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Moving Portraits of the Young Survivors of Norway’s Massacre
Ylva Helen Schwenke, 15, was shot five times. “I carry my scars with dignity, because I got them for something I believe in,” she said. “It’s my attitude in life, it keeps me standing. This is how things are, and I have to deal with it. It helps no one if I sink into depression, least of all myself, so I keep my head up and focus on the good things in life.”
On July 22, 2011, a car bomb killed eight people at the executive government building in Oslo, Norway. Shortly thereafter, Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the bombing in Oslo, opened fire at a summer youth camp for members of the Labor Party on the island of Utøya, killing 69 (mostly young) people and wounding many more 500 people survived.
Working as a photo editor at the time, Andrea Gjestvang started taking photographs of the carnage in Oslo, using her camera to help her navigate through the horrific scene.
“I was very scared and confused, almost paralyzed,” she wrote via email about taking the pictures. “One part of me wanted to get as far as possible away from the site, as we didn’t know what was going on. Another part of me was desperate to take pictures. Without my camera I didn’t know what to do, where to go, and how to deal with what I saw.”
Focusing on the event was one thing, but Gjestvang wanted to concentrate on the repercussions of the killings in a deeper way. “For a while it seemed like people in Norway suffered from a kind of ‘22 nd of July fatigue,’ but then it is even more important to remind [people] of the fact that the survivors are real people who actually live with this experience every day,” she said.
Her series “One Day in History” (and subsequent book En Dag i Historien) focuses on the survivors of the shootings on Utøya. Gjestvang wanted to explore “in depth the individual consequences for the survivors.”
To do that, she traveled around Norway to meet the young people in their homes. She kept things simple, working with natural light and with one camera, and she followed the lead of her subjects regarding how much they wanted to expose on camera.
“Some people have asked why I show the injuries in such a direct way in the photographs,” Gjestvang said. “But if the youth are not ashamed of the damages, why should I be the one holding them back and telling them to hide their bodies? I admire their courage and openness.”
Gjestvang has kept in touch with the people she photographed, many of whom felt grateful for the chance to speak for themselves and to be part of the project. “Staying emotionally detached while capturing the moods of these young people has been impossible,” Gjestvang wrote. “But I am not afraid of blending in my own emotions while working on a project.”
Once she started showing the images, Gjestvang was overwhelmed with the attention she received. She won the L’Iris d’Or prize at the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards. “I did not expect it,” she wrote via email. “But on the other hand I think the stories of the survivors deserve the attention.”
“A Day in History” has also been a tremendous growing experience for Gjestvang’s career as a photographer. “This project has made me take my role and myself as a photographer in a more earnest way,” she explained. “I have experienced how a work can grow from a tiny idea in my head to one seen by—and moved by—people around the world. This was my way to respond to the terror attack on July 22. My aim is to create a different historical document that can contribute to the public debate, by reminding that terror is not all about politics. It is about the many people who get their lives changed forever.”
The opportunity to meet and interview holocaust survivors is part of a program called "Encountering Survivors," run by the Jewish Federation of Southeastern Connecticut's Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center. Primus has been part of the program since its inception and continues to share her late parents' story with students from the region.
Past participants in the program have included students and teachers from the Norwich Free Academy, Bacon Academy, New London High School, Fitch High School in Groton, Ledyard High School, and Leonard J. Tyl Middle School in Montville. Each group receives a lesson from Linda Christensen, the Holocaust Resource Coordinator, on how to conduct an oral interview before meeting with local Holocaust survivors in their homes.
"Video and audio doesn't bring history to life as much as meeting the person who's been through it," said Marot, whose students at New London High were among the most recent participants.
Before meeting Primus, Augmon said he knew the basic history about how the Nazis forced the Jews into Concentration Camps as part of a widespread program of genocide. What he didn't realize until he met Primus, however, was that before the Nazis came to power in Germany, Jews weren't widely discriminated against.
"It never entered my mind that before the Holocaust, Jews were OK. It didn't seem like too many people were prejudiced," he said. "The fact that this torment struck was a lot to take in. It was so unexpected."
Hearing about the Holocaust from someone who'd been through it also brought home the importance of passing down memories through the generations. That's one of the primary missions of the Encountering Survivors program, and it becomes increasingly important as fewer survivors are left to tell their stories.
The experience made Augmon curious to learn more about his own family history, particularly to find out more about his paternal grandparents, who died before he had a chance to know them.
"You start to realize the more the years go by, the more history could become diluted," says Augmon.
Pena, meanwhile, came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of what it took for the Strochlitz family to survive and with a deep admiration for the family's ability to thrive after arriving in the United States.
"I was going back and forth wondering how did they get the strength to go on? I don't know if I would have gotten over it," Pena said.
Survivors Of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Share Eyewitness Accounts
Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, tells a congressional hearing: "I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot." Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images hide caption
Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, tells a congressional hearing: "I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
The day that a white mob came to Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Okla., Viola Fletcher was just 7 years old.
During emotional testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Fletcher, who is now 107, recalled her memories of the two-day massacre that left hundreds of Black people dead.
"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams," Fletcher told lawmakers. "I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."
