The day 81-year-old Romek (Robbie) Waisman boarded the plane and occupied the seat next to me is a day I will remember forever. He had a kind face and a gentle way about him that instantly put me at ease. As we settled in for the long flight I noticed his boarding pass said ‘Vancouver’, which was unusual to see in Omaha, Nebraska. I was curious to know what brought him to the Heartland. His answer was the furthest thing from what I expected.
“I am a Holocaust Survivor”, Robbie offered. “I was in Buchenwald concentration camp from ages 11-14, and we were in Nebraska talking to school children about that story, in hopes of inspiring them to choose peace, tolerance and acceptance."
For the next two flights and eight hours Robbie told me story after story, and we cried together as each story unfolded. I listened, inquired, contemplated and absorbed this firsthand account of what it was like during this time – which is a story I have been personally connected to since I was a child.
I was raised in the 60’s by a single mother. While she was at work teaching during the day I was cared for until the age of 7 by Ella, who had been a nurse in Germany during the war. While she loved and cared for me without question, the impact of her experiences were evident. She passed when I was just 12-years-old, long before I could ask the questions I have now as an adult. Robbie generously shared his experiences with me and patiently answered every one of my questions. I hung on his every syllable as he explained what this was like to live through, and more importantly, how he learned to love humanity again.
“I was fourteen years old when we were liberated from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945", Robbie continued. "It was late afternoon when I saw some black American soldiers.” He told me he approached one of those soldiers, 18-year-old Leon Bass. He remembers reaching out to touch him, “I had never seen a black person before. I wasn’t sure if Leon was real, or if I had died and this is what angels looked like.” At the time Robbie’s only language was Polish, Leon's English, which meant they didn’t speak to each other that day, but later would discover they both vividly remembered their encounter.
Following liberation, many of the Buchenwald children were sent to France. Years later Robbie found his way to Canada and in 1983, while working at UBC, a colleague showed him a picture from that day in 1945. There, before Robbie’s eyes, was a picture of Leon Bass. They now shared the same language and Robbie was eager to reconnect with Leon. What I would later come to learn, is that it was Leon who had traveled to Nebraska with Robbie. Leon was now 85-years-old and Leon had many stories of his own to share from that time, including what it was like to be a black man in the forties in the military. Robbie added, “Since we've reconnected, Leon and I have toured all over the world sharing our stories - promoting peace, tolerance and acceptance. The resilience of the human spirit is unbelievable.”
The fact that Robbie found the capacity within himself, after such horrific experiences, to offer care and love for humanity is a massive transformation to try and comprehend. He was given the worst the world had to offer and yet he continues to make the conscious choice to celebrate what's right with it. He doesn’t ignore the bad, but he also doesn’t stay centered on it, he deliberately shifts his focus to the good. Robbie demonstrated to me that it’s not the circumstances that determine how we look at the world, but rather how we choose to respond. Our choice. Everyday.