Liesl’s Legacy: A Holocaust Survivor’s Lessons for Life

Liesl celebrated our wedding as if she was the mother of the bride.

    Liesl celebrated our wedding as if she was the mother of the bride.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. The late Elisabeth “Liesl” Sondheimer was deeply inspired by this former first lady who was once her house guest. Yet many of us in northwestern Ohio can readily admit that Mrs. Sondheimer was the one who inspired us.

Liesl has been gone for almost a decade now, but her life lessons live on. Being a Jewish Holocaust survivor, she had every reason to believe that the world was an ugly place filled with horrific evil. As a young woman she was forced to flee her beloved Germany during Hitler’s regime.

Instead of becoming bitter, she embraced forgiveness. Not the cheap kind of forgiveness that pardons atrocity by denying its existence, but genuine forgiveness which is a gift to yourself. Once, during an interview, I asked her how she could forgive. She gazed at me intently, and simply said, “You must forgive, or Hitler has won.”

Liesl was silver-haired and wrinkled, but still ethereally beautiful, by the time I met her shortly after her 90th birthday in 1997. While interviewing her for a TV feature about the Holocaust, I was honored when the local celebrity asked me to join her for supper. One of my greatest life blessings was that this courageous woman took me under her mentoring wing.

Since Liesl loved adventures, especially ones that involved supporting the arts, music or books; I would occasionally pick her up and whisk her away to an event. It was on these outings that she freely shared her wisdom about life. Once while I was driving her to an art museum, my friend absentmindedly asked, “Did I ever tell you about the time Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at my house?”

“No, I think I would have remembered that,” I jokingly replied.

She then began to share how decades ago, she had invited Eleanor Roosevelt to visit northwestern Ohio simply by sending her a letter. Her cause was successful, due to some assistance from an influential friend. This Liesl dissertation was the, “You never know… anything can happen if you try” lesson. I needed this motivational message, because life circumstances had tattered my own faith.

My brokenness was probably one of the reasons that this dear lady reached out to me. Surviving a near fatal suicide attempt, and then being confined in a state mental institution as a teen had left scars on me that only another survivor could see. Sadly, others battling mental illness whom I had met along my recovery journey, did not survive. Therefore, Liesl, who had been educated in social work, gently guided me in understanding the lesson of “Survivor’s Guilt,” that I must go on, and be grateful for surviving.

In explanation, when one triumphs over negative circumstances, it is easy to get stuck in the guilt created by contemplating why others have not been so fortunate. After the Holocaust, the Jewish survivor admitted that this quandary haunted her, too. But she refused to allow this never to-be-answered question about the past destroy her future.

Yet to prevent these tragedies from reoccurring, she also believed that it was a survivor’s moral responsibility to speak up on behalf of those still struggling. Even though she forgave, she never forgot the millions of Holocaust victims. Instead she passionately shared her story to warn others about the dangers of prejudice.

On a lighter note, there was also the “Beauty is Ageless” teaching, which I learned vicariously while watching Liesl shop for clothes. She took time to look her best, and never stopped caring about fabric, color, or finding just the right accessory. In 2007, for her 100th birthday, I drove her to a mall in a neighboring state where she enthusiastically tried on countless outfits looking for just the right pieces for her wardrobe.

Although most important was the “Love” lesson that Liesl taught me. When I met school administrator Larry Claypool in 2001, past hurts had left me too afraid to love. When it came to romance, Liesl used to describe me, “As a burnt child, who was afraid of the fire.”

But at heart, Liesl was a hopeless romantic, who challenged my initial fears about dating Larry, by asserting that one must be willing to risk everything to have another opportunity for happiness. My own mother had given me this same advice. The following year, Liesl sat smugly in a church pew dressed smartly in a pale pink suit smiling with satisfaction as Larry and I recited our vows in a candlelight ceremony.

For me, Liesl’s legacy of living courageously includes: the challenge to embrace forgiveness, to speak up against injustice, to support the arts, to reach for your dreams, and to always look your best.

However, I will always be most grateful for Liesl’s “Love” lesson. After all, it was my precious husband’s protective arms that comforted me when we buried my remarkable 101-year-old friend in spring of 2009.

