“I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.” — Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Many writers talk about the need to write. The words burst forth; they must be written lest the writer explode. Some stories have to be told. The Mariner is compelled to tell his story, creating wiser but sadder men. Boswell had to journal his life or he felt he had not actually lived it.
Yesterday at church and today at school, I met and heard Ela Weisberger, a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp. She is a modern-day Mariner, a person who has to tell her story, who compels us all to listen.
Ela was 11 when she entered the camp at Terezin. She was best friends with Pavel Friedman, the young man who wrote the famous poem, “The Butterfly.” She played the Cat in Brundibar and performed in The Fireflies. She painted and sang and wrote poetry because her teachers insisted that the children create art, tell stories. Her teacher told her to sign her name in defiance of the Nazis who insisted the children be only known as numbers. “You are not a number. You are a name,” her teacher told her. Of the 15,000 children who lived in Terezin, Ela was one of the 100 who survived. She nearly boarded the train to Auschwitz with her uncle, but she had left the number plaque she was supposed to wear around her neck in the barracks, and they wouldn’t let her board. She lived to become a soldier, a spy, a business owner, a writer, a painter. Forgetting her number allowed us all to know her name.
And now she spends the last years of her life telling her stories. “Remember,” she told us, “remember my friends who died.”
She said that she may not remember what she had for lunch yesterday, but she remembers the events of 75 years ago. “The things that happened…they became a part of my body,” she says. “I cannot forget.”
She tells their stories. She names their names. She shows us their art, their poetry, their music. They live as long as she remembers. As long as we listen and learn and remember. As long as we tell their stories.
When asked in an interview about his Jewish heritage and about his beliefs, Neil Gaiman said, “I believe in Story.” Ela lost her faith in God in Terezin, but she says she believes in good people. “Three things the Nazis could not take away from us,” she says. “The blue sky. The bright yellow sun. And the Invisible One inside us.” Now her Invisible One is the love of good people and Story.
“My sister says, ‘Ela, why do you have to keep talking about this?’ And I say that I have to talk about it. My mother said I was Chosen to tell the stories. And if one of these young people remembers the stories then no one can say it didn’t happen. No one can say the Nazis didn’t commit atrocities on children. It happened and we remember.”
In composition class, we have been talking about why people write, why we tell stories. The Alabama folklorist, Kathryn Tucker Windham, wrote that we tell ghost stories as a way of remembering history; the ghosts are the stories we don’t want to forget. Like the Mariner, Ela is haunted and haunting. With her stories lodged within us, we are both sadder and wiser. And we will remember.