Editor's note: Teresa Schmedding, an editor at the Daily Herald, is a Catholic whose family emigrated from Germany in the 1880s. Julie Merar, a Prospect Heights resident, is a Jew whose family emigrated from Russia shortly before World War II. The two women attended "Spots of Light" exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center together. Here are their personal perspectives of the exhibit.
I expected the feelings of guilt -- and braced for them. While I know my immediate relatives were farming in Missouri before the war and didn't have a direct hand in the Holocaust, I'm German and have always felt that guilt by association.
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I've always wondered if I'd been raised under Hitler's youth movement and the Nazi education scheme, where would I have stood during the war? Would I have questioned or seen the real motives early enough to get out? Would I have had the nerve to stand up against the Nazi horrors? Or would I have helped -- either out of fear or ignorance -- with the horrific extermination of 6 million Jews?
I thought maybe going to an exhibit on the women of the Holocaust that I might finally be able to find that answer. That I might be able to look in their eyes and gain a perspective beyond the history that's filled images of Swastikas and marching boy soldiers. A perspective that might help me better know myself and settle some of my feelings of guilt.
As is often the case in life, I didn't get what I expected. But I did get something better.
As I absorbed the different displays in "Spots of Light," I was awe-struck at the amazing strength and beauty of these women. I saw what they experienced and, as a women, not a German, I connected with them through common emotions.
Every woman can relate to the horror and humiliation of sexual abuse. Here, I also saw how these women were stripped repeatedly of their femininity, not even being allowed the dignity of wearing a bra. I learned how one risked her life to hide a forbidden comb made of scraps of wire. How others died because they refused to abandon their children -- or the children of complete strangers. That several battled starvation by creating secret books of recipes so they could eat with their thoughts. And how many found the strength to survive in bonds of friendship.
While few of us today will ever experience anything remotely close to the nightmare that these women did, we still share those same traits. We are strong and adaptable. We find ways to survive without losing the essence of who we are. We love, laugh, care and create.
I went to the exhibit hoping to shake off some of the shame of being German. Instead, I simply walked away prouder than ever to be a woman.