A Standard Bearer for Holocaust Remembrance by David Weiss
Amy Vaz has done the truly difficult work of keeping the story alive. Amy has inspired thousands to Never Forget the lessons of the Holocaust. What motivates Amy? Why is social justice a centerpiece in her life? Meet this incredible lady and see what it means to honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
After I wrote my first book, Amy contacted me and was very interested in what I had written. While I was amazed at her depth of knowledge, I was even more amazed at the initiative that she had taken in her home state of South Carolina. Amy is not Jewish and has no relatives that were involved in the Holocaust. For me, as the grandson of four Holocaust Survivors, I find that especially inspiring. Something inside of her heart and mind inspires Amy to make a deep, lasting difference. Amy’s interest in Tikkun Olam (means “repairing the world” in Hebrew) makes her one of the proud standard bearers of the Holocaust Remembrance and Education movement.
David) How did you get interested in the holocaust? Were you interested even in your youth? What was your upbringing regarding religion and social justice?
Amy) I was raised in a white Catholic household in Spartanburg, South Carolina. My parents adopted me from infancy, and they gave me everything and more. They did an amazing job. In so many ways, I feel I won the lottery ending up with them. Note, however, that our social community was made up of all people exactly like us. We never had any friends of other faiths or ethnicities. We never knew any immigrants. This arrangement was not due to any sense of overt racism, but we simply lived in self-created homogenous circles. Social justice is not a concept that occurs to a lot of people easily if they are living comfortably, in somewhat of a bubble, and I think that is how I grew up. I suppose I was largely blind to the plight of others who did not look like me, and I lacked an awareness of the vast INJUSTICE that lurks all around us in South Carolina and in our larger world. That piece of the puzzle was not yet there for me, but it would soon emerge…
David) When did social justice start to take a central role in your life?
Amy) I would say it has been a process, but my eyes started seeing things through a different lens in 2003-2004, when I met and married my husband, Dev, an Indian immigrant, AND I moved away from South Carolina around the same time. I then began to see the world in a broader sense, rather than simply in my little bubble of Spartanburg, SC. Travelling to India in 2006 was a big eye opener as well. I saw some wonderful landscapes and Dev’s wonderful and warm friends and family, but I also saw some of the harshest human suffering and abject poverty in the world.
In 2007, we moved back to the Upstate of South Carolina, where I grew up, and now my awareness of the plight of black Americans was heightened. Seeing Roots, the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s epic novel, for the first time was a profound influence on how I thought about black Americans in the context of their beleaguered history. I began to open my eyes, and I started to notice stark disparities, and I began to dig a little deeper to uncover a shameful local history. Everyone knows about the legacy of slavery, but there are more recent injustices that we have perpetrated, such as how we executed desegregation of our public schools. As a society, we did that in a most callous and merciless manner, with utter disregard to the well-being of the black community, and I believe we are seeing the fallout from it today.
David) How did you become interested in the Holocaust?
Amy) It is hard for me to put my finger on it, but it is a revelation I had around 2014. I must have had some vague notions about it previously, but it was only from this point that I would delve deeply into it. I believe it was the result of seeing a documentary on a Holocaust survivor. Today, dozens of documentaries and books later, it is hard for me to say what first sparked my interest. However, suffice it to say that once I “discovered” this subject, I have simply not been able to put it down. I quote Pierre Sauvage (a son of survivors) in saying, “it has taken hold of me and will not let go.”
Going back to my school years, at NO point in time, did the Holocaust enter into any of my studies, in either lectures or in reading material or any other form, from elementary education through college. However, I am happy to tell you that Holocaust education in South Carolina today has made tremendous strides since then. It is not required to be taught in SC, as it is in some states, but it is now being taught to varying extents in both public and private schools in this area. I have met some of the “trailblazers” in Holocaust education in Greenville, SC, and I am most encouraged by the work they are doing.
David) What Holocaust-related events have you organized?
Amy) In November of 2015, I brought Robbie Waisman here from Vancouver, he was a child survivor of Buchenwald. In April 2016, I brought a husband and wife couple, Norbert and Gerda Bikales, here from New Jersey. They were both child survivors in France. Incidentally, Robbie Waisman spent a few years after the War in France, and there is a group of alumni of those aided by the organization, the O.S.E., which helped both Norbert and Robbie, although at different times. It is a small world, but these two men actually know each other, through their involvement in that group.
