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Ice Cream Saturdays
Ice Cream Saturdays
Just the sound of the word sends shivers down my spine. Holocaust. I hear the familiar sound of chalk on the blackboard. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up; I slide down in my seat. The term generally used to describe the killing of approximately six million European Jews during World War II.
Sydney and Rebecca pass me a note about John’s alleged party this upcoming Saturday. I do not pay any attention to this; I crinkle it up and put it under my binder without even glancing their way. The feeling in my stomach -- bricks of air piling up like the Tetris game blocks on surrounding cell phones. Girls place their pocketbooks on their desks habitually; their heads remain glued to their tiny cell phone screens like squirrels burying their nuts for the winter. The girls remain completely oblivious to their appearance while disregarding and disrespecting their teacher and the six million dead mothers, boyfriends, brothers, fathers, and even teenage girls just like them.
Concentration camps were established in which inmates were used for slave labor until they died of exhaustion or disease. The air bricks keep piling up, faster now, forcing me to take long exaggerated breaths. Holocaust. There it is again; this nine-letter word that defines much of my life; the same nine-letter word that clearly means nothing to those around me.
The day was like any other, a Friday during 9th period social studies, counting down the minutes until the final bell -- part of the reason the sudden, casual use of this unbearable word hit me like a bullet. Mr. Mower continues with his lecture, emotionless, reciting the words as if there was an imaginary person holding queue cards in front of him.
I look at the clock. Five minutes left. Rachel, hang in there; only five more minutes. For the next few weeks, we will be working on an assignment to learn about the Holocaust through the eyes of someone who was there. The class lets out a unanimous groan. I remain silent, feeling as though even the smallest peep out of my mouth might rupture an avalanche. You are to interview a Holocaust survivor and write a four-page paper telling his or her story. I do not want a research paper. You must really get into his or her thoughts and emotions to give me the sense of what it felt like to be in his or her shoes.
I knew this was coming. I knew the Holocaust would be something we learned about in school, but of all assignments, it had to be this one. I have a list of contact numbers of Holocaust survivors to interview. Raise your hand if you have a grandparent that was a Holocaust survivor. I sit still and motionless. My arm is paralyzed to my side. Sydney addresses her question to me but in the quiet room filled with half-dead teenagers everyone hears, “Rachel isn’t your Bubbe a Holocaust survivor?” Mr. Mower looks over at me. “Is this true Rachel?” The bell rings. My classmates, suddenly hearing the bell have a surge of newfound energy, grab their books and hurry out. I walk slowly behind, not wanting to leave school. Mr. Mower walks over to me.
“Rachel, your grandmother is a Holocaust survivor?” I nod my head. “You are very lucky; you have an advantage over everyone. All you need to do is sit with your grandmother and listen to everything she has to say, although you probably already know everything about her story.”
That was the problem. I did not know anything about my Bubbe’s story. When I was a little girl, my Bubbe would take my siblings and me out for ice cream every Saturday. One exceptionally sunny Saturday, when my Bubbe reached into her pocketbook to take out her wallet, I noticed a blue number written on her arm. At such a young age, I started laughing because to me it looked so silly that my Bubbe had what I assumed to be faded royal blue marker on her soft wrinkled arm. I reached out and touched the number, little did my six-year-old brain know that I had touched a painful wound, and my Bubbe began to cry. I was startled by this, not knowing why she was crying. My oldest sister ran to my Bubbe, put her arm around her and consoled her. My Bubbe and my sister walked out and I could hear my Bubbe’s frighteningly uncontrollable whimpering and sobbing like an animal stuck under a burning house. The three small cups of strawberry, chocolate, and rocky road sat lined up on the counter. The white spoons taunted me as I walked out. I began to grab my glimmering ice cream as the clerk screamed after my Bubbe. My brother yelled at me, but he too did not know why he was yelling, just that I had done something wrong again, and it was his duty to put me in place seeing that I was the baby.
