a new generation could arise from the ashes of the old, with the hope that they would inherit a better world, and that they would never forget.”

1 comment:

Martina & Denis said...

What a wonderful piece of writing. Hard to believe when reading it, these were the thoughts/words so well articulated by such a young person.

Congratulations and please keep writing, Grace.