Live Updates: Protests For Racial Justice
Tulsa Searches For Victims Of 1921 Race Massacre At New Site
Live Updates: Protests For Racial Justice
Oklahoma Lawsuit Seeks Reparations In Connection To 1921 Tulsa Massacre
Fletcher and two other survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, testified before a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Wednesday nearly 100 years to the date of the massacre. Some historians say as many as 300 Black people were killed and another 10,000 were left homeless. Greenwood was destroyed by the attack that was launched on May 31, 1921.
The country is currently grappling with systemic racism laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and the killings of George Floyd and other Black people in encounters with law enforcement. The same committee that heard from the survivors has also been studying reparations for the descendants of millions of enslaved Americans and recently advanced a bill that would create a commission to study the lingering effects of slavery.
Fletcher and other survivors are calling for justice.
"I am 107 years old and I have never . seen justice. I pray that one day I will," she said. "I have been blessed with a long life and have seen the best and the worst of this country. I think about the terror inflicted upon black people in this country every day."
Survivors of the massacre are plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit filed last year. The lawsuit argues that the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa are responsible for what happened during the massacre.
Van Ellis described the multiple unsuccessful attempts by survivors and their descendants to seek justice through the courts.
"You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you would go to the courts to be made whole," he said. "That wasn't the case for us."
"We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice, that we were less than the whites, that we weren't fully Americans," testified Van Ellis, who is a World War II veteran and wore a U.S. Army hat at the hearing. "We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under the law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared."
He called for the remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre to be acknowledged while they are still living.
"Please, do not let me leave this Earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors," he said, as he finished reading from prepared remarks.
Each of the survivors raised the question of what Greenwood could have been today.
House Lawmakers Advance Historic Bill To Form Reparations Commission
"Even at the age of 100, the Tulsa Race Massacre is a footnote in the history books of us. We live it every day and the thought of what Greenwood was or what it could have been," Ellis said.
Lessie Benningfield Randall, who testified over video conference, said the effects of the massacre are still felt today in Tulsa.
"My opportunities were taken from me and my community. Black Tulsa is still messed up today. They didn't rebuild it. It's empty, it's a ghetto," Randall, who is now 106, said.
Randall said she not only survived the massacre, but she has also now survived "100 years of painful memories."
"By the grace of God, I am still here. I have survived to tell this story," she said. "Hopefully, now you will all listen to us while we are still here."
Correction May 19, 2021
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the three massacre survivors testified on Tuesday. The hearing was on Wednesday.
East Bay Holocaust survivor, 83, shares history through a child’s eyes
When Edith Heine first went to school at age 7, she was terrified of everyone — teachers and students alike. She didn’t know how to talk to strangers.
“They asked me also my last name, and I didn’t know my last name,” the 83-year-old said in a recent interview with J. “We had to change it so often, and I was never allowed to tell my name. I had no idea what my name was!”
Heine is going to be sharing more of her story as the keynote speaker in Berkeley’s 18th annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, an online commemoration on April 8.
The young Edith didn’t know anything about school, or even how to interact with other children, because all she knew was the constant fear and stress of hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, where she was born after her parents fled their native Germany to avoid persecution.
Heine’s parents, Leo and Erna Levy, had been anti-Nazi activists, involved in a network of resistance, she said. Targeted by the authorities, they had gone to the Netherlands in the early 1930s.
“They applied for a visa to the United States. They knew they were not safe in Europe anymore,” she said. “But the Nazis had taken their business away, their money and even had taken their nationality away. They did that with the Jewish people. They had no rights anymore.”
Edith Heine’s parents before the Nazi invasion of Holland.
Denied a U.S. visa, they stayed in Amsterdam. Five years later, in 1938, Edith was born two years later, when the Germans invaded, the family was forced to go underground and stay on the move.
Heine remembers the war years with the clarity of a child who grew up in trauma.
“The Gestapo did always their roundups and were very noisy,” she remembered. “They banged on the doors, ‘Open the door!’ And if that didn’t happen immediately, they had very strong boots on and they kicked in the doors. Sometimes we had nothing to eat, we had to go from one place to another, in the cellars. And in another place where we had to go under the floorboards, we stood often in water there. I was starving.”
Five years of that life culminated in the hongerwinter, the famine of 1944-45. Unlike Anne Frank, who was also in hiding in Amsterdam, both Edith and her parents survived. (Heine didn’t know the Franks, although her first home had a yard that bordered theirs.) But the experience left a mark on her parents and her that was indelible.
“They constantly thought they will die. I had thought that also, my whole life. I’ve learned it’s to do with PTSD, but they didn’t know that at the time, about PTSD,” said Heine, who lives in El Sobrante. “I always thought I would never, never get old. When I was a teenager I thought I would be dead by 30. I never thought about my old age.”
When she was sent to school at 7, she was too frightened to attend and would play hooky and hang out with stray dogs. Eventually, though, she was sent to a new school for Jewish children, which she liked better. “I slowly but surely learned how to act with other children. It took a while.”
Edith Heine and her mother relaxing after the war.
Heine said no one ever talked about the Holocaust at school. “We never did talk,” she said. “And I couldn’t talk about it, almost my entire life. When I came here, I started, slowly.”
