Transcript of Carpinteria High School Interview 5; Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Interviewer: Jeremy Garsha
Interviewee: VH, former student of Casey Roberts’ classes.
Prepared by Jeremy Garsha, 6/8/03
VH was a senior at Carp High when the interview was conducted. She is highly outspoken. She was originally selected for pre-interviews but was unavailable at the time. She had heard Nina speak on May 28, 2002 and was interviewed and videotaped by H. Marcuse and associates before Nina’s visit, on May 23, 2002 [needs to be transcribed]. She did NOT hear Nina speak this year.
This interview is thus a long-term follow-up interview. However, it should be noted that the opportunity to interview VH was spontaneous, because I was there when she happened to come into Mr. Roberts’ classroom to pick up a copy of Nina’s story for her personal use. Due to this, all interview questions were ad-libbed on the spot and the interview more closely resembles a conversation.
Jeremy: So you didn’t hear Nina this time?
VH: No. I was suppose to come in for it, but just with graduation and all, I had some finals preparation I had to take care of, and I had to finish a project for a class, so I didn’t get around to it. But it was kind of funny because I walked by while doing stuff for my Government final, because the class is right next-door, and I walked by and caught a glimpse of Nina. That was the first I had seen of her in three years. Actually, when I got home I realized that I had been so side tracked that I didn’t go during my free period when I was suppose to. So I was kind of bummed.
J: She ended up speaking all day. She wasn’t supposed to but..
VH: Oh, so she did stay through sixth period?
VH: Yeah, Mr. Roberts said she might not have been up to that.
J: We didn’t think she would, since she gets so tired when she does it. I was actually supposed to come down to hear her, but I had an exam, so I couldn’t come. But had I known, I would have come down (to Carpinteria) to hear her after lunch. Let’s talk about you. What do you remember about her story? What stands out after three years?
VH: After three years, my attention to detail isn’t really as sharp as it would have been right after, but I just remember…specifically, that it was a little more emotional, considering that she was right in front of us. And even though there was students, and I think one teacher, reading her letter, just her sitting there, if you watched the expressions on her face, or if there was something that particularly got at her- she would nod her head- just her whole body language while her story was being read next to her, it was really emotional. And I wasn’t the only one (who felt that way). Guys, girls, teacher’s aid, teachers…everyone was pretty moved by it. But just the one thing about it that I specifically remember, even now, was the story about how she had to lie to…was it an SS officer? [VH is referring to the story of Nina on the train full of German troops] and he walked her back to the house, and she had to tell him that it would look bad on her part if she should up with an older officer at her parents’ house. It would be disgraceful and immoral. But that is really the only specific thing I remember.
J: No, that was really good. When you were in eighth grade you went down to the Museum of Tolerance [Interviewer told that before the actual interview began]?
J: Did you guys hear any speakers there?
VH: Yeah, there was one man, I don’t recall his name, but his story was really sad. It was about, um…it gets really emotional when it goes into the whole family separation, and the dividing lines, and separation of old to young- from workable to non-workable. But my patents was a little less (back then) and I don’t know how much compassion I had for the situation, I was probably more into who I was going to the spring dance with, rather than the detail of this man’s story.
J: If you don’t mind me asking, how much personal background do you have towards the Holocaust?
VH: Well to my understanding—I don’t mind you asking—to my understanding, my mother just told me the story because for Mr. Roberts’ class you had to write an essay. And I don’t remember the general guideline for the essay; I just remember that I wrote my essay, or my story, on my great-grandmother. And my name is Latvian, [Vxxx], and she was from Latvia. It turns out—I didn’t even know this until I was like 15 or 16—but the woman I always thought to be my great-grandmother who lived in Colorado, turned out to be my great-aunt. And there was this whole drama, story, amazing adventure, whatever, about how my great-grandmother had died of Syphilis, and she had two daughters. And those two daughters were my Grandmother and my Great-Aunt. So my grandmother’s aunt, is really the mother who I always thought was my great grandmother. Do you kind of get that?
J: Yeah, I think I get it.
VH: We still have a family heirloom from this story. Her husband, who ended up dying, when they were coming…they lived in Latvia when the iron curtain was still in place [Not the Iron Curtain if this story took place during WWII]. So they were avoiding it, and by foot they traveled from country to country avoiding SS officers and border patrol and stuff. And they somehow managed to get to…Italy I think it was. And for some reason in Italy after World War II—during World War II they were traveling, avoiding the worst of it, and (after the war) they somehow registered for this program where you can be adopted by American citizens, to come to the country [USA]. And it was really hard to get on this list, and you had to qualify—my grandmother and her sister were really young, they were only like six or seven years old—but somehow they got into the program, and they were shipped over. I’m not sure if this was towards the tail end of World War II, or right after, post war. But they were adopted by a family and they moved to Arkansas, and lived there for a little bit. And then other members of the family had all kind of migrated to the same place and they lived in Denver, Colorado, and that is where they still are. And my great grandmother actually passed away about two years ago, and my grandmother passed away from cancer before I was born. But my great grandmother, her name is MiaMia, her daughter—who would have been my grandmother’s sister; they died a year apart to the day.