It was not until I began Hebrew school two years later that I found meaning for the blue marker on my Bubbe’s forearm. My teacher had written the nine-letter word Holocaust on the board but he was cut off because it was 6:00 p.m. and he knew better than to keep suburban New Jersey mothers waiting. When we arrived home, I asked my mom what the Holocaust was. I will always remember the look she wore on her face, as if it was my time, it was my destiny to ask this simple question. Her face revealed a look that told me that she had been preparing for just this precise moment since the day I was born. My mother sat me down and told me everything but I only heard and did not listen. Her words belonged in storybooks containing make believe tales with pictures. For an eight-year-old, what she told me was worse than frightening -- it was unrealistic. This happened to my Bubbe; the same Bubbe that took my siblings and me out for ice cream every Saturday? She had a number burned into her arm, a number that became her identity? She lost her mommy and daddy, sisters and brothers? Impossible.
The words my mother used haunted me every night while I slept but at the same time, I remained fascinated. My mother brought me home “The Diary of Anne Frank” to feed my curiosity. I opened the book and turned straight to the glossy pictures. I saw lifeless faces, bones protruding out of bodies, men stacked on bunk beds with hard metal bowls as pillows. I saw bare shaved heads; I saw agony and pain; I saw pleading eyes, and I saw the obnoxious black and white stripes of the work uniforms. My eyes were drawn to the healthy-looking guards laughing with guns and swastikas; I saw the barbed wire, and I saw “124506.” This girl, probably about my age, without a name only numbers to serve as her identity. The Nazis dehumanized her. She stared at me and I realized that she was my Bubbe. She was my mom, this girl, 124506 was me. I snapped the cover shut, nauseous; the room was spinning while the sudden realization that these things were real replayed on repeat mode inside my head. My Bubbe was 124506; she had an itchy, bald head, obnoxious black-and-white uniform and those pleading, heart- wrenching eyes. As I grew up, these pictures and ideas were locked up in a chamber inside my brain, a chamber that would never be opened. I felt that if I spoke about it, the lock would unlatch and all these evil, terrifying things would come pouring out. â€¨
The Holocaust rarely came up in conversation but when it did, I looked the other way. My Bubbe still took us for ice cream every Saturday but she was different to me. When I looked at her, I saw 124506 not Helen Wald, not the old Bubbe I used to know. We never spoke about the number incident and we never spoke about the Holocaust. I had so many things I wanted to know, to ask her, but was afraid of opening Pandora’s forbidden box.
I walk into my house through the garage and wipe my feet at the door. My Bubbe is sitting at the table eating an apple. No one else is home. How can I interview her? I cannot do it, I cannot, impossible. I say hello, kiss her, walk half way up the stairs, and walk back down. All those provocative questions stored inside me over the years compel me to turn back around and sit down next to her.
“Bubbe, what were your teenage years like; did you have the prom back then; a boyfriend?” I blurt out.
“I didn’t have teenage years. I spent my days in Auschwitz, fighting for my life.”
Something inside me wants to reach out and hold her. I want to get up and sit with her and let her cry, but I cannot get up, I am glued to seat. My Bubbe speaks, she tells me everything…I do not hear the words, I listen. I listen with all my heart and my soul. I listen for my children, my mother, and the six million killed. I listen for those who say the Holocaust never occurred, those who say it is impossible. I listen for 124506 and the poor souls with the pleading eyes in the obnoxious black-and-white uniforms.
This Friday was like any other, ninth period social studies class, counting down the minutes until the final bell. Mr. Mower announces that he will be handing back our Holocaust papers, and the class lets out a unanimous groan. I do not have air-bricks inside my stomach, just bricks. After handing back three papers, Mr. Mower calls my name. He hands my paper back to me and asks me to read aloud from the last page. I do.
There are those who say the Holocaust never occurred. Although survivors, such as my own Bubbe are alive today, they still claim that it never happened. I could sit here all day and tell you that I was never one of them, those ignorant Holocaust deniers, but I would be lying. I am a third-generation witness to the Holocaust and until this project was assigned, I knew nothing. I have taken it upon myself to be my Bubbe’s undying voice. I will share her story with anyone and everyone who is willing to listen to ensure that the Holocaust will never be forgotten or repeated. The Nazis tried to dehumanize the Jews with numbers. If we forget the Holocaust, if we forget those individuals who were affected, those people will become nothing but numbers and the Nazi’s will have won.
When the bell rang, I dashed out of the classroom, past Sydney and Rebecca and their overflowing heads filled with gossip. I went straight home and wrote down a list of questions. My Bubbe takes my siblings and me out for ice cream every Saturday; however, the things we discuss are far more important than the treats we devour.