Heine didn’t come to the United States until the early 1990s, after a life spent working as an actress and living in Spain, France, Germany and Israel.
It was here that she began to speak about her experience and open up emotionally. She was interviewed as part of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project in 1995, and she also participated in the Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Workshop, where she was able to put her memories to paper.
Other speakers at the virtual April 8 event will include Berkeley councilmember and poet Terry Taplin, Cantor Sharon Bernstein and musicians Cookie Segelstein, Josh Horowitz, Mike Perlmutter and members of the Saul Goodman Klezmer Band. The commemoration is scheduled from 2 to 3 p.m. It’s free, but online registration is required.
The event is more important than ever, said organizer Rita Clancy of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. “It really makes us think about all that’s going on in the world, and how people overcame the hate,” she said.
Clancy’s daughter, Sasha Clancy McQueen, the grandchild of survivors, will be speaking as a representative of the next generation of descendants of Holocaust survivors.
For Heine, choosing to speak out makes her think of her father, who tried in vain to warn people against the Nazis in 1930s Germany. He told her there were many people who listened to him and understood, but it wasn’t enough. It’s a lesson that has resonance today, she said.
“He said many, many were in denial. They said the Nazis are not that bad. They only bark like dogs,” she said. “That was also a consequence of denial.”
What It's Like to Reclaim Your Sex Life After Sexual Assault
When she was 16, Lindsay Marie Gibson was raped. After her assault, life continued, as it does. Years later, in college, she met the man who would become her husband. She fell in love. They got married. Life was good. Yet her assault from years before still wreaked havoc, here and there. If Lindsay, now 34, didn’t flinch when her husband reached for her hand, it was only because she didn’t realize he was touching her in the first place. Her mind-body disconnect, which had come about as what she calls a “self-protection” of sorts after she was raped, was that powerful.
Lindsay is not the only survivor to unintentionally rely on this coping mechanism in the aftermath of sexual assault. “It sounds odd, but sexual abuse actually makes you forget that your body is yours and not property or an object,” Lauren*, 26, a survivor who often thought of herself as a “body-less soul” after her rape, tells SELF. “The minute you realize your body is indeed your own, you are instantly reminded that it was forcefully taken from you.”
This physical numbness stems from an emotional one, and it’s a natural impulse after undergoing something as horrendous as rape. But it is also an intimidating force blocking many survivors from what they say is one of the most empowering parts of reclaiming their lives after rape: Enjoying sex again, or for the first time ever.
The yawning chasm between mind and body can make it impossible to fully connect with another person, says Lindsay, who was only able to fall in love with her husband mentally at first: “In my head, I knew I loved him, but I couldn’t feel it in my body.”
“There needs to be integration,” Holly Richmond, Ph.D., a certified sex therapist who has counseled survivors at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, tells SELF. “The trauma happened in the past, and a new, healthy, sexual self is moving into future, but it’s all the same person—one body, one mind.”
The goal, says Richmond, is for the survivor to process the trauma so it does not affect her daily life, without compartmentalizing what happened to her to the point of suppression. Attempting to completely stanch the flow of painful memories can contribute to that mind-body disconnect, as well as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Unpacking that trauma in a healthy way is what helps survivors enjoy many facets of life—including sex, Indira Henard, M.S.W, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, tells SELF. “Each survivor is different, and it’s a lifelong journey,” she says.
For starters, they often struggle with feeling comfortable around men. “If I saw a man in an elevator, I would turn and run the other way,” Lindsay says. “I was fighting anxiety through all my dates—I would sit and stare as they talked, but my head was going, Run, run, run. Get away from this guy.”
When a survivor does eventually wrangle that anxious impulse and start dating someone, she’ll likely disclose what happened at some point. At first, sharing details about her rape would often send men “running for the hills,” Anna*, 36, tells SELF. Now she is in a wonderful relationship with a man who responded to her story with kindness.
Even once a survivor is ready to have sex, issues like anxiety and PTSD can still rear their ugly heads. “When you’re having flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about your assault or rape, it’s very, very difficult to want to have sex,” says Lauren, who has PTSD. “Or worse, if you are having sex when these things arise, sex can become scary and intimidating, not to mention triggering.”
For Jess*, 24, a nickname her attacker called her is now off-limits. When dating after her rape, hearing the nickname during sex could prompt her to “100 percent flip out and start crying,” she tells SELF.
And after being raped from behind, Anna has drawn a line at certain kinds of touch with her husband. “Sometimes, as much as he wants to touch that area, it’s just too much,” she says.
That decision brings Anna a measure of relief while also prompting guilt at times, which experts say is normal but unwarranted. No matter what a trigger is, having one doesn’t mean you’re weak or wrong—it means you’re human, says Richmond.
In order to heal, it's vital to set sexual boundaries and hammer out a definition of consent and what is or isn’t OK between two people, says Henard: “Survivors have a right to ask for consent and negotiate what that looks like for them.”
This requires survivors to let themselves off the hook, which many have trouble doing due to persistent feelings of shame, says Richmond.
“It’s about recognizing that you did not do anything wrong, that there’s nothing you could have done to prevent this, and that you are not alone,” says Henard. Richmond adds, “I don’t care if you were sitting naked on a street corner. The only reason you were raped is that you were in the presence of a rapist.”
