Lessons from Holocaust survivor Barbara Roose

Protesting hate speech
Adeline Belsby/Staff

What would have been an otherwise quiet and calm morning Aug. 27 in Ohlone Park turned into a bustling mecca of activists, protesters and community members. Hundreds of people made their way along Hearst Avenue toward Martin Luther King Jr. Way to join the rest of the crowd at Civic Center Park.

Hundreds marched and chanted, fighting for their rights and the rights of others. In the middle of this organized chaos stood a calm, elderly woman carrying a sign: “Hate Speech leads to Holocaust. I’m a WWII Holocaust survivor.”

A simple sign — one that carried a powerful message.

A childhood lost  

Barbara Roose was born in 1937 in Nazi Germany to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. Despite not receiving any Jewish upbringing, she and her siblings were classified as “half-Jews” by the Nazi government.

Roose remembered how her mother coped with living under the Nuremberg Laws, which were legal codes that helped to institutionalize anti-Semitism. As the war dragged on, her mother lost her profession as a physical therapist, turned her car over to the state and was under constant threat of being “picked up” by the German military and sent off to concentration camps.

Thus, Roose learned to live in secrecy, lest she and her family be caught and captured. She summoned a memory from her childhood, an instance that served as a jarring reminder of her family’s precarious situation: She went to the local store, and upon arrival, the woman in front of her raised her arm in salute and cried, “Heil Hitler!” Hesitant, but intrigued, young Roose slowly raised her arm, but she stopped when she realized she had never seen her mother do such a thing. It was not until later that she learned how much trouble she would have caused, had she gone through with the salute.

“I felt … very unsure in terms of what is my identity. What are my rights?”

— Barbara Roose

If the neighbors who were present in the store — who knew her mother — or the nearby policeman had seen Roose do that, there would surely have been consequences. As a youth who had struggled with her identity, Roose confided that she had to always be wary — she had to develop a “watchdog” mentality to ensure survival.

“I felt … very unsure in terms of what is my identity. What are my rights? Do I tiptoe softly … to (not) make it known (whether) I’m really not this or not that?”

Lost relatives

Despite living with such discipline, nothing could guarantee Roose and her family safety.

In 1942, not long after her younger brother died of diphtheria at 3 years of age, Roose’s father brought home an older half-sister, 12, whom they had never met before. The family adopted her because the Nazis had taken her parents; years later, after much research, this half-sister discovered that her parents had perished in concentration camps. But the tragedy does not end here.

Another half-sister, to whom Roose was connected through her father, was born to a young woman who ran an orphanage for children who had lost their parents to Nazis. After the young woman received a summons to go to the center of Berlin, she and Roose’s half-sister were transported to Auschwitz, where they were killed. Moreover, Roose’s mother had relatives who attempted, but failed, to flee to Holland. They, too, perished during this time.

“Death hits my family from several points,” Roose said.

Two sides of the same coin

In March 1947, the Roose family immigrated from Germany to Venezuela with the help of Roose’s maternal uncle. But before their arrival, the family had to live in a dismal boarding house for three weeks in Paris while they waited for passage on a refugee ship.

As a child who had been running from persecution for most of her young life, Roose was entranced by the wealth of Paris. She begged her mother to buy her something from the mouthwatering pastry shops, but her mother ruefully declined.

“Even at a young age, Roose felt the injustices enacted upon her family and wished for recognition of their suffering.”

More importantly, she reminded Roose to not speak German so loudly in public, for the French had suffered tremendous losses during the war. Although she obeyed her mother, Roose secretly wondered when her own suffering would be recognized. Even at a young age, Roose felt the injustices enacted upon her family and wished for recognition of their suffering.

It was the duality of being German-Jewish that was so difficult for her younger self to grasp. As someone who was not religiously Jewish and was conflicted about her German side, especially with her mother telling her that she was a “different kind of German,” identity was an ongoing process saturated with confusion.

“What was it like to live as a Jewish little girl but had to hide her identity? (It) was very confusing for me, and I’m sure it is confusing for immigrants (to) the United States who should be proud of where we come from — our roots,” Roose explained.

Enough is enough

When asked about the current political climate on campus, in Berkeley and throughout the country, Roose — her voice steady — said people must put themselves in the shoes of immigrants.

“It is not only the rights of vulnerable communities that matter for Roose, but also the emotional burdens that are placed on them.”

“So again I see parallels — you take away not only the physical safeties, but you take away their dreams, their homes, their talents. Unless we wake up here and say ‘basta,’ ” Roose said firmly.

It is not only the rights of vulnerable communities that matter for Roose, but also the emotional burdens that are placed on them. But along with a history of trauma, Roose affirmed that we each have a “long line” of resilience, drawn from the struggles of our parents, grandparents and so on.

“You have a resilience, you have a right. This is your country — you’re not going to be thrown out,” said Roose.

Contact Francesca Munsayac at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.