I do not remember my Mom ever sitting me down and telling me the whole story of how she came to America from Austria, rather the details seemed to unfold over my lifetime, but the primary points were there from as far back as I can remember. She was six, her brother was four… Kristallnacht had happened, and her parents felt the only way they could secure the safety of their children was to send them to America with a family friend who would shelter them across the ocean.
The year was 1939 and once in NYC they moved into an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Meanwhile, my grandmother stayed in Vienna to care for her elderly parents and my grandfather boarded the MS St. Louis – often called the “Voyage of the Damned” – planning to settle in Cuba and then send for his family to join him. Unfortunately, upon arrival into Cuba’s harbor, my grandfather learned (along with all the other St. Louis passengers) that the documents he had paid so dearly for would not gain him entry into Cuba, which admitted only about 30 of the 937 passengers (those who were not Jews or had special visas). The passengers not admitted sat in Cuba’s harbor for 40 days while the world debated their fate, ultimately returning the ship to Europe where many perished at the hands of the Nazis. But my grandfather survived the war in a UK POW Camp, ultimately joining his children in the USA (via Canada with less than $2 in his pocket), while it would be ten years before my grandmother was reunited with all of them. And then, she would die within a year of her arrival here.
A few details came early – my mother does not remember being scared during the journey to the USA but clearly remembers feeling very cared for at the orphanage. Although the orphanage cut the hair of the children there very short in an effort to make it easier to care for them, understanding all that my Mom had lost already, they left her long golden curls intact. She worried about her brother more, shifting even at that young age from sibling to caretaker. They wrote letters to a cousin in neutral Switzerland who in turn wrote to their Mom in Vienna, relaying messages back and forth.
My grandmother kept diaries the entire time (they formed the basis for a book my uncle published in Austria with help from my mom and a professional historian/writer a few years ago) and in reading their translations, the war, the Holocaust, and all that happened in her world made the facts of history very real and personal for me. I felt her pain – shared her sorrows – so wished I had known her.
So much of my mom’s story shaped who I am and what I have done with my life. The lessons I took away from it – the family friend whose name I do not know but who brought my mom and her brother to the USA, taught me that one person can truly make a difference – one person made it possible for their lives to be saved. The fate of the MS St. Louis passengers showed me what happens when the world turns its back – when no one cares. The kindness shown to my mom at the orphanage taught me how important even small acts can be. And, as I became a mom myself, I have come to understand the extent to which we as parents will put the well-being of our children above the pain our decisions to help them might cause us.
These lessons stay with me. When I walk the refugee camps – from Darfur to Jordan to Kenya to most recently, Bangladesh, I see my mom’s face on every child I encounter. I hear my grandfather’s voice when talking with those who feel the world has forgotten them. I shudder as I see history repeating itself and hear parents and families share the pain of separation and the horrors that brought them to this point.
But, equally, I try to remember how much even one small act can mean and to push myself to take on that challenge. I relish every smile I can help bring out and every song I sing with kids in languages that leave us all unsure of what it is we are actually singing. I push myself to play soccer in the camp’s 100+ degree heat because it is a way of connecting and of forgetting where the soccer game happens to be. I offer my hand when a lack of a common language prevents any other form of communication and try to make eye contact whenever it is culturally appropriate. And as I do so, I am reminded to be thankful for all that I have, for every experience I have been blessed to be part of, and for the many good people with whom I have been privileged to share my life.
And, I understand that just as my mother was an innocent caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust, so too are the many kids I encounter at every stop that I make I understand how important it is to not focus on the numbers but to remember that each number represents people – real people. I long for the day that the world sees ALL children for what they are – CHILDREN… not refugees, migrants, aliens, or defined by the borders they happen to be born between or the color of their skin or the faith they practice or the heritage that makes them who they are – just CHILDREN first and foremost. Children do not get to pick where they will be born, whom they will be born to, or under what circumstances. If they did, they surely would not choose poverty, conflict zones, or abusive situations. After all, they are children. And, we are the grown-ups.
Teachers especially are the grown-ups who work every day to empower students with the knowledge, empathy, and awareness they need to be the next generation of global citizens. So whether it is by bringing in classroom resources like UNICEF Kid Power that build students’ skills and connections as global citizens, teaching with lessons from Echoes & Reflections, or connecting with community organizations locally, I encourage all teachers to continue to lead the way by helping students believe that they have the power to make a difference in this world. Let us learn from the past and take whatever action – large or small – that is within our individual power and create a world in which we put CHILDREN FIRST.
About the author: Caryl M. Stern is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA. A dynamic change-maker, Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves.