by Zoe Merritt (Class of 2022)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
Ginette Hersh was born five years shy of a century ago in 1927. For myself, that number is purely conceptual and incredibly distant. For Hersh however, she remembers as if it was yesterday. Sitting down with Ginette Hersh, one of the first things that struck me was that she was French, sharp and to the point, warm and witty, matter of fact. When you’ve been through hell and live to tell the tale, things might need to be handled that way.
As we began introductions, the pit of anxiety in my stomach grew smaller as she told me about the cotton in her mouth from a broken tooth, concerned with whether or not it would show up in the video. There was nothing to worry about, she looked great.
Just before the cameras started rolling, Bette Zaret, one of the key coordinators of the interviews, leaned down by my seat: “Don’t forget to ask her how she met her husband at the end,” Zaret whispered in my ear.
It’s incredibly romantic in the way that coincidences can work. On the way to Lyon, a boy helped her grandmother, who had an infant and Hersh’s cousin with her, to go south to be with the rest of the family. Years later, Hersh would meet this boy again around the very end of the war. They got married July 28, 1950. She told the story of meeting him closer to the end of our interview, ending with a note of hope.
Reaching into her purse, Hersh pulled out the first of many photos: a class picture. Both her and Zaret challenged me to pick twelve-year-old Hersh out among the crowd.
“June 14, 1940 is the day that picture that I showed you of the class,” Hersh said a little while later. “Yes, it was the day before we left. It was taken because it was June 8, the beginning of vacation.”
Though she never continued her education after the war, Hersh was able to get some schooling, where she learned English.
“I was hiding in school, so I was lucky,” she said. Both she and her brother were “Hidden Children,” as they’re known today.
Hersh was hidden in boarding schools, her younger brother either with their parents or in monasteries. When we began talking about the journey her family made from their home in Dijon at the start of the war. Hersh pulled out a piece of paper. It was a map of France in color, carefully labeled and marked. There was a star over Dijon. Her finger retraced the escape her family made to Lyon sixty years ago.
It was after this part of the interview that she talked about reuniting with her uncle and cousins, how her grandmother was able to join them, and her aunt Rochelle’s sacrifice.
“I am going to tell you the story of my Aunt Rochelle,” Hersh said, stating the shift in conversation as decidedly as she always did that day.
I had no idea what was coming next, except that Hersh needed to share it with me. Rochelle was taken by the police from her store.
“He said because we are taking all the Jews to the police station. So she understood what was going on. So she said to the policeman, Look, I will go with you quietly. Let my mother and my children go” said Ginette.
Hearing her talk about her aunt felt like I was listening to a woman fulfill a duty. In their stories, Holocaust survivors keep family, friends, coworkers, and strangers alive. In tragedy, the stories of the living keep safe within them innumerable dead.
I noticed that throughout the interview she would lead a story with “I have to tell you a story,” phrasing that I found stuck with me in its honesty. She was here to tell me the many stories that make up her singular story. More than anything, it was one word that gave this phrase weight: “Have.” With fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors left today, the need for their stories of survival has never been so strong. Underneath every chance or decision to tell her story is a drive to do so.
Today we know a lot about the Holocaust and both World Wars. Mountains of information are at our fingertips if we choose to learn. Names, places, dates, battles, leaders, numbers, and story upon story upon story. Eighty years later and a continent away, Holocaust history is condensed for students in class. To understand this tragedy through hearing the first-person account of a survivor is a privilege.
“We were under the false impression that women were not in danger even though they were Jewish. We thought only the men were in danger,” Hersh said about her aunt. “But we were wrong.”
At a cafe with her father to sell diamonds from a piece of jewelry, a man ran in, telling everyone that he had jumped off a train taking people to a concentration camp to be gassed.
“And you know what? Nobody believed him because we didn’t think such an inhuman thing was happening, but we knew nothing,” she said. “We didn’t have a leader, we didn’t have a newspaper, we didn’t have a book. We didn’t have anything.”
This is why Holocaust history matters, as obvious as that may seem to many today. There’s a phrase that says history is written by the victors. Realistically, history is written by those who have the resources and power to do so. That power has been in our hands for a long time, and we must continue to use it. They survived, they are here, and they are sharing the most traumatic events of their lives.
At the end of the interview, I asked Hersh why she tells her story. Her words are going to stick with me for as long as I live.
“I’m telling my story because I want the world to know that there was such a thing as a Holocaust. My granddaughter is a teacher in a school that their curriculum is not to talk about Jewish history of the Holocaust or black history of the horrible things that happened to the black people years ago. And I think that it should be taught everywhere, and whenever I’m asked to speak in a school, I’m always there. No matter what I have to do, I will come to the school first. I am a survivor…my aim in life and in my old age is to tell the children that there was such a thing as the Holocaust, and I survived it.”