We were visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, – 21 eighth graders, two teachers, and several adult tag-alongs. (I was one of the tag-alongs.) Soon after we cleared security, before the group had dispersed to walk through the museum, one of the teachers called the group aside into a small alcove. He had just met an elderly couple, and he wanted us to meet them too.
Mr. Pohl was in a wheelchair, though he looked quite healthy for a man in his eighties. Mrs. Pohl, also eighty-something, was pushing the wheelchair, and with them was a younger woman who looked to be their daughter. They were fashionably dressed, spoke excellent English, and appeared eager to speak to us. They were Holocaust survivors.
Mrs. Pohl spoke first. She had spent a total of six years in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, having been taken into the concentration camp archipelago at age 14. It was, interestingly, the age of the kids in our group. Her husband also had been at Auschwitz, and unlike many Holocaust survivors, he wore short sleeves. When she mentioned Auschwitz, he held his arm out and pointed to his black identification tattoo still clearly visible about mid-forearm. He didn’t say a word, but the mark on his arm spoke volumes. The kids gave their full attention as she continued.
After the war, they spent about four more years in a displaced persons camp. During that time, Mr. Pohl had looked her up (they had been childhood playmates), and after he located her, they were married. They eventually came to America, and now are the proud progenitors of several children and grandchildren. They just celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.
“Some people will tell you this never happened,” Mrs. Pohl said in a deep voice, looking straight at the kids. “But this,” and here she pointed out of the alcove toward the museum atrium, “this is the true history.” Neither she nor her husband seemed to harbor any bitterness or anger, but when she spoke her face took on the intensity of one who has seen unspeakable things and knows deep suffering.
“This is the true story of what happened,” she said. “Never forget.”
“Go to school,” Mr. Pohl broke his silence, “and never forget.”