In a Survivor’s Shoes
By SierraRose Nason, great granddaughter of Hana Lowy, Joan Caroline Lee
Place yourself in a survivor’s shoes. Your heart is twisting in your chest and you are holding your mother’s hand. The Nazis stare down at you with hatred in their eyes. You feel disowned from your own country and even your own life. You start to question yourself, your family, and even your heritage, wondering; “Why was I born a Jew?"
I sit in the living room of my Great Grandmother’s home. My eyes constantly fall on her modestly clothed body, now worn with age. I could not believe that exactly 72 years ago today she had come to America. I settle my notebook in my lap, spilling over a pile of family portraits she had given me to ponder. My pencil is ready to write as I ask, “What is your Holocaust story, Grandma Joan?”
She looks at me with her aged eyes and asked me, “What do you want to know?”
I feel a smile tug on my lips at this moment. I wait a bit, pretending to think it over before I blurt out, “Everything!” She laughs softly, a smile now on her lips too. Once she begins to speak my pencil flies across the paper as her story becomes alive.
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I never really wanted to leave Eger when my parents told me we would be leaving for Amsterdam, Holland. I knew it would ruin my life. I would have to be stuck with my mother, my brother, and my father. I wouldn’t have my Governess, who I adore and love.
“Why do I have to go?” I cried out, my bottom lip trembling with despair. My Governess, not mother, got to her knees and took my hand.
“My dear, Hana,” She started out as she spoke to me, I could hear the pain in her voice. “It is not safe here anymore for Jews such as you. I am sorry my little Hana... But you must go.” I hated those words that left my German Governess’ mouth. My small arms wounded around her neck.
“Goodbye,” I whispered.
I saw tears in her eyes as she left with her paycheck and her last glance toward me. That was the last time I saw her for years.
Hurry seemed to be the word that day as we got packed to leave. I was told by my mother that the only toy I was allowed to take was my teddy bear. I cried that night, knowing I was to leave everything behind, but I didn’t know they were for other children to have. I did not know we would never come back to retrieve our items, I thought I would be back someday.
That next morning my mother woke me early and I knew I had to leave for Holland. I eyed her and rose slowly from bed, donning my pretty plaid dress and shiny black shoes. I was one of the few Jews who left fast enough to not have to wear the Jewish star.
“Metza... Let us go, we have to.”
I heard my father call to my mother as she sobbed about leaving her good china behind. I hated her for it, her acting as a child, when I had to leave my own cherished toys. I never forgave her for making me leave; I never got to forgive her-- or would have. She took everything away from me. My country, my identity; and my beloved Governess, Julie Grashold. I hated them all and I felt the hate steam in me as we left our beautiful green home, just a few yards from a large fountain that had a man on top with a baton in his hand. I still feel upset for having to leave this beautiful place- Eger, Czechoslovakia. I waved goodbye to our home, the fountain, everything I knew as I was pulled to a cab. I sat in the cushioned seat with tears in my pale blue eyes, my arms crossed over my chest. I wanted to voice my pain as we rode to “Holland.”
Hours later we stopped at a train station and didn’t know which train to board to Holland. We saw a man on a bike and asked him which train was going to there. He looked nervous, as if he knew we were Jews. The man plastered a fake smile onto his lips despite being nervous.
“Oh just go straight, Mister. The train will be that way.”
My father thanked him and we were on our way to that train. I looked back, and saw him turn his head briskly as he carried on with his bike ride. So many obstacles were in the way at this time, so many Jews were leaving. So many cries of children and wives; men, too.
As we were standing in the long line to have our pass checked I turned my head to see an old white haired Jewish woman being kicked and tumbling down the stairs. I was already scared, knowing this, too, could happen to me, a Jew. I swallowed as I stepped forth with my family. We set our papers on the table when we nervously noticed we didn’t have the latest pass; a pink one, not blue. I thought deeply now as my heart rapped against my chest,
...We are going to die. We are going to die...They will see we do not have our pass ...and we will surely die.
A sob caught in my throat as the German soldier reached for our papers. Suddenly, shiny black boots were before me, tightly laced, ankle high. I looked up to see the Gestapo walking toward the steel table, monstrous gun slung over his burly arm. I wanted to scream, I wanted to pray to G-d. I was surprised at this moment as the Officer "tripped,” and our papers flew about.
“They are fine, these Jews. They can board the train. Let them go.” His deep voice cut the cold air like his bright blue eyes, meeting my own as if saying, "You're welcome." I wanted to smile but had no time, as my parents carted me off to my uncertain future.
Finally boarding the train, supposedly on our way to Holland, we soon discovered we were really traveling to Prague. I watched out the window as we rolled away from the home I had lived in for eight years, ever since I was born. We sat on that train for over three hours; scared, hungry and bored.
Finally, we arrived in Prague, Czechoslovakia. We soon learned we weren’t safe here, either. Thankfully, we found the "Underground" ready to help Jews, and obtained train tickets to Münster, Germany.
