TAMPA — Growing up in Miami, Bonnie Stein knew her family was different.
She never visited her grandparents on the weekends like the rest of the kids in her neighborhood. Nor did she ever see remnants — pictures, toys, clothes — from her parents' childhoods.
Stein shared those memories with about 400 people inside the third-floor ballroom of the Italian Club, commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The United Nations designated Jan. 27 of each year as a day of remembrance. It coincides with the day — Jan. 27, 1945 — Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated from Nazi control.
During the ceremony, Holocaust survivors Carolyn Kaplan, Erika Liebert, Mickey and Magda Cline Quittner, Rose Safar Rosen, Paul and Helen Kalfus, Francie Rosenstock Weintraub, and Freda Salzberg, lit six candles, symbolizing the more than 6 million Jews murdered during what has been sometimes referred to as the “Final Solution.”
Stein told the crowd she also suffered nightmares as a child. Vivid scenes of Nazi concentration camps, beatings, and poisonous gas showers, among others played repeatedly.
She didn't live through the Holocaust, but her parents did. They were ensnared at labor camps and eventually got their freedom.
“As children of Holocaust survivors, we inherit fears that do not belong to us,” she said.
Her grandparents and 63 of her mother's family members were killed by Nazi soldiers, she said.
The first story she was told of Nazis came as a 5-year-old first-grader, she said.
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Art Meier spent the first 14 years of his life in Germany. As a child, he saw the change when Adolf Hitler seized control of the country. Change was in his face at school. His principal and a teacher would search out Jewish kids, assaulting them.
His family escaped further persecution by boat, arriving in New York on Nov. 15, 1939.
“I'll never forget seeing the Statue of Liberty as we were sailing into the harbor,” he said. “It was 14 years of my life, but finally, I was free.
“Can we forgive the new generation in Germany? I think so because they are much different than their ancestors. Can we forgive the Nazi generation? No. Let's never forget what happen to ensure it doesn't happen again.”
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Dr. Martina Emme flipped through one plastic-sealed page after another Sunday afternoon until she came across three photos.
One depicted a man holding the hand of a toddler in 1961. Another showed a man sitting in a chair, drawing a wide grin from a teenage granddaughter.
The final photo was of a man in a Nazi Germany military uniform. The words, in German, scrolled along the bottom of the photo read: “Somewhere in Lithuania 1941.”
The man in each photo was Martina Emme's grandfather, Adolf Emme.
She learned through research he was a “radio man” for the German army between 1941 and 1944.
Finding out the man she loved dearly, the kind grandfather she knew with a keen sense of humor, was a member of the Nazi army shook her. It led Emme to meet with a group of Jewish and Nazi descendants in 1993.
“This is the most profound experience I've ever had,” she said. “Sometimes you are in a situation and you feel it was meant to be. I was meant to be there and have that experience and it was so important for me and it still is important for me now.”
Emme, along with Dr. Wilma Busse, the daughter of a labor camp survivor, and Rosalie Gerut, the daughter of Jewish survivors, created the group One By One, established to allow those who are descendants of Holocaust survivors and those who are the descendants of Nazi soldiers or Nazi sympathizers, to come together and talk in a healing way.
The group was formed in 1995 following the 1993 meeting.
“The goal is to break the cycle of hatred, revenge, fear and shame,” Emme said. “Personally speaking, I want to give them the idea that there are people in Germany with this history who do care. This is my main goal.”
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Another story from Stein's youth came from a visit to a grocery store with her mother. Behind them were two Germans with heavy accents. Stein said the squeeze her mother applied to her hand was so tight, she can figuratively feel it today.
That fear for Stein has since dissipated after a trip to Germany in which she was treated with immense kindness. She has also facilitated countless tours at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.
“I ask you to imagine that we all have our own garden in our backyard,” Stein, said. “In that garden, there are weeds and there are flowers and we recognize there will always be weeds in the garden, yet where do I choose to put my attention?
What grows is what you pay your most attention to and what we nurture and what we water. And so I encourage all of us to put our attention to the flowers that we want to grow.”