by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Jewish Press Editor
The Holocaust happened many years ago in places far from here, and to many modern American teenagers, that may make it into a story that doesn’t truly touch them. Survivors like Bea Karp understand the danger in turning real life terror into myth, and it is why she has tirelessly spoken to audiences everywhere about her experiences.
In her book, My Broken Doll, which she co-wrote with her daughter Debby Pappenheimer, who also painted the illustrations, she spoke about her father, who received a raw egg during extreme hunger in the concentration camp Gurs. Noticing it contained a spot of blood, he hurled it against the wall, rather than eating it.
“I later came to understand what my father might have been trying to teach us. God gave humans a brain to choose between right and wrong. My Papa’s actions demonstrated that while he had no control over what the Nazis did to him physically, he still had a choice. The choice of not eating the egg was my father’s way of maintaining his Judaism and his humanity despite being treated as sub-human.”
That choice between right and wrong, and the responsibility to make that choice, is at the center of Bea’s life. Like her father before her, Bea is first and foremost a teacher to the rest of us.
In 1942, Bea, together with her mother Rosa and her sister Susie, was moved from Camp Gurs to Camp Rivesaltes. The camp was used as a transit center starting in August of 1942, before becoming the assembly camp for Jews deported from the Southern part of France. Rivesaltes illustrated the extent of political exclusion: internees included refugees from the Spanish Civil War, foreign Jews, and Gypsies who were deported from the Alsace. There was never just one camp at Rivesaltes, according to the Memorial’s brochure: “a Spanish refugee camp, a camp for Vichy France’s undesirables, a camp to assemble Jews before deportation, and a transit camp for Harkis after the Algerian War.”
Conditions in the camp were reflected by the desolate landscape.
“That area of Southern France is naturally that way,” Bea said. “They didn’t have to create it — it’s destitute, dry land. The camp had separate children’s barracks, and so we didn’t see the adults much. They would take us on long walks, and I would walk until I had holes in my shoes. When she had the chance, my mother would stuff my shoes with rags, paper and grass. In the afternoon we played board games, and there was this woman who would yodel and sometimes bring us small triangles of cheese. We would fight over what she brought. At night, we would be sent back to the barracks and sometimes I would see my mother then.”
Rivesaltes, as Bea described it, was a horrid place, where disease was rampant and food scarce. It was also the last place she saw her mother, when she left with OSE, (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants), a French Jewish humanitarian organization that saved many refugee children during the war, and her father, when he came to say goodbye before being moved to Camp Les Milles.
When earlier this year, the Camp Rivesaltes Memorial opened its doors, invitations were sent to survivors, including Bea. She was contacted by the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., about three weeks before the opening. Bea had heard about the Memorial’s creation:
“Someone had been in touch with Liz Feldstern, Executive Director of the Institute for Holocaust Education,” Bea said. “I was surprised the invite came so late, and I had just gone through some surgery, but I decided to go anyway. I wanted to see Rivesaltes again, because for all these years, I had been telling my story from a child’s point of view. It was important to see that place again with adult eyes. I questioned my memories from time to time, which really bothered me; seeing it as an adult validated those memories.”
Bea was also curious about whether other survivors would show up, and if she would recognize them:
“There aren’t many of us left; after all, it has been 70 years since I was there. All in all, about a dozen showed up. My daughter Jeany was with me, and we were walking around when this woman looks at me, and says: ‘You, I know you, your name is Beate. You haven’t changed.’ Sadly enough, I didn’t recognize her.”
Bea and Jeany met at the museum with the Prime Minister of France, Manuel Walls.
“There were other prominent people,” Bea remembers. “I spoke at length with the director of the museum, a lovely lady by the name of Agnes Sajalili. The president of the OSE came to the occasion from Paris and we talked briefly. Our two days spend at the museum will always be an emotional and never forgotten experience for my daughter Jeany and me. The two days we spend there felt more like a week. There was so much to see and absorb!”
First Susie, then Bea eventually left Rivesaltes via the OSE:
“Saying goodbye to my mother was the hardest thing I did up to that point in my life,” Bea wrote. “I climbed into the truck reluctantly, as my mother watched and finally the truck drove away.”
Bea and Jeany spent two days at the Museum.
“I am glad I went,” she said, “because it is important to support the Museum and what they have tried to create. I left a part of myself there, and I wanted to make sure I was still telling it right.”
“Wars have not stopped in the 21st century,” the Rivesaltes Memorial’s brochure states. “They even come in new forms with the emergence of international terrorism. Massacres and genocides have not ceased. There are still waves of displaced persons.”
And so it remains essential that Bea keeps telling her story, and that we listen. So that, like Bea when she saw her father throw the egg, we are continuously reminded of our humanity.