A few weeks later, we had train tickets in hand to travel out of Prague. Sent to Münster, Germany, Rabbi Florsheim would protect us until the train to Amsterdam arrived. We had missed the first train, making us two hours late.
I shivered in the cold as my Father knocked on the door. For some while, we were alone, out in the cold, waiting. Time was running out and panic was consuming my father since our papers were gone and Gestapo was everywhere. In a panic, he grabbed up some pebbles and hurled them at the Rabbi’s window. Finally, a head poked out of the door.
"Oh, it is you, Fritz Löwy! Louise, and your two children. I thought you were the Gestapo." He chuckled nervously and let us in.
A few days later we left the Rabbi’s home to go to the train station to depart Münster, Germany heading to Amsterdam. Before we left his home, he stopped my parents and spoke to them in whispered tones.
"I have a sister in America named Alice. She has a daughter named Judy. She was married to a German doctor, but he died in a ski accident. So I told her to go to America because she hates snow. I want you to meet her. She will help you when you arrive in America.” My father nodded.
“Good-bye Rabbi Florsheim. May G-d be with you!" my mother called out as we left the home of the Rabbi. Sadly, that was our last time we saw him.
We traveled across all of Europe by train, making our way to Holland. I sat on the train seat and played with my teddy bear alone, not having anyone to talk to, not allowed to. I was scared of what was going on, being as young I was, now ten. We had been on the run for almost two years now, scared and in panic. I was taken away from what I had known and was being tossed into the unknown. I was tumbling down a rabbit's hole, being chased.
The train stopped hours later in Holland and it was time to go. We got off the train, hand in hand and started walking down the crowded streets of Amsterdam. We finally came to the home we were given directions to; a woman named Antonia was supposed to take us in for three weeks before we got on our ship to America.
Those three weeks for me were boring, sitting in an attic where we could not move around much or speak above a whisper, where we could not laugh and were brought food. My mother complained about the soup we were given, the pork. She said we were vegetarians although we were not. At our beautiful green home we had had two cooks, no meat could touch vegetables. We were a strictly kosher family and despised the pork that now floated in our food.
After our three weeks in Amsterdam it was our time to sail to America. I felt a smile stretching onto my lips when I heard we were leaving to America. In later years I had found out we were the very last ship out of Germany, Holland, and anywhere destined to America that was not in danger of being sent back.
One day I decided I would leave the bottom port, where it swayed and was filled with refugees. I wanted to see what it was like outside. I held onto the metal railing as I stumbled up each step, one at a time. The light that hit my face was bright, yellow and warm. I walked across the wooden deck, staring down at my worn black shoes before I looked up and there I saw it; Lady Liberty. My eyes widened with amazement at this beautiful green woman, and her torch of flames. I couldn’t stand seeing it by myself, seeing New York by myself, I just had to share.
We had to change our names; my parents demanded it, my brother also. I didn’t want to but my mother said we had to, we couldn’t let the Gestapo find us. “But why must I change my name, have a middle name?” I cried out with tears in my eyes.
My mother gave me a stern look, her eyes narrowed. “Because you need to. Pick a name and a middle name. Americans have middle names, we are now American.”
I knew there was no argument; no way I could get out of it. Finally I decided on the name Joan Caroline Lee. I was no longer Hana Löwy.
In person I never forgave my mother all these years after she stole away my home. I was meaning to one day but I just never could, I hated her too much. Now I need to, now I will. I will thank her for what she did, thank her for saving me. She threw all she knew away too. She did this for us, for me. She got us to America, to safety.
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Place yourself in a survivor’s shoes. Life is better now and you are alive. Everyone you hated is gone. You never got to forgive them. Will you forgive them now?
Why did you choose this story, event, or person?
I wrote this story about my Great Grandmother Joan because a story such as hers has not been heard. You hear stories of escapees late in the war and people say those are survivors, so why can’t my Great Grandmother be one too? I wanted my Great Grandmother Joan’s story to be heard but not just by me and my family, but by a whole nation of people. I was really connected with her as she told her story; I was her for a moment of time.
What did you learn from this story, event, or person?
I learned from my Great Grandmother that when a war is going on, killing off your people like flies getting hit by a swatter; you need to hold something close, your family. She didn’t love her family and hated her mother for taking her away from what she knew and loved. She never had the chance to apologize for being difficult for her own mother has long passed, she now knows she has to forgive. One way was to tell me her story, so I can understand family.
Family is important, I learned. Even if you hate them you need to hold them close. Because of my Great Grandmother’s story I hold my family closer. If a war went on now, I know I would be reluctant about leaving, but in the end I would. I learned of forgiveness. Her mother did something dangerous, something she didn’t have to but did, in order to save her daughter’s life. I understand now why my mother is so harsh about things; like being late, not asking before doing things, like not saying where I was or where I am going, is because she loves me. She wants to keep me safe, like Hana’s mother did.
I learned numerous things from my Great Grandmother’s story. Hold yourself close, don’t cry and kick, but hold your family even closer.