I know lots of people are feeling frustrated by the pandemic because they can't get out and socialize the way they'd like to. But then there's Dr. Eva Olsson. She too is exasperated, but for a different reason. You see, Eva can't talk to classes of school kids, and that's got her in a funk.
Eva Olsson's 95 years old. She'll be 96 in October. And what does she speak to kids about? Hatred. And bullying. And appealing for tolerance. And the importance of putting an end to name calling. She offers a strong message that bullying, racial slurs and standing by and doing nothing should never be tolerated.
Now, where does Eva Olsson get off speaking abut this? Well, Eva was born in Hungary back in 1924. As a Jew, she was one of millions of people rounded up by the Nazis in World War II where she went on to experience horrid, soul-destroying conditions in well known concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. It was from the latter site that she was liberated by British and Canadian soldiers on April 15th, 1945. Listen to Eva telling her story of forced incarceration…
"We were ordered to pack our bags and we were told we have two hours and that we have to march to the railway station that was seven kilometers away from where the ghetto was. We were shoved into the box car, approximately about a hundred people, like sardines in a can. With two pails, one had water in it for drinking and the other one was for use as a toilet. We cannot imagine unless we had been there the smell of human waste. This pail was flowing over and you're standing in it. And people were crying and people were praying. And I see the images of my mother squatting down in a corner hugging her grandchildren. I was very close to my mum, I asked her, 'Why are you crying, mum?' She said, 'I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for all of the children. I have lived.' She was 49. Hell was in those box cars where people died from lack of oxygen. And to see young mothers not being able to feed their infant. This was a four-day hell."
Eva continues, "They told us they're taking us to Germany to work in a brick factory. The sign said Auschwitz. And we have never heard of Auschwitz before, although people had already been dying there for two years. When this cattle car's opened from the outside, some people had a sigh of relief, 'Now we are going to have fresh air and we are going to have water.' Except for us, there was no water and the air was nauseating. We couldn't relate it to anything we have ever... it was worse than the box cars. There was smoke coming out of the chimney, high towers, machine guns. I turned to my mum and I said, 'This doesn't look like a brick factory.' No, Auschwitz was not a brick factory, it was a killing factory. The smell that we smelled was the smell of human flesh burning."
Now you see why Eva Olsson gets to speak about the power of hate and the need to stop it wherever it occurs. She focuses on bullying in society when she speaks to kids in schools, the importance of not being a bystander when bad things are going down. "Evil thrives when good people stand back and let it happen," she tells them. "People must stand together to oppose evil."
I'm proud to call Eva a friend. I spoke to her on April 15th, the 75th anniversary of her liberation from Bergen-Belsen. There, overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions had caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, etc. which lead to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, just before and after the liberation. Eva told me she saw Anne Frank die there, a mere two months before the troops arrived to set them free. Eva herself nearly died from typhus, but she told me she was absolutely determined NOT to die there! If she had to die, so be it, but it wouldn't be there! She's made of stern stuff.
I talked again with Eva a few days later, on April 21st, this time to recognize Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Indeed, I've also been chatting with her about a friend of mine who wants to interview her for a book about her grandfather, a member of the British and Canadian forces that liberated Bergen-Belsen. And we've talked about Dr. Stephen Smith, who I learned about from a "60 Minutes" story, who is doing work with Holocaust Survivors and the Visual History Archive in California.
So yes, for those of you frustrated because you can't socialize with your pals, take heart: this too will end. But as you have that celebratory beer to mark the occasion, I hope you'll take a moment to think of Eva Olsson who once again will be free, speaking to students, sharing her words of tolerance and the importance of avoiding bullying. It'll take more than a pandemic to clam her up!
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