Voices from the field
Her Promise – And Mine: Yom Ha'Shoah, Ha'tikvah, and My Conversation with Mrs. Wagner
“I remember one morning when we marched out to work and the orchestra was playing. A full truck of naked young men drove by, with their strong voices singing the Hatikvah, a Zionist anthem, on their way to the crematorium. It was an expression of their defiance in the face of death.”
– Joyce Wagner, A Promise Kept: To Bear Witness, p. 72
In October 2015, I was handed a book called, A Promise Kept: To Bear Witness, by Joyce Wagner. My girlfriend’s dad handed it to me and said, “You will be changed from reading this.” And I was. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with Joyce over the phone, and that conversation is one that I’ll never forget.
The book recaps Joyce’s experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and her promise to herself – if she lived – to share her story with as many people as possible. I finished the book in just one sitting – not because I’m a fast reader, but because I was so deeply moved and captivated by Joyce’s stories and the way she taps into human senses and emotions to illustrate her experiences.
As I was reading Joyce’s story, I was particularly struck by her relationship to Ha'tikvah and how it stood in contrast to my own. For Joyce, hearing Ha'tikvah is bittersweet. When I asked her why, she explained that on the one hand, she is instantly transported back to a horrible time and place in her life, with the vivid image described in the quote above. But on the other hand, she is overcome with feelings of defiance and pride as, for her, it was and still is an anthem symbolizing unity and the Zionist movement.
For me, I've only ever known Ha'tikvah as the anthem of the State of Israel. It is a song that, when sung and heard, elicits in me feelings of pride, comfort, and freedom. I mostly sing it surrounded by groups of people – in Hebrew school growing up, at Israeli sporting events, at the conclusion of Jewish gatherings, etc. And every time I sing it, I look around at people's faces and assume that they are feeling the same things as me.
But while Joyce is overcome with similar emotions as me, they are rooted in dramatically different reasons and experiences. I have never thought to ask about people’s different feelings when they hear Ha’tikvah. Now this question seems so obvious to me, but it wasn’t until speaking with Joyce that I understood just how powerful of a connector this one word, one song, can be. Ha’tikvah and Israel became a bridge between me and Joyce – something that transitioned her story into our story; something that I can carry with me to make our connection a little more tangible.
I was also especially touched hearing her talk about her promise to tell her story and educate others through her authentic voice. Since the 1970s, she’s been touring American high schools, sharing her stories first hand with teens and young audiences. Over the years, Joyce has received a number of student-written letters reflecting on her visits to their schools. She has held on to these letters, and she shared a few with me. Here a few highlighted quotes and passages from her many letters:
“The bravery you show by telling your story to schools really showed me that I shouldn’t be embarrassed of my past. Thank you so much for finding strength when all hope seemed lost."
"When your daughter introduced you, she said that you’re her superhero, and now you’re mine too.”
“Seeing a picture or a movie will never compare to what you were able to talk about... Thank you so much for opening my eyes.”
"It truly is an honor to have been able to learn history through your experiences."
If I were to write a letter to Joyce following our conversation, it might go something like this:
Dear Mrs. Wagner,
Thank you. There aren’t words to possibly put in writing what it means to be able to hear your story. In doing so, not only am I a witness bearer, but also your story bearer. I’m deeply humbled and empowered to become another active voice to share your story and the millions of other Jewish stories that haven’t yet found an ear or a voice. And that's my promise to you.
If you could write a letter to someone who inspires you – who would you write it to and what would you say?