January 6, 2006

My Volunteer Experience at the IRWF

On Sunday, November 13, 2005 I had the honor of interviewing Agnes Adachi at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) office in NYC. My partner, Michael Ragsdale, videotaped the interview. I asked myself: ”How did I end up interviewing this spirited Hungarian Jewish woman who was rescued by Raoul Wallenberg and who herself became a rescuer of others?”

I believe the seeds were planted for me to become a volunteer at the IRWF in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where I was born and raised.

Both my parents were born in Puerto Rico. My mother is 87 years old just like Agnes Adachi. I grew up very poor and during the time my parents, my siblings, and I lived in Williamsburg there existed extreme violence, dangerous gangs, poverty, hardship, abuse, and endless atrocities. However, in the midst of all of this negativity, my parents made me aware of a much more powerful presence-the celebration of diversity. Not tolerance, but full celebration.

I lived in a low income housing project where predominantly Puerto Ricans and African-Americans resided. However, the Williamsburg community was also comprised of individuals from a multitude of cultures and religions including Italians, Gypsies, Germans, Poles, Dominicans, Jehova Witnesses, Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. My parents interacted with people no matter what their religious or cultural or ethnic backgrounds were. I remember listening to their conversations. I watched how my parents treated everyone. The Jewish person was not treated differently than the Puerto Rican person nor different than the African American person.

The Gypsies came during the warmer months and left during the colder months. They rented storefronts. The first summer I saw them I asked my parents who they were. My mother explained. When I did not see them in the winter, I asked my mother what happened. She explained that they would return again. And they did. I was happy every summer when I saw them. I wanted to know everything about them as I wanted to know everything about all of the people of various cultures in my neighborhood. It is no surprise that later in life I chose to pursue graduate studies in sociology.

My parents never ridiculed the spiritual, religious, or cultural beliefs of others. Instead they explained to me as much as possible. My parents grew up with great poverty and illness in Puerto Rico. As a result, they were unable to complete their educational studies. My mother completed 5th grade and my father was unable to complete high school. They both began working at very young ages, before adulthood. They were not able to teach me academics but they were able to give me a gift for which there is no college degree or high school diploma. From my parents, especially my mother, I learned to honor and celebrate diversity.

When we moved from Williamsburg to a section of Queens in NY, my mother met the previous tenant of the apartment. The woman was Jewish and told my mother that there was a mezuzah on the right side of the doorpost to the apartment. The woman asked my mother if she wanted it removed. My mother said no. That was in 1973. Today-33 years later-the mezuzah still stands there.

My mother was raised catholic. On her apartment door she has a picture of Jesus. When she leaves the apartment she touches both the photo of Jesus and the mezuzah, and prays. I have been accepted to study at a NYC based seminary to become an interfaith minister. My interest in pursuing interfaith ministry has strong roots in my observance of my mother’s spirituality and the influence that the Jewish community has and continues to have in my life.

Raoul Wallenberg risked his life to save others. Once saved by Wallenberg, Agnes Adachi could have chosen to focus on solely keeping herself and her family safe. Instead, she made the decision to help rescue others-not once but over and over again. No one forced Agnes Adachi to save anyone. Such acts of altruism restore my faith in humanity.

In the late 1980s I had the honor of studying at Humboldt Sate University in Arcata in northern California. My major was Sociology. The chairperson of my thesis committee was Professor Samuel Oliner. He is Jewish and lost his family in the Holocaust. He was saved by Christians. I was able to attend his class on genocide and as part of my studies worked in his Altrusitic Personality Project-”a broad-based study of the men and women (including Christians) who rescued Jews from the Nazi Holocaust, with particular emphasis on the familial and societal factors that led them to risk their lives for others.” I was responsible for coding data from interviews of rescuers and non-rescuers living in Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy during the Nazi occupation.

On a personal note, I am survivor of traumas which to this day haunt me. The housing projects I grew up in were filled with the sounds and sights of people being abused physically, emotionally, and sexually. To survive I had to flee perpetrators of all kinds, including ones with knives, guns, and those who used their bare hands to commit acts of violations.

I survived but not fully intact. I have many invisible scars of the abuse I suffered. I know I can remain frozen in the sadness and terror of those years. But meeting people such as Agnes Adachi, being a volunteer at the IRWF, and having studied with Professor Samuel Oliner helps me reach out and beyond the depths of despair.

Both in her IRWF interview and in her book, Child of the Winds, Agnes Adachi describes how she, Wallenberg, and others helped save the lives of women by creating and delivering Schutzpasses. Wallenberg created the Schutzpass which was a false document (special Swedish passport) that granted immunity to the Hungarian Jews from being deported to the death camps.

Agnes Adachi writes: ”The radio made a new announcement that all the young women between the ages of 15 and 25 had to be in the sports palace the next morning by 7 o”clock to work, cleaning up the rubble. But we knew better. This was a way to the trains and gas chambers. Raoul asked all of us to come and write Passes for all the young women we knew, while he was again on the road pulling people from the death marches. I delivered 500, including one each to Anita and Lydia, and to a couple of other friends.”

Agnes Adachi writes that it was past midnight and that all the Schutzpasses had to be delivered by 3AM: ”Clearly I can remember all I could hear was my lonely footsteps in the crisp snow, and the beating of my heart.”

I once heard a Native American man describe the sound of the drum as representing the heart beat of Mother Earth. My ears hear the beat of the Native American drum, the heartbeat of Mother Earth, the beat of Agnes Adachi’s heart. And at the IRWF I get to hear the heart beats of the victims and rescuers and all those who join together to promote peace and non-violence. All of these individual heart beats resound as one in my own heart.

During the IRWF interview, Agnes Adachi describes her experience of saving people who were sentenced to die in the Danube River. She also describes this experience in her book, Child of the Winds: ”One day in late December, just before Christmas, as Raoul returned from his usual running around, he heard that the Arrow Cross was killing people in the Danube.” The Arrow Cross was an anti-Semitic fascist party in Hungary that existed from 1935 to 1945.

Agnes Adachi writes: ”They did so in the night, since it was very dark. The snow, however, was bright enough. They would bind three people together with a rope, so that they only had to shoot one in the middle and all would fall into the frozen Danube. Raoul was outraged. He asked who of us could swim… I think we only saved about 50 or 60 people but without Raoul they would have died.”

One of my favorite books is The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist who survived Auschwitz. He is deceased now. However, he lives on through his written works. Primo Levi’s accounts of his experience in Auschwitz are profound. I have no words to describe the impact of his work on my own personal journey of healing from trauma.

I volunteered to interview Agnes Adachi because I passionately believe that it is vital for the stories of both the victims and rescuers to be known, told, and preserved so that both present and future generations can reap the benefits of such knowledge, wisdom, and human experience. Each story honored heals the heart of the world, one person and one heart at a time.