To Love Humanity Again

by Lauri Gwilt
June 15, 2017
To Love Humanity Again

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. 

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Thank You Lauri for sharing this encouraging story. A beautiful example of how so many world wide are coming together promoting love rather than hatred and evil. Sparks in the dark come together to make a glorious light of celebration!

When I saw this image I instantly associated it with my recent life event. We have experienced sadness when our interim pastor, who brought joy and wisdom to our church for only for a brief few weeks, had a heart attack that took him from us. A beautiful soul who radiated love and hope and wisdom to a congregation in need of it...only to be taken from us before we considered his work done. He is truly a bright flower that we are now separated from by a "fence", but only for a while until we join him in heaven.

Thank you!

For me, it is obvious that you two were brought together, just as Robbie and Leon reconnected. The story of the Holocaust is real (in spite of the few who disagree) and needs to be told and retold by the few survivors who remain. I dread the day when the last survivor passes on and it will only be these amazingly touching, heart wrenching, documented stories that will remain as proof of the devastation and travesty that occurred in our lifetime. Your story touched me also, Lauri. You were 12 when Ella died - too young to really know what questions to ask. Our 12 year old grandson was going to watch a movie about the Holocaust at school last week the day we left. His father talked to him before he went to be sure he knew the significance of what he was to learn. I have not talked to him yet, but am so glad that he will have this as a tool to reinforce his belief, as Robbie said, to choose "peace, tolerance and acceptance". My husband and I watched "Unbroken" last night - a movie about Louis Zamperini, the Olympic track star who survived a plane crash in World War II, only to fight for his life against nature and eventually as a prisoner of war." I am thankful for the many written stories and movies that show us survival, strength, hope and resiliency - be it is religious bias, racism, war or daily trials, the ability to come through your experience without the hatred that was the key to your inflictions - is a priceless life-lesson. Thanks again, Lauri, for your powerful blog!!

This is what will keep our lives filled with hope and love. I try to ignore much of what is in the news these days, especially what comes out of Washington DC. Your stories are what will move us forward with positivity, embracing each other with open arms.

I could not agree more Bella, thank you for taking a moment to offer such an encouraging comment. Our collective stories make a difference...

Thank you for sharing that inspiring story. It's so easy to close down and get bitter as we experience some of the harsh realities of life and the darker side of humanity.

It is indeed easy to close down and get bitter in response to the darker side. Your comment reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther King, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that." I think Robbie lives this quote.

Wonderful example and reflection on what we can do to draw from our wells of compassion, kindness, love when the humanity of the world has shown a shadow side.

Thank you for taking a moment to add some wonderful language to this post, MJ. "...draw from the wells of compassion", that offers such wonderful mental imagery and I could not agree more.

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