Louise Sommers’s life ‘an important Holocaust story about survival, continuity’

Safely settled in 1941 with her father and sister in the U.S., 16-year-old Louise Sommers wrote, “The day after my seventh birthday, my mother suddenly died. Since then, things have never been the same.

Yom HaShoah program (select image to view)

“It seems that with my mother’s death, a chain of misfortune started. Hitler came to power and my uncle was beaten up, put into prison by the Nazis and later fled to France….Terrible things happened in Germany.”

Louise’s daughter Nancy Sommers found Louise’s youthful autobiography a few years ago and shared this excerpt as guest speaker for “Creating Light From Darkness and Optimism out of Tragedy”, the third annual Yom HaShoah event May 5 at UHC to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Walter Sommers attended

Health issues kept Louise, 95, at home at Westminster Village, but husband Walter, 98, also a survivor and a regular docent at CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, sat in the front row and caught every word. The two celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary on March 30.

“My mother, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1937, is the most optimistic, the most resilient person you will ever meet,” Nancy said.

Louise “would most likely smile, shrug and say, ‘My story? It’s nothing special.'”

“Given the facts of her life, it would have been so easy for her to lose her faith in humanity. But she chose hope over fear, gratitude over anger.

“She chose to approach life with an open, generous heart, grateful for each day that she lived safe and secure in America and dedicating herself to the Jewish commandment, Tikkun Olam, to repair the world.

Louise, Nancy said, “is so modest and so humble and I’m sure that if she were here this evening she might wonder why her story needs to be told.

“History is not just about numbers, about dates. It is the story of individual lives and how they are lived in their historical moment.”

“She would most likely smile, shrug and say, ‘My story? It’s nothing special.’

“And I would say to her, ‘Yes, Mom. Your story is special. Because your story is part of history. It is an important Holocaust story about survival, about continuity.’

“History is not just about numbers, about dates. It is the story of individual lives and how they are lived in their historical moment.”

Walter and Louise Sommers

Tragic farewell and late-night escape

In 1937, “my mother (then Liselotte) and her sister Elsa (later Americanized as “Elsie”) escaped Germany in the middle of the night on a train to London. They traveled alone without their father so as not to call attention to their leaving. They were told not to say goodbye to friends, even though they knew they would never see their friends again,” Nancy said.

More tragically, as Elsie later wrote, “It would be the last time we would see our beloved grandparents. But no one was to know it would be the last time. There were to be no special hugs, no demonstration of love.

“It would be the last time we would see our beloved grandparents. We saw in their eyes that they knew they would never see us again.”

“No one was to know that we would leave Germany in the dark of the night, on a train with the Nazis checking our passports and our belongings. The unspoken, the regressed childhood longing for the extra hugs, the reaching for the solid wonderful people Emma and Karl, who remained behind to die in < href="https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/theresienstadt">Theresienstadt, haunts us. We saw in their eyes that they knew they would never see us again.”

Nancy said, “The few times I heard my mother talk about her escape from Germany, she had a haunted look, as if something had frozen inside her that night, as if she were still that 12-year-old child longing to hug her grandparents.”

Greetings from the Statue of Liberty

A youthful Louise Sommers

From London, however, the family boarded a ship to the U.S. Louise wrote, “I think the Statue of Liberty was waving to me, saying, ‘Welcome, Stranger!'”

Years later in Terre Haute, Louise served as president of Temple Sisterhood and in 1961 founded Clothes Closet, which distributed clothes and shoes to more than 600 Vigo Country schoolchildren each year. She led the organization for more than 20 years.

Nancy said of her mother, “She had a deep well of empathy for people who were refugees, as she had been. And she had a deep well of empathy for anyone new — new to the neighborhood, new to the community, or Terre Haute.

“My father likes to say that he never heard my mother say an unkind word about anyone, and I think that’s true. She has never stopped believing in the goodness of life, even if her own childhood in Germany provided contrary evidence.

“My mother did not let the Holocaust define her. She understood that individual acts of light and empathy have the power to address, even fix, what is wrong with the world. And she let her pursuit of justice and her gracious kindness define her.”

History never says goodbye

Louise’s work set an example for the dangerous challenges we face today, Nancy said.

“I have often heard the phrase, ‘History never says goodbye. History says, See you later.’

“Unfortunately, and sadly, history is saying hello to us now, repeating itself in the white nationalist chants in Charlottesville, in the rise of anti-Semitism and in the brutal murders at our mosques, at our churches and our synagogues.

“Each of us needs to tilt the world so that we, like my mother, can say, ‘This is what we can do, this is what we should do, this is what we must do.’”

“The challenge of the Holocaust is not just the commandment to ‘Never forget’. It is also the commandment to act, to face history and combat hatred and bigotry in all forms.

“Each of us needs to tilt the world. Each of us, however we might, so that we, like my mother, can say, ‘This is what we can do, this is what we should do, this is what we must do.’

“So, let us continue to say to the world that we together will choose to find our humanity through connection, not isolation. And let us continue to say that we together will choose light over darkness and that we will repair our world.”

Full remarks by Nancy Sommers

Listen to Nancy Sommers’s Yom HaShoah talk and remarks by UHC board member Terry Fear.

Photos

Visitors enter the sanctuary for a candle-lighting in memory of Shoah victims.

Guests gather in the Vestry Room for Nancy Sommers’s keynote speech.