“When you realize it’s not your fault, it’s kind of like a weight is lifted off of you,” Jennifer*, 44, tells SELF. That self-acceptance often gives survivors the feeling that it’s OK to articulate what they need in order to feel in control of their sexual destinies.
“This is what so much of my therapeutic practice is about: being able to authentically connect with another human being without going into the shame, guilt, and anger brought up during and after sexual assault,” says Richmond. “There might be some bumps in the road, but when the partner can continue to offer security and safety, it’s an amazing thing.”
Jennifer recalls how comfortable she felt when she first met her now-fiancé. “He was very compassionate, and he was very patient,” she says. Her fiancé—whom she describes as very focused on helping her to associate sex with good feelings instead of bad ones—is the first person she’s been able to get fully naked in front of since her rape. “I’ve always been very self-conscious of my body, but I don’t feel that way with him,” she says. Now, sex feels freer and is without the tense fight-or-flight mode that marked other encounters after her rape.
For Lindsay, something about her husband’s energy quieted the alarms that would clang whenever she was around men. “The first time he looked at me, I didn’t feel like I needed to run,” she says. “For the first time ever, in my head, I was able to have peace.”
The best-case scenario, says Richmond, is that a survivor isn’t thinking about the assault when she’s having sex. Instead, the hope is that she feels safe, secure, connected, and is feeling pleasure. But that’s easier said than done.
“I got to a point where I was able to be intimate, but I didn’t feel passion,” Lindsay says. “I knew in my head he was safe…I just kind of wanted to get through it and wanted him to be satisfied because I love him.”
Jess would similarly go through the motions, humming songs or making grocery lists in her head to get through sex.
Death by Civilization
Thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture. My mother was one of them.
Images courtesy of Bad River Historic Preservation Office and Mary Annette Pember
My mother died while surviving civilization. Although she outlived a traumatic childhood immersed in its teachings, she carried the pain of those lessons for her entire life. Like most Native American peoples, our family’s story is touched by the legacy of boarding schools, institutions created to destroy and vilify Native culture, language, family, and spirituality. My mother, Bernice, was a survivor of Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School on the Ojibwe reservation in Odanah, Wisconsin. She called it the “Sister School,” a world ruled by nuns clad in long black robes.
Two hundred years ago, on March 3, 1819, the Civilization Fund Act ushered in an era of assimilationist policies, leading to the Indian boarding-school era, which lasted from 1860 to 1978. The act directly spurred the creation of the schools by putting forward the notion that Native culture and language were to blame for what was deemed the country’s “Indian problem.”
Native families were coerced by the federal government and Catholic Church officials into sending their children to live and attend classes at boarding schools. (About one-third of the 357 known Indian boarding schools were managed by various Christian denominations.) According to the Act’s text, Christian missionaries and other “persons of good moral character” were charged with introducing Native children to “the habits and arts of civilization” while encouraging them to abandon their traditional languages, cultures, and practices.
Unidentified St. Mary’s students, circa 1935 (courtesy of Bad River Tribal Historic Preservations Office)
This is what achieving civilization looked like in practice: Students were stripped of all things associated with Native life. Their long hair, a source of pride for many Native peoples, was cut short, usually into identical bowl haircuts. They exchanged traditional clothing for uniforms, and embarked on a life influenced by strict military-style regimentation. Students were physically punished for speaking their Native languages. Contact with family and community members was discouraged or forbidden altogether. Survivors have described a culture of pervasive physical and sexual abuse at the schools. Food and medical attention were often scarce many students died. Their parents sometimes learned of their death only after they had been buried in school cemeteries, some of which were unmarked.
When my mother was alive, I would often interrogate her about her life at the Sister School. Annoyed, she would demand, “Why do you always have to go poking?” And so I’ve spent much of my personal life and professional work as a journalist trying to uncover and investigate all that happened to her and thousands of others at Indian boarding schools.
For reasons I still don’t completely understand, I am consumed by the need to validate and prove, intellectually and emotionally, her experiences at the Sister School. I crave confirmation because I believe it will somehow reinforce my mother’s stories in the face of generations of federal and Church denials of their role in the boarding schools’ brutality. It will say to me: You’re not making this up. This really did happen.
As this country marks the bicentennial of the Civilization Fund Act, I think of the traumatic impact of my mother’s time at Saint Mary’s and, in turn, the effect that her dysfunctional survival strategies had on our family.
Although she died in 2011, I can still see her trying to outrun her invisible demons. She would walk across the floor of our house, sometimes for hours, desperately shaking her head from side to side to keep the persistent awful memories from entering. She would flap and wring her hands over and over again, as though to rid them of a clinging presence.
She was lost to our family during these times. We guarded her with our tensed stomach muscles, trying to help her battle the unknown demons. Eventually she would wind herself down. Sometimes, even laughing a bit in relief, she’d mutter, “Settle down, you crazy old chicken,” before collapsing on her bed.
Hypervigilance, defensiveness, resentment, and a hair-trigger temper had been her only allies against the Sister School messages of racial inferiority, daily reminders that Natives were primitive beings unlikely to rise above the role of servants in a white man’s world. She raged against the nuns’ label “dirty Indian,” haunted by the fear that the nuns were right, even as she scrubbed miles of floors and performed hours of heavy manual labor.
