The day 81-year-old Romek “Robbie” Waisman boarded the plane and sat next to me is a day I will remember forever. He had a kind face and a gentle way about him.
As we settled in for the long flight I noticed his boarding pass said Vancouver, which was unusual to see in Omaha, Nebraska. I was curious to know what brought him to the Heartland – and his answer was the furthest thing from what I expected.
“I am a Holocaust survivor,” Robbie replied. “I was in Buchenwald concentration camp from ages 11 to 14, and we were in Nebraska talking to school children about that story in hopes of inspiring them to choose peace, tolerance and acceptance.”
For the next two flights and eight hours Robbie told me story after story, and we cried together. I listened, contemplated, and absorbed this firsthand account of what it was like during this time – which is a story I have been personally connected to since I was a child.
I was raised by a single mother who worked during the day as a teacher, which is why I was cared for by a woman named Ella who had been a nurse in Germany during the war – and t the impact of her experiences was evident. She passed away when I was just 12 years old, long before I could ask the questions I now have as an adult. Robbie generously shared his experiences with me and patiently answered every one of my questions. I hung on his every syllable as he explained what this was like to live through, and more importantly, how he learned to love humanity again.
“I was 14 years old when we were liberated from Buchenwald on April 11th, 1945,” Robbie continued. “It was late afternoon when I saw some black American soldiers.”
He told me he approached one of those soldiers, 18-year-old Leon Bass. He remembers reaching out to touch him, recalling “I had never seen a black person before. I wasn’t sure if Leon was real, or if I had died and this is what angels looked like.”
At the time Robbie’s only language was Polish, and Leon’s was English, which meant they didn’t speak to each other that day – but they would later discover how they both vividly remembered their encounter.
Following liberation, Robbie found his way to Canada and in 1983, while working at UBC, a colleague showed him a picture from that day in 1945. There, before Robbie’s eyes, was a picture of Leon Bass. They now shared the same language and Robbie was eager to reconnect with Leon. What I would later come to learn, is that it was Leon who had traveled to Nebraska with Robbie. Leon was now 85 years old and Leon had many stories of his own to share from that time, including what it was like to be a black man who was in the military in the 40’s.
Robbie added, “Since we’ve reconnected, Leon and I have toured all over the world sharing our stories, promoting peace, tolerance and acceptance. The resilience of the human spirit is unbelievable.”
Robbie found the capacity within himself, after such horrific experiences, to offer care and love for humanity. He was given the worst the world had to offer and yet he continues to make the conscious choice to celebrate what’s right with it. He doesn’t ignore the bad, but he also doesn’t stay focused on it. Robbie demonstrated to me that it’s not the circumstances that determine how we look at the world, but rather how we choose to respond – and it is our choice every single day.
Since 1997, Lauri Gwilt has centered her career on helping people across North America to discover the connection between how they think and how their lives go. She is co-author and co-host of The Habit of Celebration, an e-course from the Celebrate What’s Right initiative developed with former National Geographic Photographer, Dewitt Jones.
Share This Emotional Story With Your Friends – Photo by Lauri Gwilt