As I prepare for my return to Detroit, I want to share with you a story about Tola Gilbert.
Tola is a survivor, who stands not even 5’ tall, but whose stature is enormous in every way that matters. She is kind, she is happy and she is good. She smiles easily, despite many reasons not to, and she is someone who always tries to help. These days, she needs more help than she can give. Tola is one of a handful of survivors still alive from the hundreds I have interviewed over these past twenty five years, researching my book and exhibition. And Tola, now widowed and now living in an assisted care residence in a Detroit suburb, remains upbeat and has a ready smile.
I visited her recently with the help of my friend, Charlie Silow, who is a psychologist and son of survivors. I explained I wanted to thank Tola for what she did for me, by sharing her story so many years ago and the story of her Zionist youth group leader who inspired her so much as a young girl.
Ann with Charlie Silow and Tola Gilbert in Detroit, with section of The Last Album featuring Genya Gutfreund Manela.
Charlie explained that she will not remember me. Tola now lives in the Alzheimer’s unit. And I responded, “I am not coming so she will remember me. I am coming because I will never forget her. And I wanted to say thank you, one last time.”
And so we waited for the elevator. Charlie prepared me again: “Tola is very sweet, but she will not remember anything.” We found Tola in the dining room, seated at a table with three other women. I explained who I was and why I was there. And then I opened my book to the section which is all written in quotes–quotes directly from Tola Gilbert.
As soon as she saw the photo of her Zionist Youth leader, she began to squeal, “Look, this is Genya Gutfreund Manela!!!!! She’s my Zionist leader!” And as if that wasn’t enough, she continued, “From HaNoar HaTzioni!!!”
Everyone was astounded, Charlie included.
And so began one of the most touching visits. As Tola looked at the picture in the book which details the whole story, I began to read her own words to her.
Here is a taste of what Tola Gilbert told me many years ago, and what I read back to just recently from my book, when she described her inspiring youth group leader and the tenor of their meetings:
Here is Ann with Tola Gilbert, just after hearing her words read from Ann’s book.
Oy, look! look! This is my leader Genya. Isn’t she beautiful? She was just as beautiful on the inside as the outside! This is the very picture she gave us when she left Poland! Someone brought it to Auschwitz to remember her and be inspired.
She was our leader in Ha Noar Ha’Tzioni, our Jewish Zionist youth group. I was a little younger, maybe thirteen or fourteen, when she was twenty, twenty one. She was such a good leader and she provided for us younger ones a good example.
She taught us about philosophy. We had discussions about great literature. I remember our discussions about great literature. I remember our dicussions about Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and many others. And she asked us to learn about ourselves and how to always be better people. She encouraged us, most of all, to find ways to try to improve the world by improving ourselves….
This is Genya Gutfreund Manela
I am so grateful to have seen Tola again.
Tola remembers, and feels the joy of her life before the war.
In a few months when I return to Detroit to open a four month run of the exhibition, The Last Album, I will take the stage, tell stories and read Tola’s words again. But this time, if we are lucky, very, very lucky, and if her health permits, Tola will accompany me on that stage. And then, not only will I, but everyone in that audience will have a chance to say what I want to say: Thank you.