All of those awful Sister School doings cut her mind. I think she believed that she would break into 1 million pieces if she recalled the traumatic events that held her hostage, forever burned into her amygdala.
I remember a summer day, one of many, when I made my mother toast and brought her aspirin in her dark bedroom, where she was bedridden with a migraine. I placed my offerings on the little table next to her bed, and retreated back to my hiding place under the kitchen table.
After a while, she called to me. I found her lying in the dark, with one arm thrown over her eyes the other arm was open for me. Silently, I climbed onto the bed, fitting myself into her armpit and gazing at the tiny blue Virgin Mary medal pinned to her brassiere, a hidden remnant of her boarding-school days. I remember the bedspread, stiff from its time drying outside on the clothesline and fragrant with fresh air and my mother’s scent. She would spend hours washing the laundry “white, white” like the Sisters had taught her, rushing up and down the cellar steps with baskets of heavy, wet sheets. “We may be Indian, but by God we ain’t dirty,” she’d say while hanging laundry on the line.
Bernice Pember and her brother Donald Rabideaux in 1983, on the Bad River Reservation (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)
I remember her deep voice that wrapped a cocoon around us in the bedroom as she, like she had done hundreds of times before, told me her Sister School stories. There was the “evil” nun Sister Catherine, Mother Superior Sister Catherine of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who was the principal of the boarding school she had attended.
As she described the nun’s inexplicable cruelty—the beatings, the shaming, and the withholding of food—I snuggled closer to her in anticipation. Then the mood of her story lifted, and I remember how her voice took on the conspiratorial tone that I loved.
“One year during the Christmas season, Sister was marching down the cellar steps to check if we stole any food,” she said. “She fell on the bottom step—crash! She hit her head bad! Not long after, she died.”
“What a silent cheer us kids made!” she continued. “Maybe it was terrible, but it was the best Christmas present we ever got!” I remember how she clasped her hands together and how, for a few moments, we shared a little girl’s wicked happiness.
I still marvel at her ability to reinvent and protect her sanity with what I now assume were fantasies in which good always triumphed over evil.
In 2015, my questions led me to the special-collections library at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where a trove of records from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions is stored. Carefully preserved and tended, the documents lie in climate-controlled archival luxury. I made a special appointment with the archivist weeks in advance to examine them.
On the day I went, I was the sole visitor in the huge reading room. I sat at one of the enormous tables and opened the first of many boxes. To my great disappointment, it contained photocopies of lists of students’ names at the various Catholic boarding schools that once dotted Indian country. I’d hoped to see the original documents, and to find my mother’s report cards or documents describing her time at Saint Mary’s.
Eventually I came across the names of my mother and her siblings, the ink faded, written in careful cursive. I sat back heavily in my chair and breathed an exasperated sigh her life at the school and all that happened there was represented by only her name written on a long, nondescript list of other students.
When the archivist arrived, he explained that even the original collection, full of yellowing documents instead of photocopies, held very little personal information about any of the students who had attended the schools so long ago. He explained that the original documents were largely administrative, but that I could view them if I liked.
I’d come this far, so I said yes.
He brought out another cartload of cardboard file boxes. Beyond the lists of student names with check marks in columns indicating whether they’d graduated, run away, or died, the boxes contained mostly bureaucratic reports and correspondence between generations of boarding-school principals and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in Washington, D.C, the agency that oversaw the boarding schools.
There was nothing in the dry letters and reports concerning the people I wanted to learn about, such as Sister Catherine or my mother. I thought about calling it a day. But for a moment there in the silent room, I distinctly heard my mother whisper my name, Mary! Her tone had a familiar ring, like when she’d demand me to “get down on those prayer bones, girl!” when I scrubbed the floor.
So I continued my search, and I found documents relating to Saint Mary’s, including a yellowed, typewritten letter dated January 3, 1934. It was addressed to the Right Reverend Monsignor William Ketcham, the director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, from Sister Mary Macaria, the Sister secretary of Saint Mary’s.
By the time these lines reach you, our dear Mother Superior Sister Catherine will, no doubt, have been called to her eternal reward. On December 19, she fell off the second last step leading down to the kitchen entry.
She must have pitched forward with great force, for in striking her head against a windowsill a gash was cut in her forehead by the temple of her glasses. On Friday Dec. 29, the Sister nurse noticed a change in Sister’s condition and told us she feared a stroke.
Our dear sister had convulsions, was anointed and has been speechless since. The doctor says it can hardly be but a matter of a day or so at most if she does linger even that long.
We know you will pray earnestly for her eternal repose and for a speedy relief from her sufferings. Sorrowfully yours in the agonizing Heart of Jesus.
Sister Mary Catherine, date unknown (Courtesy of Bad River Tribal Historic Preservation Office)
When I got to the end of the letter, I stood straight up out of my chair. I recovered myself and sat back down I concentrated on the contents of the box again. To my amazement, I found an original photo of Sister Catherine. Covered from head to toe in her black-and-white nun’s habit, she gazed sternly into the distance through her thick, wire-rimmed glasses.