David) How many people attended? Where was it? What was the community reaction each time?
Amy) An estimated 2000 people attended Robbie Waisman’s programs. With the Bikaleses, we had around 1500 people in attendance. The community response was MIND-BLOWING, in both cases! It was something that brought people of many different backgrounds together and deeply moved them all. One of Robbie Waisman’s most profound messages to us was to HOPE. He conveyed that by example, from his story, but he also challenged us, especially the young people, to live it. The Bikaleses both encouraged us to be “upstanders,” not bystanders. Their stories also shed light on some of the GOOD that brave people did to aid Jews in France. Whereas, Robbie Waisman was left alone to fight for his survival in the concentration camps, but even he had some anecdotes about some unexpected people who helped him along the way.
David) How many programs were there with Robbie Waisman? How many people live in your town? Is there a Jewish community there? How did they react?
Amy) We did three programs with Robbie Waisman, and we did three with Norbert and Gerda PLUS speaking in schools during the day, both at the high school and college level. We also did a separate talk and book signing of Gerda’s personal memoir, Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I have to say that some members of the local Jewish community were initially skeptical of my big idea to bring these survivors, especially Robbie Waisman, all the way from Canada. They weren’t sure that there would be sufficient interest from the community at large to justify the cost and the amount of work involved. There are about one million people in Greenville and Spartanburg combined (including some surrounding areas). It is difficult for me to even hazard a guess as to the size of the Jewish community here, but there is indeed a small, but growing, community. I should also note that there are not a lot of Holocaust survivors who live in our area. Therefore, most of our local community here, particularly the non-Jews, had never even met or heard from a Holocaust survivor, prior to attending these programs. I think that is part of what made them so special.
David) Was it a learning experience for the Jewish Community to see how much people care about Holocaust Remembrance?
Amy) Many members of the Jewish community attended at least one of the programs with each survivor, and I could see they were all deeply moved, including the few who were initially skeptical. All of the programs were uniformly very well received by everyone who was in attendance. I was personally deeply moved by the presence of a few Germans who attended, some of whom shed tears. There was a German who came up to Norbert Bikales, who himself had lived directly across the street from Norbert’s childhood building in Berlin. There were also several people who recognized Norbert from his illustrious career as a polymer chemist. Having these people with various connections approach him, simply highlighted how small our world is and how closely we are all connected. At one of Robbie Waisman’s talks, we met the son of one of the liberators of the same camp where he had been prisoner: Buchenwald. He even shared photographs and a very poignant letter, all from his father’s harrowing experience as a soldier. There was a special connection there, too. You will read in the caption of the pictures below about a fellow survivor who does live here, who was in the same camp, and even the same block as Robbie Waisman. Talk about a small world!
David) How did you meet your husband and does being married to a non-Caucasian make you see things differently?
Amy) We met online, and when you are talking with someone on the phone for many hours before meeting, you get to know a person’s inner thoughts, ideas, values, and experiences, without the possibility of seeing color or race. When we did finally meet in person, the difference between us in terms of race was 100% irrelevant, a non-issue. If anything, it would be a source of laughter because we would make fun of each other’s different pronunciations, other cultural idiosyncrasies, etc. On a serious note, however, I would say that the biggest factor that has opened my eyes is not the fact that he is of another race, but the fact that he is an immigrant. It has definitely made me appreciate the struggles and work ethic of other immigrants. There is a certain segment of our population that has a DISTAIN for immigrants, but I think we are greatly enhanced as a nation by their presence. Traveling with Dev to India, and seeing the most extreme human suffering also made me realize how fortunate we Americans are. Most Indians (especially the poorer ones) would give their right arm for the chance to settle here in the U.S. It made me ask myself: what on earth did someone like me do to deserve this rather privileged life in the U.S.? This is a question we should all ask ourselves, in humility.
David) What comes to mind when you think about ‘Holocaust Survivors’?
