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Article: Stories from Holocaust survivors

By Terry Howard, Director of Diversity/Inclusion

"First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one to speak out for me."     – the Rev. Martin Niemöller

What a remarkable 90 minutes!

Several times I looked over my shoulder to scan the faces of the 100-plus people in the audience. Their eyes – many of them moist, many widen by disbelief - were transfixed on the aging couple on the stage: William and Rosalie Schiff, Holocaust survivors.

Having lived in six concentration camps, including Auschwitz, the Schiffs were separated during the war and somehow reunited at the war's end. They told their incredible stories during an event this month sponsored by the TI Jewish and Christian Values diversity initiatives to a captivated audience of 250, including those who participated remotely from Arizona, Maryland, Japan, New Hampshire, California, Illinois and Texas.

The reactions of TIers were riveting.

I saw one shaking his head in dismay. He wrote later: "The reach of this event was substantial. I've heard from several folks who listened over the Internet. It has caused quite a stir. Of course on many levels, the session was deeply distressing. Yet, the Schiffs' inspiring perseverance through their ordeals, and their stories of repeated rescue beyond all odds, were profoundly encouraging.''

And yes, I was moved as well.

But what had to be a lot more intriguing were the thoughts that raced through the minds of those in the audience. What were those thoughts? What moved them? What unnerved them? I decided to find out by posing the questions (and their responses) below:

What was one thing said that had the biggest impact on you? (Aha moment)?

  • "I toured a Holocaust exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London in 1999 and came out physically and emotionally dead. But those were just pictures, models and artifacts. It's completely different to actually experience, in a small way, what they lived though. So the biggest ‘aha' moments for me were William's recounting how many times he was pulled out with a group of others and being the only one who was not shot, and when Rosalie told about the babies in the orphanage being tossed out the windows like trash."
  • "I'm Jewish so this event was very meaningful and real to me. It's nice that this occurred on the same day that my older son was boarding a plane for a class trip to Poland and Israel as part of a "March of the Living" to remember the Holocaust. I'm sure he will be touched by this trip and that it will be very meaningful to him as this session was for me. What a fantastic event and so very meaningful. In fact, I ran into the speakers again during Shabbat services at my synagogue over the weekend."
  • "I was shocked at the high number of people who died within days of being freed from overeating because their systems could not take it after being malnourished for so many years. It shows that the obvious way to help, if not done in moderation, can still hurt."
  • "For me, it was when Rosalie said that it was a pity Hitler didn't realize we're all from the same race, the human race, and when William told about passing up the opportunity for revenge at the end of the war. And I was glad when Rosalie pointed out that, in addition to Jews being targeted by the Nazis, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses were also targeted."
  • "It is really hard to pick any one thing that had the biggest impact rather than the sum total of all I heard. Seeing the concentration camp marks on Mr. Schiff's arm had a huge impact. And hearing him say ‘Be nice to people,' after all he had been through. Certainly all this makes me appreciate each day in life as truly a gift and to never take anything for granted."
How do we relate what we heard to our workplace?  
  • "To me, this event emphasized the importance of working together regardless of our goals and not let differences in ethnicity, beliefs, etc., get in the way and to always be respectful of others."
  • "Whenever we do not treat others with respect, we are doing to them, in a small but just as impactful way, what was done to the Schiffs and countless others. Treating others correctly is more important than profit. When you do that, it will enable profits. If you do not, profits will be harder to come by in the long run and cost much more than just dollars."

Are there compelling messages in their experiences relative to leadership, relationships and collaboration during these turbulent times?

  • "This is a tough one. William talked about not being able to trust anyone, especially in a survival mode. However, at work we have to be able to trust and rely on others. Another transferable message is the need for more people to step up and be courageous."
  • "There are so many compelling messages here. Consider all that they went through; the loss of loved ones right before their eyes and the daily threats of death. Despite all the hardships, they went on to live their lives and despite so many obstacles, hardships where most others would have easily succumbed. Certainly there are messages here for our business: There will be turbulent times….we must continue to work hard regardless…don't change our work ethic, values, regardless of times…. our need to always see the light at the end of the tunnel despite how dark times can be."

What are the most obvious and maybe not so obvious lessons we could take away relative to diversity and inclusion?

  • "We should all appreciate differences and respect what people bring to the table. Whether a group is technical or non-technical, they bring value and should not be left out and treated as if they're unimportant or insignificant. To realize that we are all people and should be respectful of each other as individuals and professionals. There is no place for prejudice and violence simply because of one's religious beliefs, nationality, etc."
  • "Everyone is potentially a perpetrator or a victim. We are all different in some way. Living correctly requires decisions to do the difficult thing rather than the easy thing. We all share the responsibility if we stand by and do nothing. Diversity and inclusion require action and activity; they are not passive."
  • "After listening to the Schiffs, it seems that there are many things we treat as important that really aren't important in the grand scheme of things. It helps to put things into perspective. If we apply William's approach to the workplace we could have effective working relationships with almost anyone."
  • "At the end of the day it's about respect and finding common ground. We have a common ground with each other – it is making TI the best semiconductor company in the world."

As 1 p.m. neared, many headed to the exits. Others continued to sit frozen in silence. And still others were drawn to the front of the auditorium to thank the Schiffs and to get a closer look at the black and white pictures on the table just below the stage.

And when William Schiff peeled back his shirtsleeve to expose the concentration camp brand seared - without anesthesia  - onto his forearm by the Nazis, several reached out and gently touched it…and touched a fleeting history as well. And we realized right then and there that….

we will never forget!

Terry Howard is the global diversity and inclusion director at Dallas-based Texas Instruments. He is also the founder of the Global Diversity Connections Consortium, a networking and best practices group of 60 diversity, legal, business and HR professionals with members in China, Europe, Canada, Indonesia, India and across the United States. He can be reached at (214) 567-2824, w-howard1@ti.com

 

June 2010

 



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