The room was air-conditioned, but I was sweating as I read the remaining documents in the Saint Mary’s file. At last, I held tangible proof that her stories were true.
Corroborating even part of her story vindicated her wounded life. It gave me authority over our family’s mysterious, shameful secret, in which the punishment for being Native was a humiliation we could never overcome. How many other Native families could find some comfort in the information in these obscure archives?
As the United States marks the anniversary of the Civilization Fund Act and all the devastation it set into motion, the federal government and Christian churches have an opportunity to begin a new chapter in their relationship with Native peoples.
Healing is possible. Canada, which operated hundreds of Indian residential schools with similar assimilationist agendas, implemented the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007, in which the government formally apologized to former boarding-school students and paid reparations to survivors. And in 2009, Canada created the (now-defunct) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began a multiyear process of collecting and listening to survivors’ stories, opening up residential-school records to survivors and families, and ensuring that the history and legacy of the schools are never forgotten.
According to residential-school survivors I interviewed in Canada, the public admission of wrongdoing from churches and the government, as well as the opportunity to meet other survivors, meant far more to them than reparations or public displays of reconciliation. Two sisters from the Lac Seul band of Ojibwe shrugged their shoulders in response to my questions about what the future holds for government promises to improve indigenous relations. “I buried my anger for 20 years I blocked it out,” said one sister, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from her non-Native neighbors. “But listening to others talk about their experience helped me make a new start and get over my bad feelings.”
Senator Murray Sinclair, Canada’s second-ever indigenous judge, who chaired Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and presented its official findings in 2015, described the impact of allowing survivors to tell their stories to me this way: “They were not subject to cross-examination as if on trial. They were invited to share what they had to share, no more, no less. Their stories were recorded into history, and at the end of each day, they were acknowledged.”
As of now, apologies in the United States have been few and far between. Although President Barack Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution on December 19, 2009, apologizing for past “ill-conceived policies toward the Native peoples of this land,” the resolution had no impact on federal policy toward Native Americans. With its disclaimer against any legal claims, the resolution faded into the woodwork of legislative paperwork.
Statutes of limitations for civil or criminal cases make any legal action impossible in the United States, according to the Native American Rights Fund attorney Donald Wharton. Lawsuits against Christian denominations would need to take place in individual state courts, and would likely be costly and burdensome. Attempts at gaining reparations at the state-legislature level have failed, too in February, the South Dakota legislature killed a bill that would have extended the window for childhood survivors of boarding-school abuse to file suits against organizations such as the Catholic Church.
In addition to an admission of its role in the boarding-school programs, the government could make records from the time more easily available to survivors and their families. Telling the truth won’t change the facts of all that happened or the damage that was done. It would, however, offer thousands of Native peoples the solace of physical evidence and validation like the kind I got, which could guide a path toward healing.
Concentration Camp Survivors Share Their Stories
The Holocaust was the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. The Nazis also enslaved and killed other groups who they perceived as racially, biologically or ideologically inferior or dangerous.
Jews, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Poles, Slavs, Soviet prisoners of war, people with disabilities, political opponents, communists and trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and countless others were stripped of their rights, imprisoned, forced into slave labour and killed in vast numbers. Those who defied Nazi authority either through individual or organised resistance also faced imprisonment, torture, forced labour and execution.
In the audio clips below, seven survivors talk about and reflect on their experiences.
Alfred ‘Freddie’ Knoller was born on 17 April 1921 in Vienna, Austria. Following a series of antisemitic attacks on the Viennese Jewish community in 1938, he left Austria and lived as a refugee in Belgium and France.
In 1943, he joined the French Resistance and was eventually arrested. He was taken to Drancy, a transit camp on the outskirts of Paris, and then deported to Auschwitz. As the Allied armies advanced through Europe in early 1945, Auschwitz was evacuated and the inmates were taken to the Dora-Nordhausen and Bergen-Belsen camps in Germany. Freddie took the uniform badge of a dead French political prisoner to conceal his Jewish identity. This helped him survive at Dora because as a political – and not Jewish – prisoner, he was given a less dangerous job.
After the war, Freddie was reunited with his two brothers and became a United States citizen. He moved to London with his wife in the 1950s.
Here, Freddie describes antisemitism in pre-war Austria and the effect the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 had on the Viennese Jewish community. He also recalls the events of 9 November 1938, when Germans staged mass violence against the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. This became known as Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’).
Freddie Knoller interview © IWM (IWM SR 9092)
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'It didn't just happen when Hitler came to power'
Toby Biber was born in 1925 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Mielec, Poland. Following German occupation in September 1939, the Jewish population of Mielec was subjected to increased antisemitism, persecution and violence.
Mielec’s Jewish community was deported in March 1942 and its residents were forced into a nearby forest. From there, they were moved to a small town where Toby’s father obtained forged papers for Toby and her sister, allowing them to escape. They lived in hiding until arriving in Krakow in southern Poland.
In the autumn of 1942, several thousand inhabitants of the Krakow ghetto, including Toby and her sister, were moved to the Plaszow forced-labour camp. They remained there until the summer of 1943, when they were deported to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. Toby’s sister died eight days after Belsen’s liberation in April 1945.
