Photos: Trudy Klein Gompers answers questions with Upper School students after the Upper School gathering. Below, Ms. Klein Gompers with Holocaust Council Board member and volunteer moderator, Isabella Fiske.
Trudy Klein Gompers, a Holocaust survivor and author, visited Princeton Day School on this Veterans Day, roughly 80 years after Kristallnacht, to speak and interact with Upper School students. It was a day to honor and bear witness to victims, survivors, and all those that fought and died to stop an axis of power that wiped out millions in its quest for domination.
Ms. Gompers, who is almost 82, was a baby in 1938 in Vienna, Austria, the beautiful city in which her family had thrived for multiple generations. With profound clarity and directness, she told her experience of the Holocaust to a packed and silent theater. Her visit was made possible through the Holocaust Council's Coordinator of Holocaust Education Jamie N. Carus. Ms. Gompers was accompanied by Isabella Fiske, a Holocaust Council board member and volunteer moderator.
Her message was both a gripping remembrance and a plea "not to lose sight of our common humanity, our common values and our common decency." Ms. Gompers encouraged students "to find beauty in our differences. It's up to you. It's up to all of us. We have to learn to listen instead of reacting."
Ms. Gompers asked students to think about how it must have felt when Nazi officials annexed Austria and told the Jews – who represented 60% of all Viennese lawyers, 47% of all doctors, a very large percentage of college faculty, artists, business professionals – to get out, that they were no longer wanted.
"This is where my father works, where my grandparents live," she recalls, adding that "they said if you're not out of here by November 10, you're going to a concentration camp. Who the heck knew what a concentration camp was? How could anyone even imagine?"
A lot of the Jews, she said, stayed put, believing that it was going to blow over. But it didn't. Her father and almost all other Jews were fired from their jobs. Her mother was ordered to get out on the street with a bucket and scrub brush and clean the streets for the Fuehrer.
"Event after event made it clear that we needed to get out, but countries did not want us," Ms. Gompers explained. They could not get the required visas to leave. "And my grandparents, who are responsible for my being here, supported us during that time when my father was not allowed to work. My grandmother said to my father, 'you've got to get out, to save your children. My grandchildren.'"
They had an uncle in England, and in desperation, "he forged bankbooks and things to get us out. We left three days before Kristallnacht," she continued. "And when we got off the train at the Austrian border, my father disappeared." It turned out he was was being beaten in Nazi headquarters, and her mother, holding both her children, begged a passing border guard for help, telling him her husband's name, Sigmund Klein. The guard went off and came back again "and he told my mother that he had arranged to get my father out, and not to make a fuss when we saw him." Somehow, they managed to remain calm as Sigmund, badly injured and bleeding heavily, walked with them across the border. And once across, "a gentleman came up to us and asked, 'Who beat you so savagely?' And my father said it was an accident and he just tripped. And that's how we got out."
Despite journeying safely to England, more drama was to come once war was declared, as German-speaking aliens, including their whole family, were moved to an interment camp on the Isle of Mann. Gompers called it "a civilized place in the middle of the Irish sea, where palm trees grew." Her parents were separated in the camp and then reunited a year later. Her younger brother was the first child born in the camp.
They were allowed to return to London, but the Blitz was intense. "It rained bombs," Gompers said. She also said, despite the turmoil and danger, "children see war differently. We didn't see that we were under a big strain. We'd peek out of the curtains in the dark and we'd see explosions and the next day houses that had been there weren't there."
Unflinchingly, Ms. Gompers recounted that her grandparents were rounded up, put into a ghetto, then taken to a "distribution center" and killed. "They were our best angels," Ms. Gompers said. "They sacrificed their lives for us and gave us all they had. My mother never let go of the guilt she felt that her parents had made this sacrifice. She couldn't talk about it. My father became a frustrated old man because he felt he didn't do the things he should have done, even though he had no control. My older brother became an angry cynic. My younger brother was emotionally not capable of working or living life the way you know it should be."
After the war, they eventually made their way to the U.S. While she feels she coped well, Ms. Gompers said the experience changed her, giving her a sense of urgency to speak up and not turn her back on wrongs in this world.
"I have learned that with anger and hatred, we cannot move forward constructively," Gompers declared. "I have learned that hate is an all-consuming passion. I have learned that we must bear witness and care about the injustices that mankind endures. Caring is love. And caring and love are man's strongest and winningest traits. And I have learned to trust myself, my eyes, my ears and my mind, and to think independently."
Students asked several questions prior to the end of the gathering, and onstage afterward, including: How do you deal with hatred in your life, and what do you recommend we do when we encounter hatred?
Ms. Gompers' reply: "Of course, we all get hurt. And we hurt others. When it happens, I write it down. And when you see things written down you start understanding what's inside you. We have to discover ourselves to understand what's going on."
The School extends its appreciation to the Holocaust Council and PDS faculty member Alex Lasovitch for helping coordinate today's opportunity to learn from and speak with Ms. Trudy Klein Gompers. -Melanie Shaw