Every so often you receive an opportunity in life to experience something remarkable that you never expected or went out to find. Something like the perfect job when you weren’t looking for a chance in your career, or a great love that comes when you had no intention of making room for another person in your life. But these are the big ones. Other times some of the greatest opportunities come disguised, giving you no indication from the outset that saying yes will give you the chance to experience something great. For me this opportunity came when I was asked to donate a couple of books to a silent auction.
My official author email address is pretty much available anywhere my face appears on the internet, and so I get quite a lot of random emails. Many of them get deleted because they are spam, irrelevant, or perhaps even offensive, but last month when I received a request for a book donation I took it seriously. It struck a chord with me because it was from the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Centre in Philadelphia. I have long held a great interest for learning about the war, something which intensified after taking an Auschwitz tour just over ten years ago, and so the idea of donating to such a cause was appealing to me. I never expected anything from that decision other than the momentary satisfaction that I had donated to something of value. I fired off an email offering some signed copies and thought that would be that.
However, a few days later I received a reply from Jackie, the lady who had first contacted me to ask for the donation, offering to set up an educational Skype meeting with a holocaust survivor. I was taken aback at the chance. I’ve watched hundreds of documentaries, read many more books, but to sit face to face with, and learn from a person who had lived through the holocaust; well that was something else entirely. I very quickly said yes, and we set up a date.
Beforehand Jackie sent me some information about David, the man I was to meet, and the life he lived. Reading it gave me chills, and made me a little anxious about the prospect of meeting him. It felt a little like I would be picking over his life’s details, and I wondered if he would be unimpressed at my relative nativity. To think that a boy who in 1939 when war broke out in Poland, would go on to experience all that he had in the earliest years of his teenage life, left me feeling in some way inferior. So, I did what any writer would do in advance of such a meeting. I read. I read whatever I could about the time period, the camps, and the life experiences there. And although I hoped that I could in some way ready myself to sit and chat with David, my research in no way prepared me for the experience of finally meeting such a remarkable man when he took his seat in front of the camera.
While I felt a little awkward at first, there didn’t seem to be any nerves on his part. He sat down, rested his elbows on the table, and asked me what I wanted to know. And what I went on to realise is that he was at ease because he had done this before; educating a school in South America only a couple of weeks before, and many more before that. In fact, last year he spoke with over 13,000 people, many of whom were school age in a hope to share his experiences. His willingness to share his life’s story gave him an air of comfort in spite of the difficult facts he was sharing, his recollection of which were sharp and faultless, stopping only a handful of times when it seemed to me that a personal detail had struck him that he wasn’t sure he wanted to recall.
I had a list of questions that I wanted answers for before we sat down together, and yet by the end of the conversation I found that I had asked none of them. Instead I found myself quietly listening, not wanting to interrupt, not wanting to push in the wrong direction. I was aware that everything he had to say was as valuable as any answer I was seeking. During the hour and fifteen minutes we spent together we talked about his life, what he experienced, the jobs he had done since, and the fact that he liked my cat when he unexpectedly jumped up onto my desk. In a conversation about the hardest years in Polish history, and undoubtedly the hardest period in his personal life, we found the space to laugh and share humour as two people who perhaps in another place and different circumstances might have gone on to become friends.
As we wrapped up the conversation he joked that normally people only got forty-five minutes, and then offered to send me a signed copy of his book. It is a gift I will always treasure. Then after we said goodbye I sat with my husband to tell him about David’s life. Even an hour later, as I climbed into bed, my thoughts slowly returning to my own life, I found that I couldn’t leave David’s story behind. I kept thinking not only how lucky I was to be able to speak with him as I had, but how lucky I was in general with my life. I found myself thinking that perhaps it was that same luck that had kept David alive during the two years he spent in Auschwitz, or during the 370 mile cattle train journey in the middle of an Austrian winter. When you think of the many millions of people who died, surely luck must come into it somewhere. But not only that, he also left me with another impression. He spoke of many small opportunities throughout the war that in hindsight where much bigger than they seemed at the time. Like the time he was hauled in front on the Commandant of Auschwitz for having a half-eaten sandwich in his drawer. When faced with what could have been certain death he took a chance, summoned all his courage, and demanded to be sent back to work. Some might have said that was foolish at the time. He seemed to recall it as such himself, yet with a smile that suggested he would do the exact same thing again if he found himself facing the same dilemma again. Yet it was taking that chance, along with many others throughout the war, that kept him alive where perhaps to survive was against the odds.
Eight years later David has dedicated much of his time to taking these small opportunities, offering to educate those who would dare to learn about one of the bleakest periods in twentieth century history. He does so in the hope that it, and what happened, will never be forgotten, because he understands that sometimes the smallest opportunities create the biggest impressions. Sitting down to talk with David Tuck will always be one such opportunity for me.