This humble humanitarian shared her messages with civic clubs, women’s groups, universities, and in school classrooms across our community. Her story of surviving seemingly impossible circumstances graced her listeners with the gift of hope everywhere she went. Upon her passing, people of different faiths honored her legacy.

Today, her lessons live on. You see, those we love never die. They are always in our hearts, shaping our tomorrows with their valuable influence.  

Christina Ryan Claypool is the author of the Inspirational novel, “Secrets of the Pastor’s Wife” which will be released in fall 2018. Her Website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com

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Thankful for the Gift of More Time

Martha Farmer 034 Martha Farmer 037 “It wasn’t your time,” the body shop technician said matter-of-factly surveying my husband’s wrecked car. As Nate, whose name was embroidered on his work shirt, began wrapping the totaled vehicle with clear plastic; I dutifully gathered my personal possessions.

Just days before, the black sedan’s pristine finish glistened in the sunshine. Now, what was left of the car was a reminder of how blessed I had been to survive.

“It wasn’t your time,” was the twenty-something auto-technician’s advice on how to conquer the anxiety about driving that my 2008 accident created. I often think of Nate’s simple theology.

His statement reminded me of something German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his Letters and Papers from Prison, “We all have our appointed hour of death, and it will always find us wherever we go. And we must be ready for it.”

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who refused to sit idly by as Adolph Hitler killed millions of Jewish citizens during World War II. Instead the German leader joined a movement to have Hitler assassinated, resulting in his 1943 imprisonment. Bonhoeffer’s own appointed hour of death occurred in 1945, when at only 39 years of age he was hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp.Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’m not comparing my situation to the slain scholar’s, because I felt blessed to be alive that afternoon. After all, a few days earlier while driving in heavy four-lane traffic I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw a car rapidly approaching. My frantic mind quickly realized that there was nothing I could do. Suddenly, I heard the sickening sound of crunching metal, and felt the forceful impact that propelled me forward quite a distance.

Miraculously, there was no vehicle directly ahead, nor had I been pushed into an adjoining lane. Momentarily dazed, I gratefully assessed that my injuries were non-life-threatening, although they would require a trip to the hospital. The young man whose vehicle’s front end had connected with my demolished back end assured me that he was ok, too. “We can always get a new car, but we can’t replace precious people,” was a philosophy that I had been taught by my late mother.

Thankfully, I knew my husband agreed with my practical view of totaled automobiles, since I just “happened” to borrow his car that day. Providentially, Larry’s vehicle “was” proven to prevent injuries in crash tests. It lived up to its promise, even though it resembled a folded accordion after the wreck.

photo (2)There were several other remarkable occurrences surrounding the event. When dressing the morning of the accident, my treasured angel pin, a gift from late Jewish Holocaust survivor, Elisabeth Sondheimer, seemed to sparkle warningly as it fell to my bedroom floor. Then before leaving, my normally rushed school administrator spouse stopped uncharacteristically to put his arms around me and say a quick prayer.

I had also placed an antique picture of Jesus standing behind a sailor who is navigating a ship’s wooden wheel behind the driver’s seat that day. The portrait depicts the Jewish carpenter with one hand lovingly resting on the young seamen’s shoulder and the other arm extended, pointing him in the direction he needs to go amidst the turbulent seas.

I had taken the inspirational artwork to give to a colleague who was encountering some rough seas of his own. When cleaning the car out at the body shop, I found the glass and wooden framed picture undamaged just as Nate was sharing his wise advice about it not being my time.Jesus is my Pilot

The borrowed car, the angel pin, my husband’s spontaneous prayer, and the antique picture are all reminders of my own belief that God is always in control, even when life seems randomly chaotic. However, my greatest blessing was the fact that apparently it wasn’t my “appointed hour of death” as Bonhoeffer once wrote. Because someday, death “will find me,” just as it finds us all, since nobody gets out of here alive.

If you disagree with Nate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and me, perhaps you will like the wisdom in the song lyrics of the former hit, It’s Not My Time by rockers, 3 Doors Down. “My friend, this life we live is not what we have, it’s what we believe. And it’s not my time. I’m not going ….” Hopefully, you and I are not going today. For now, we’ve all been granted the precious opportunity to spend more time with those we love, and to finish our work on this Earth.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an inspirational speaker and Amy Award winning freelance journalist. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.  

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