As per Holocaust survivors, they had such a strong will to survive during the War and to thrive post war. Many of them did extremely well after the war, but some of them sadly lived and died in poverty and obscurity. I want to add that I think Holocaust survivors who settled here are the most patriotic Americans, if you will, because they saw how bad things can get living under a tyrannical rule, therefore, they value freedom more than those of us who have never seen it any other way. Also, unlike those of us who were born here, they don’t take freedom and other rights and privileges for granted.
David) Is there anything you’d like readers to know about Social Justice or learn from your experiences?
Amy) I just want to say that the Holocaust was a failure of good people to speak up early in the game, including the people of Europe as well as leaders of the United States, the Vatican, and others. There were people in positions of power, who could have likely changed the course of history, but instead chose silence. Hitler and his agenda was executed largely unopposed. There were some brave people who resisted, but they needed much more support from the rest of the world, which was greatly lacking.
The resulting loss of Jewish lives is incalculable. Homosexuals, “antisocial” people, disabled people, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, clergy, members of resistance also suffered great losses, but what was different about the Jews is that their entire race was marked for extermination. It is remarkable that any of them survived, and yet they did. It was the burning flame of hope that kept them going. They were unshakable, mentally and physically, and even then, in many cases, it was not enough. As a society, let us not forget those millions of lives, torn away from us all to soon, at no fault of their own. Let us have the courage of our convictions to challenge anyone who attempts to single out a group because of their race, religion, etc., and mark them or treat them differently. It is a very dangerous situation that can escalate beyond one’s wildest dreams, based on what we learned from the Holocaust.
David) What other social justice issues have attracted your attention?
Amy) I believe that justice has not been served as far as the clergy sex abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, is concerned. There were huge cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy, and many of the perpetrators have not had to face their crimes. As an institution, many Catholic Dioceses across the United States, and even the world, have sought to protect their own reputations and assets, at the expense of innocent children who were deeply harmed under their watch. After watching the movie, “Spotlight (2015),” which I highly recommend to you all, I began to draw parallels between this abuse crisis and the atrocities of the Holocaust. In both cases, heinous acts were committed by people in power, preying on the vulnerable, facilitated by the tacit support of their respective institutions, and the culture of silence and secrecy, in the case of the Church. The motives were completely different, but there remain some similarities. I contend that in both cases, the offending acts were only possible because the majority of “ordinary” people who came to know about them (and there were people who knew, in both cases), chose to remain silent. I will end with a quote from the great, Elie Wiesel:
“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
Amy with Henry Wermuth, in June 2015 at his London home.
Mr. Wermuth survived a total of EIGHT concentration camps, including the infamous Plaszow Camp, which was portrayed in Schindler’s List. He even survived being shot at by Amon Goeth, the barbaric camp commandant. He was later at Auschwitz, but he said that Plaszow was the worst of the eight camps he experienced. He and his father were plotting to escape from there, but the plan never bore fruit. He became well known for his own plot to kill Hitler: He courageously slipped out of his barracks at a work camp and tried to obstruct a rail line, through which he heard Hitler would be passing the next day. He was obviously not successful in his attempt, but he was later recognized by the German government for his courage.
Norbert Bikales with his parents before the War, Berlin, Germany.
Gerda Bikales and her mom before the war, Breslau, Germany.
Mr. Sandor Koser (left), Amy, and Mr. Robbie Waisman (right). Mr. Koser lives in Spartanburg, and Mr. Waisman came to speak/visit from Vancouver in November 2015. They were both in Buchenwald in Block 8.
Robbie Waisman as a child, postwar. He has no surviving photos of himself with family from before the War.
Robbie Waisman in France after the war with a group of other child survivors from Buchenwald (he’s far right).
Last but not least, a family picture: Amy and Dev Vaz (top row) with kids, Rex and Ruth Vaz (bottom row)
David Weiss was born, raised and still lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being the grandson of four Holocaust Survivors has always been an integral part of his identity and life. David earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from Cardinal Stritch University and a Masters of Arts in Education from Viterbo University. He spent eleven years as a second and third grade teacher before starting his own promotions business. David is also an author and teaches at the college level. David and his wife are the proud parents of a six year old daughter.
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