This blog is about a woman I met on an airplane in 1994 (and written shortly after that) because it was just Yom HaShoah -- a remembrance day of those who perished in the Holocaust.
In my writing career I have often written Holocaust survivor stories for newspapers and magazines, and I believe in the importance of sharing as many eyewitness accounts as possible. No two stories are the same, and it always amazes me how people clung to their will to live despite atrocities that the world had never seen before.
Back to the woman I met on an airplane: I was totally exhausted after a whirlwind trip to the Middle East several years ago. I went on the trip with a large young Jewish Ambassador type of group, where I visited places such as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, and at the end I was both physically and mentally drained.
Our group flew El Al back to New York and I sat in a seat next to an elderly lady who immediately and pleasantly introduced herself as Flora, and she seemed eager to chat, though I was in no mood for small talk. I had averaged about 2-3 hours of sleep a night for 10 days, but I always have trouble sleeping on planes, so though I closed my eyes for a bit, I failed to doze off. When I gave up on that and opened a magazine, Flora, the elderly lady next to me pounced on this opportunity to converse. She was bubbly, friendly, and wanted to know what I did for a living and what I was doing in Israel. I told her I was a writer, and mentioned that I had written Holocaust survivor stories, because I also told her about the impact of some of the things I saw at Yad Vashem.
Flora changed the subject right away, and said in a sly way with a thick Yiddish type of accent, "Maybe you know mine son -- he is very famous."
She reached into her purse and pulled out a photo of KISS rock group leader Gene Simmons, in full makeup, sticking his tongue out in his trademark pose.
I looked at her as she beamed with pride at her rocker son, and acknowledged, "Wow, Gene Simmons is your son!"
"Yes, yes, oh you know him! I told you he was quite famous!"
Even more animated now, she told me how he had just sent her on a lovely vacation to a spa in the Dead Sea, and she thought he was the most wonderful son in the world.
Story after story, she regaled me with her delight of having a son who made a name for himself and who was quite generous to his mother. Her pride in her only child was touching.
She told me Gene was born in Israel and she came to the U.S. as a single mom. They had a very tough go of it for many years. This made his success even more thrilling.
Finally, as she was tiring a bit, she whispered to me that she wasn't originally from Israel.
"I was from Hungary, and I too survived the Holocaust," she said, and she turned to look in the other direction as if there was shame attached to it.
Using all the sensitivity I could muster, I asked her if her Holocaust story had been written yet, because I would love to read it or hear about it.
Flora faced me again with a stone face. "My dear, I can never unlock that door and bring up those memories, because if I did, I would go crazy and never come back," she said.
I knew this was a commonplace reaction of survivors. Looking at her, my mind began spinning around so many different horrible scenarios of her life from what I had already read or wrote; either surviving as a Jew on the run, or as a death camp survivor.
Many Holocaust survivors cannot and will not speak of their experiences, though ones that eventually do find it extremely healing and cathartic.
I didn't push her though. I gave her my card and told her to call me if she wanted someone trustworthy to speak to and write about her experience.
And with that, she drifted off to sleep, and when she awoke the plane was landing in New York.
I was sorry that her joy in sharing who her son was with me completely left her when she admitted that she was a survivor. I could only imagine the burden of keeping those demon memories far from her conscious mind.
I also thought how important it could be to tell the story of a survivor whose son was as high profile as Gene Simmons, and wondered how many countless people would never tell their stories or could never tell them.
When we landed, we said our pleasant farewells, and her mood had brightened again. She was soon to see her precious only son, Gene Simmons. No matter if her story had to remain a secret locked away within her; she was a survivor who, despite her devastating losses, has a son to carry on the family line.
For other survivor stories, you can check out Steven Spielberg's Shoah Video History Library.
Read my regular blog at www.arlenelassin.com