After the war, Belsen was used as a displaced persons camp and Toby remained there until 1947. She met and married her husband at the camp and they immigrated to Britain in 1947.
Here, Toby reflects on her experiences and describes the conditions in Plaszow camp.
Toby Biber interview © IWM (IWM SR 19792)
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'This lorry with the children drove off and never seen again'
Premysl Dobias was born in June 1913 in the Czech town of Turnov. In September 1938, Germany annexed territory along Czechoslovakia’s northern and western borders. Six months later, German forces occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia and divided it into two separate territories – Slovakia in the east and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in the west.
In the winter of 1941, Premysl was arrested for helping Jews and in May 1942 was deported to the Terezin transit and labour camp. From there he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he was forced into slave labour and subjected to medical experimentation. The camp was liberated by American troops in May 1945 and Premysl worked with the Americans as an interpreter. He moved to London in 1947.
Here, Premysl describes an encounter with Austrian civilians following his deportation and remembers a particular incident at Mauthausen.
Premysl Dobias interview © October Films (IWM SR 19781)
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'That is an experience which will haunt me all my life'
Maria Ossowski was a Polish civilian living in Zakopane, Poland when the Second World War began. During the war, non-Jewish Poles were conscripted into forced labour in Germany and Maria’s parents sent her to live with family in Warsaw in an attempt to save her from being called up. In Warsaw, Maria and her aunt helped Jewish children by providing them with whatever food and clothing they could. She was suspected of being part of the Polish Resistance and arrested in 1943. She was deported to Auschwitz in May later that year.
As the Soviet Army neared Auschwitz in January 1945, the camp was evacuated and Maria was taken to the Ravensbrück and Buchenwald concentration camps in Germany. Shortly after, Buchenwald was also evacuated, but Maria escaped during the journey. She hid in a forest for two weeks before being discovered by farm labourers working nearby. Disguised in civilian clothing and claiming to be a German refugee, Maria joined the workers until the Soviet Army arrived in April 1945. Maria felt it was still unsafe to return to Poland and, pretending to be a French civilian, she travelled west into the American and British zones of occupied Germany.
After the war, Maria met her husband Alex. Together they joined the Polish Army under British command and eventually settled in Britain.
Here, Maria describes what happened upon her arrival at Auschwitz and reflects on her own survival.
Maria Ossowski interview © IWM (IWM SR 19794)
See audio record
The USS Enterprise-D is en route to a Federation colony, Rana IV, which sent out a distress signal indicating they were under attack. When the Enterprise crew arrives, they find the entire planet completely devastated, save for a few acres of land and a house with two possibly human life forms. Captain Picard orders Commander Riker to lead an away team to the surface to "see who's at home."
Still aboard the Enterprise, Counselor Troi senses something unusual about the two.
Commander Riker heads the landing party to the surface, consisting of Beverly Crusher, Data, Geordi La Forge, and Worf. After a quick investigation of the house from the outside, revealing two people inside the house and a non-functional weapon, Riker moves to the front door for a knock. La Forge tries to warn Riker about something hidden in his path and concealed beneath the surface but he can't react in time and he gets pulled up in the air by a booby trap. An old man comes out of the house and points a weapon at Riker telling them this is private property. He asks what they are doing here and who they are.
Riker explains to the man that they are a rescue party and mean no harm. An old woman rushes out of the house and convinces the man of their good intentions. The couple introduce themselves as Kevin and Rishon Uxbridge, botanists originally from Earth who moved to Rana IV five years ago. They did not know they were the only ones left on the planet, but they haven't heard from the colonists. They did observe a large ship in orbit, taking the world apart, but did not visit the surface, so they don't know who they are.
"You're not thinking of taking us with you, are you?"
Riker asks if the landing party can investigate the house to see why they have been spared. Nothing suspicious comes up in the search. Data becomes fascinated by a music box on Rishon's shelf. Rishon tells Data to examine it and explains that it has been in her family for generations. At that moment, Troi, still on the Enterprise, begins hearing music in her mind, replayed in an endless loop.
The two survivors refuse to be beamed up to the Enterprise when Riker offers them safety aboard the ship. They insist, saying they cannot leave their home and that they have each other.
"Stop! Please, stop!"
In the Enterprise observation lounge, the senior staff wonder if the two survivors could have provided anything to the assailants of the colony. Troi, however, hears the music during the conversation and can't concentrate, excusing herself. Later, Picard goes to Troi's quarters to check on her, learning of the music she is hearing. At first, Picard thinks it may be an song that is stuck in a person's mind after they've heard it but Troi tells him it is much deeper than that. She explains that the song plays in perfect clarity from beginning to end and she has never heard it before. Picard asks when this started and Troi tells him it began a few hours before, when the away team beamed down to Rana and met Kevin and Rishon.
Despite Worf's thorough search of the system for the invading force with nothing found, the Enterprise soon is attacked by a large warship, apparently the one responsible for the devastation. Data reveals that there is no record of the ship in the vehicle identification index. The ship flees after the Enterprise fires a warning phaser shot. After being unable to catch up with the unidentified ship, Captain Picard orders that the Enterprise cease its pursuit and plot a return course back to the Delta Rana system.
