Entering room 203 in Brubaker Hall, I head to my usual seat in the back row—the perfect location to see everything in the class. From there, I notice a man sitting in the corner near the front of the room. He’s dressed in all black. Shoes, pants, shirt, blazer.
I turn to my classmate, Evan, who had just finished talking to him. “Who’s that?” I ask.
“He’s a guest speaker today,” he says, cleaning his glasses with his sweater. “He’s my piano teacher.”
I knew it! I say to myself.
“He’s here to speak about his and his family’s experience with the Holocaust,” he continues.
My professor, Dr. Joanne Lucena—or Jojo as her students call her—walks into the room and greets our guest before turning to the rest of us. “Okay everyone, this is Doctor Samuel Heifetz,” she says, welcoming the man to the front of the class. “He’s been working at Arcadia for 12 years and he has volunteered to speak to us about his family’s experience with the Holocaust.”
Dr. Heifetz stands facing us at the front of the room. He is a short man with tanned skin and dark gray hair. His light blue eyes hold the pain of his past. He thanks Jojo for teaching the class, “Representations of the Holocaust,” and expresses his gratitude to us—the students—for taking such a necessary course.
In accented English, he speaks about his involvement in Jewish organizations in Latvia and how he became a well-known figure in Jewish politics. “My father used to brag about me,” he jokes.
As his talk progresses, Dr. Heifetz becomes more serious. “Anti-Semitism was part of my everyday life before I came to the U.S.,” he says. “I received threats, swastikas on my property.”
I lean back in my chair, thinking to myself. We read so many Holocaust memoirs in class, and the crimes committed against all the victims are unreal. But knowing the hatred still exists is a much different concept to truly understand.
He paces slowly across the front of the room. “From when I came to the United States until now, I have never experienced anti-Semitism,” he says proudly. “But this is not easy for me to talk about, because of [how] it is connected to my family. At night, my father [woke] up my mom and me. His nightmares.”
Dr. Heifetz’s words are so poignant. So real. I find myself trying to imagine the circumstances of his past, but I realize I can’t. No matter what we do—those of us who didn’t experience the Holocaust—we cannot truly understand. We can sympathize and try to imagine a world where we suffered as they suffered, but we haven’t felt it.
Dr. Heifetz turns to Jojo, then back to us. “You see, when Jews begin to get a sense of equality and worth, a massacre happens to remind us of our place,” he says.
I leave class and head down the hall with a new sense of understanding. Reading memoirs and watching videos of survivors certainly has an impact, but having the opportunity to hear someone speak right in front of you about their family’s experience, to feel their emotions, truly puts things into perspective.
I step out of Brubaker Hall into the sun, glad I’m lucky enough to have had such a great opportunity.
Photo of Holocaust Memorial at San Francisco Legion of Honor by AJ Giron