As I completed the transaction for my first foray with Airbnb for a trip to Paris with my daughter, I was pleasantly surprised by the note that popped up from Christophe, the manager, who alerted me that I could also have a ride from the airport with Karyn with whom he has an arrangement.
I responded and soon another email message arrived with the subject, “A Picture of Me!” from Karyn, so that I would know who she was when she picked us up at the airport. I was somehow struck by the personal and specific choice of sending a photo. I was relieved that a ride from the airport was taken care of with ease.
I was traveling to Paris after a full and intense week of work with colleagues at USC Shoah Foundation and our partners hosting a 50-member mission delegation, 210 Holocaust survivors and companions, 24 teachers from 11 countries, and 13 junior student interns with various programs in Warsaw and Krakow, culminating on the Jan. 27 for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. The commemoration and the events leading up to it, with all of our constituents and partners, resulted in significant opportunities for reflection and deeper learning. They were also heart wrenching, emotional, and deeply painful. Among all of this, we were trying to explore with our colleagues and people around the world how to extract meaning and forward motion from this moment through the Auschwitz: Past is Present initiative, a global communications and education program to bring awareness and inspire sustained learning and action worldwide.
There are online resources, training programs, films, partnerships with Starbucks, Google, Discovery Communications and Education, and Comcast, all with specially designed content to distribute to channels. It is a large undertaking, and as I waited for my plane the next morning at dawn at the Krakow airport, I felt like I was in a bit of a daze of exhaustion from the work we just completed, but also strangely and furiously trying to process and make sense of what I had witnessed and what the meaning and impact of the work is and was for me personally. I was particularly struck by the conversations about the difficult times we live in and the responsibility, as expressed by Holocaust survivor and speaker Roman Kent, that we not “stand by.” What does it mean right now, to act? Even though I am doing the job I do, am I doing enough? Will I know it if I am a bystander? As I walked through customs, I saw Karyn standing with a sign and smiling, looking definitely like the photo she sent the day before.
She greeted us and led the way. We had barely made it to the trunk of her car, when she looked at me and said, “Where are you from? Are you from Poland?” I explained that I was in Poland for work and my daughter for an educational program. I did not say anything further. Karyn loaded the bags, and we got into the car and began moving through the lot to the exit. She turned to me and said, “Yes, well there was a big commemoration yesterday. I watched the live feed.” I could sense that serendipity had arrived. I replied that we were at the commemoration. She turned to me and said, “Are you Jewish?” I skipped a beat, thinking about my answer and then said, “Yes.” She then quickly replied, “I am Jewish too. My cousin survived Auschwitz. I had to watch. It was very important.”
She then began to speak, in a very rapid flow, as we moved down the freeway, about her cousin, Freddy Kott, who survived and married, but did not have children of his own, how he had asked her and her brother to include him in her family’s burial plot, about how she had such difficulty finding out about what happened to him and that he did not speak about it. Then, she told me how her family had encouraged Freddy to give testimony in the late ‘90s to a project started by Steven Spielberg – USC Shoah Foundation.
Freddy told her that he gave testimony and that there was a tape somewhere, but she did not know if he ever did it. She told me, “Freddy said to me one day when he is gone, I could have the cassette.” She explained that her brother passed away before Freddy died, so she alone was in charge of handling the affairs of both men by herself. She said that after Freddy passed “The only thing I wanted was the tape. That is my heritage.” After he passed away, no one could find it.
I sat in stunned silence. As she spoke, I removed my phone from my purse, and pulled up the Visual History Archive online, searching for Freddy Kott. As I was doing this, she paused to take a breath. I said, “That organization that you are mentioning, I work there. I think that the testimony may actually be available from your phone or your computer at home. I can look right now.” She turned to me, with eyes as wide as possible. I then was typing and looking for a Freddy Kott in France, language French, born in Poland. I pulled up Alfred Kott. Finally, when we came to a stoplight, she glanced over and looked at the photo and said, “That is him.”
One of our mission delegate members asked what was most memorable over the 20 year history of the Institute. I think it is moments like this – the moments are what are remarkable.
Karyn said that she was meant to pick me up at the airport. She said, “What a story to tell.”