Upon returning, Picard visits the two survivors with Worf, offers them a portable replicator, and stays for tea to talk to them. Rishon relates their history, and also the horrors of the colonists' fate. Picard says he can't leave until he finds out what happened, and describes his encounter with the unknown ship to the two survivors who, again, claim not to know why they were spared. Picard says that there must be something different about them from the other colonists, and insists on taking the survivors back to the ship. They again refuse, and Picard and Worf return to the Enterprise.
Meanwhile, Troi is still haunted by the music, which is becoming louder, soon rendering her hysterical and incapable of doing much of anything beyond tearfully begging Dr. Crusher to make it stop. She suggests moving her to sickbay, which Troi refuses, insisting on staying in her quarters. Dr. Crusher offers to induce delta wave sleep, but Troi is convinced the music is real, and that not even deep sleep will spare her from it.
The Enterprise goes into red alert as the unidentified ship returns with more firepower. Picard attempts to open a hailing frequency before being attacked again. This time, its attacks are much stronger. The Enterprise throws everything they've got at it, but the alien ship's defenses dissipate the Enterprise's attack harmlessly. After taking severe damage and incurring casualties, the Enterprise escapes the ship's firing range. Picard now guesses the survivors are in no danger.
"Please, leave us alone!"
In Troi's quarters, Picard theorizes to Dr. Crusher that Troi's music stems from Rishon and Kevin's unwillingness to leave, preventing her from seeing the truth of the matter. Back in the Delta Rana star system, Picard believes that the unknown ship is no longer in the vicinity, and that it somehow protects Kevin and Rishon, directly or indirectly. He then returns to the planet to talk to the survivors. The survivors appear to be celebrating by dancing together and are startled by Picard and Worf's sudden appearance.
Kevin asks Picard and Worf to leave him and his wife alone. Picard tells him that after he leaves, he will never set foot in their home on Rana again, for any reason. He explains to the survivors his recent encounters with the ship, however Kevin refuses to believe him, calling his stories methods of intimidation. Right before leaving, Picard sternly explains that– so long as the two are alive– the Enterprise will remain in orbit around Rana IV.
"It is preparing to fire at the planet."
Upon beaming back to the Enterprise, the unidentified ship reappears, much to the evident dismay of Worf. Commander Riker and Worf begin preparations for a fight, but Picard calmly informs them that the Enterprise will take no action. The alien ship veers away from the Enterprise, targeting the house of Kevin and Rishon. The house and plot of land are utterly obliterated. The ship itself is then blown apart by a single photon torpedo from the Enterprise.
Picard orders the Enterprise to stay, and to look out for anything and everything. He leaves the bridge for his ready room, leaving a bewildered Riker and bridge crew.
The crew is astounded by this turn of events, and even more puzzled as to why they remain in orbit over a dead planet. After approximately three hours, La Forge notices a change in sensor readings and informs the captain that the house and land are back. Picard orders Kevin and Rishon to be beamed directly to the bridge. Picard tells a surprised Rishon that he wants to end the suffering of one of his crew members and starts confronting Kevin over what really happened. Picard tells Kevin he realized that the house and the ship are his creations. When Picard last left the house he told them the Enterprise won't leave orbit as long as they would be alive, so Kevin went to satisfy that condition. Speaking to Rishon, Picard notes that all of his senses tell him that she exists, but he has realized that she is not real. Rishon vanishes, leaving only a sad Kevin. Picard tells him he knows he's not Human, he only appears as one. Kevin then teleports to the turbolift Picard orders the crew to keep clear and to track him, as he believes Kevin to be a creature of conscience that has some unfinished business before returning to the surface.
"She has suffered because of my pride and selfishness."
Dr. Crusher visits Troi's quarters, startled to find Kevin at her bedside: he has removed the music from her mind. The music was his creation her empathic powers were also threatening to reveal the truth. Picard enters and demands the truth about what happened to the planet. Kevin makes a startling confession: he is in fact a Douwd, an immortal being with vast powers. He met his Human wife many years before, and decided to live as a Human with her. The alien raiders were the Husnock, who he knew as being of "hideous intelligence, knowing only aggression and destruction". As a devout pacifist, he was ethically limited to avoid using his vast abilities to harm them. He used his powers to try to trick them instead, which only made them more angry and cruel. Rishon joined the colonists in fighting what Kevin knew to be a hopeless battle against the raiders, and was subsequently killed. Viewing her broken body, he suffered a moment of weakness. Out of regretting his inaction, in a moment of insane rage at the raiders, and grief at his tragic loss, he instantly annihilated the entire Husnock race – all fifty billion – with a single thought.
Stunned at his "sin", Kevin recreated Rishon and their house, and sentenced himself to exile on the ruined Rana IV. He used the fake warship as a ruse to try and keep the Enterprise from finding out the truth. Picard confesses that the Federation (much less Humanity) is not qualified to judge him, or the issue, and allows him to stay on Rana IV and to make Rishon live again.
With Troi returned to full health, the Enterprise departs for Starbase 133. Picard notes in his log that the Douwd is a being of extraordinary power, and isn't sure if he should be condemned for his crime, or praised for his conscience. What he does know, however, is that "Kevin" should be left alone.