Sixty-nine years after she was liberated from the Terezin concentration camp, Inge Auerbacher still gets choked up when she looks at the doll that she carried with her through her three horrible years in the Nazi camp.
This weekend, the person who gently put an arm around her and rubbed her back while Auerbacher tearfully kissed that doll was an unlikely friend — Danielle Lyle, a 16-year-old from Woodbridge, Va.
Assigned to write about Auerbacher’s experience a year ago, Lyle struck up a remarkably close friendship with the Holocaust survivor. Despite the gulf in their ages, races, religions and experiences, each said she considers the other one to be “like a sister.”
“The Holocaust is taught about in school. It’s not taught in a way that makes people listen to it and grasp what actually happened,” said Lyle, who just finished her junior year at St. Timothy’s School, an all-girls boarding school in Stevenson, Md. Now that she has heard Auerbacher’s story, she said, “It hits you more.”
The program “A Book by Me” started the connection between Lyle and Auerbacher. The initiative connects schoolchildren to Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans and others who are among the few remaining living witnesses to historic events. Each child interviews one of these subjects, then writes and illustrates a picture book to teach other children these elders’ stories.
When Lyle was assigned to write the book, Auerbacher, 79, enjoyed their first phone call so much that she invited the teenager to visit her at her home in New York. Lyle’s mother suggested that Auerbacher come to Woodbridge to stay as a guest in their home instead — so Auerbacher boarded a bus to meet the high school student and her family.
Auerbacher’s story has been told all over the world — she has written six books, including a 1986 memoir, “I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust,” which has been translated into at least eight languages and is widely used as a teaching tool for lessons on the Holocaust. But Lyle thought she could tell it in a new way, and after spending time with Auerbacher, she felt compelled to do so.
“For her being one of the only ones that survived in it, I feel like it’s really important for her to tell her story,” Lyle said. “And any way I can help with that, I wanted to.”
Lyle’s book is the 87th in the Holocaust and World War II series created by A Book by Me and one of just eight chosen to be sold online by the program. Lyle has sold copies herself at a school auction and at a book-signing party. She said she hopes to find a way to get the book into schools and libraries.
Lyle said that she wanted to do more than record history; she wanted to preach against the racially and religiously insensitive comments she has heard in her own community.
“I’m black. And I’m not just black, I’m dark-skinned. And I’m a girl, going to a majority non-black school,” she said. “I feel like it’s still very relevant now.”
Auerbacher agreed. Before she got off the bus from New York and saw Lyle’s mother waiting for her, “I had no clue who they are, whether they’re white, black, green, yellow, whatever. . . . I was really thrilled when I met her mom that they were African American. Perfect, I said. Perfect.”
In the concentration camp, an adult taught her the first verse of a poem. Auerbacher memorized it and wrote her own verses. Only as an adult did she learn that the original poem had been written by a black slave in the American South. “It’s just amazing. Two slave children with the same dreams,” she said.
“Fear and ignorance brings on this terrible, terrible hatred. You have to be friends with other people. Go and live with a black family!” Auerbacher said, during her third stay with the Lyles. “I went to church with them. I’ve been to parties with their friends. We all want to be happy and enjoy food — and her father is a great cook. Oh my God.”
On this most recent visit, Auerbacher’s third (the Lyles have also visited her in New York), they visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Auerbacher donated the doll that she carried through the Holocaust to the museum in 1992 and has rarely seen it since.
Suzy Snyder, a curator at the museum, brought the fragile doll out of storage and gave Auerbacher gloves so that she could touch it. Because the doll fades under bright lights, it was only exhibited at the museum from 2002 to 2003, although anyone can ask to see it up close. It was also exhibited in New York from 2007 to 2008, the last time that Auerbacher saw it.
“I don’t care if she’s going to change color. Put her out once in awhile,” Auerbacher begged Snyder, clutching her arms. “I’ll never see her again.”
For Lyle, it was the first time laying eyes on the doll she had drawn in her picture book.
“It’s just a wow moment, knowing that this doll helped her so much,” Lyle said. “I do love Inge. She’s become such a part of my life, pretty much like a second mom, or like a sister. Knowing that this is the doll that made her feel comfortable, made her feel close to home — wow.”