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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The Memory of a Christmas Eve Miracle

Christmas Dining TableIt’s Christmastime again! Everywhere you look there are festively decorated store windows, Christmas commercials about joyful family gatherings, and music that floods us with memories of long ago holidays. Yet for many folks, there is also the longing for yesterday that this season can create. Vacant places at the table where deceased loved ones once sat, or maybe an empty table resulting from a family that’s been broken, or just grown and moved away.

There is also the financial burden for economically struggling individuals not knowing how they will make ends meet, let alone having anything left over for their children’s Christmas list. After all, children don’t understand that their circumstances are not conducive for a visit from Santa.

My late friend Liesl Sondheimer asked me for my help in sharing her own miracle of holiday provision, but for her it was a Hanukkah miracle. To explain, sometimes the two religious celebrations intersect, as they must have that December almost 75 years ago. Liesl was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who lived in Lima, Ohio for six decades. After fleeing from Germany in 1938, the Jewish immigrant began life anew, but most of her extended family perished.

It was a decade ago, when Liesl’s 97-year-old arthritic hands prevented her from writingphoto (13) the inspiring story herself, so I typed it down while she dictated. The small of stature, silver-haired survivor began, “…Although my husband was a physician in Germany, we were forced to flee from our home to seek refuge in the United States because of the rise of the Hitler regime. We recently had arrived in this country from Nazi Germany. At the entrance of the dilapidated apartment building that was to become our home, my two little girls asked, ‘Will we get any Hanukkah gifts this year?’ I had to tell them there was no money for gifts when we were not able to even provide for the most necessary things.

“On Christmas Eve, there was a knock at the door,” Liesl continued. “The janitor handed me packages with clothing and toys for the children, food, and a little Christmas tree. Asking who the kind donors were, the janitor would only tell me some people had overheard our conversation and did not want the children to go without gifts this holiday season. They did not even want us to know their names.

“How blessed it is to give, so much easier than to receive,” concluded the elderly Jewish lady. “My financial circumstances improved and I was able to be able to be on the giving side the rest of my life. However, I will never forget how wonderful it was to receive goods, warmth, love and encouragement while struggling in poverty. It keeps up one’s faith in the goodness of man.”

As I typed the account of the long-ago random act of kindness, it was Liesl’s assertion of her steadfast faith in the “goodness of man,” that has always intrigued me. Especially, since Mrs. Sondheimer’s words echoed that of the 18th century German poet Goethe whom she deeply admired, “Noble be man, merciful and good.”

The compassion of other human beings is something that most of us desperately need to be reminded of right now. With nightly news broadcasting horrific features about the cruelty of individuals involved in terrorist attacks, school shootings, and ongoing racial tension in metropolitan areas, we can forget about all the giving folks trying to make the world a better place.

Christmas Tree 2015Besides, at Christmastime, we frequently witness the very best in people. The countless law enforcement officers making sure local kids have gifts to open; the churchgoers everywhere who collect thousands of shoeboxes filled with little blessings for impoverished children overseas; the service clubs, ministries, and organizations working diligently to fill the gap for parents through local programs or through Angel Tree and Toys for Tots; the Salvation Army volunteer bell ringers grateful for each dollar donated; the school personnel and families secretly giving to those in need among them; and the list goes on and on.

Mrs. Sondheimer refused to allow her once painful circumstances to make her bitter. Rather, she chose to celebrate the memory of a holiday miracle when her family was cared for by strangers. It might help to remember that the reason for the season was never about festively wrapped gifts anyway, but about a baby born in a humble Bethlehem stable offering mankind the gift of God’s love. In closing, Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all!

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

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