J: Oh, wow.
VH: Yeah, so I think it 2000 that my great-grandmother died and a year later to the day my mom’s aunt died.
J: Wow. So your mom just told you this story.
VH: Well it wasn’t something that was just instilled on me as a child. You don’t hear horrible details about that when you are younger, but I think it was just because I was doing a project, that I actually took the time to genuinely ask what the story was. But it is actually really cool; we have this old Swiss cowbell, from around the cow’s neck. It’s a really cool story. The only way they avoid going through this one section was they stole cowbells off cows and put them on themselves, so when they were walking through the Alps—they literally crossed the Alps—they would sound like cows, and officers wouldn’t look into it because they just figured it was a rooming cow. So that is why my mom still has the bell.
J: Wow, that is really cool.
VH: Yeah, that just came to my mind.
J: And what project was this?
VH: It was for Mr. Roberts’ class, and I think it was…write an essay on something about your family, or your family heritage. I don’t remember the exact assignment; I just remember what I wrote about.
J: Okay. Let me just ask you a general question about Nina. You have heard Nina, and you heard someone else talk at the Museum of Tolerance. How do you think that compares to reading about the Holocaust?
VH: […][no response]
J: Have you read Night?
J: How do you think it compares to Night?
VH: Well, I mean…being there and having the people in front of you is much more emotional than just reading about it. It is easier to be desensitized by what you see on television and what you read about, and horror stories and this and that. Even to know the Holocaust was real, reading about it gives it a little more of a twist about being appalled by the situation, but having it in front you, and having a face to relate with the words and circumstance and events, it makes it that much more emotional or personal because…seeing the tattooing on the arm, and seeing the weathered wrinkles on their faces, and knowing that person went through it. I mean you can look at the person next to you, and say, "I know everything about your life. We’ve grown up together in the same town, we’ve been in all the same classes, we’ve had all the same friends, we know everything about each other and each other’s family. And we know that the most dramatic thing that ever happened to you is you broke your ankle in seventh grade, or something. But then you look at the woman in front of you, and you couldn’t even imagine everything that she has gone through. It was one of those things where you have the jackass kids in class that mess around and stuff, and suddenly it is stark, dead silence, throughout the whole presentation. I remember there were a couple of girls that were crying, and the guys laid off their macho trip for a second, and everyone was really affected by it. There was just an overall layer to the room.
J: Did you ask her any questions after she talked? Was there time for that?
VH: I remember, I was pretty emotional myself. I remember staying after with Mr. Roberts. It was her, Mr. Roberts, and I. And I don’t think at the time I was able to ask her questions because at the time I was so emotional about it. But I do remember her giving me a hug. That was like insane and heartbreaking, plus that was when I was only like fifteen years old. But I don’t remember asking her any specific questions. There was this overall feeling of hardcore emotion. It was pretty intense.
J: Have you studied anything on World War II, or the Holocaust since you heard Nina?
VH: um…yeah my…junior year, there was a section in our U.S. History, but that was just going over things like, Winston Churchill, air-raids, war planning, D-Day, stuff like that.
J: When you were studying that, could you think back on Nina’s story?
VH: Yeah, you have terminology vocab quizzes you have to take, and you are kind of thinking about Auschwitz and all the different places, and you can think, "wow, I meant someone who was there, and who can vouch for all the horrible things that happened, as opposed to just having it be something in your textbook [Great Answer].
J: Do you remember, after hearing Nina, if you went home and talked to your family about it? Or did you talk to any friends about it?
VH: I talked to friends about it…I think there wasn’t a real point in restating the details to your friends, saying "it was so horrible, they did this and then that," but as far as talking to people who weren’t there at the presentation, I talked to my mom and I remember her saying, "that is really sad," and then she went into some more family detail about this and that, and about how hurt she was when her mom told about it, because her mom was just a child, wandering through it.
J: Do you think you can compare Nina’s story to Elie Wiesel’s story in Night?
VH: A comparison?
J: Like what do you think was more powerful, story for story?
VH: Well, Nina’s was more powerful to me, just because I heard it firsthand. When you hear something firsthand, as opposed to reading it from a novel…(when you read a novel) there is a small part in your head that wants to not believe it. You sort of think that it has to be fiction. You think, "I’ve read books like this before." I think I have read fictional stories about the Holocaust, just hypothetical on what a child is going through [could she be referring to Benjamin Wilkomierski, or the film Life is Beautiful], and just watching movies like Schindler’s List and stuff like that…But as far as making any direct comparisons, I don’t remember them enough.
J: No, that’s okay. You answered the question I was trying to ask. You’re saying that it is easy to believe when you read it firsthand..
VH: as opposed to reading to reading it in a book, where I can read any other fictional horror story.
J: Do you know where you want to go to school at, or what your plans for after graduation are?
VH: Well, my plans for after graduation are…this summer I have a secured job, and I’m going to be living at home. But in the fall, I got some Volleyball offers, but I can’t…like a lot of them are out of state, and the scholarships are not full rides, it is just like you can play on the team sort of thing. But as far as my plans go, I’m going to go to City College, and then I plan on studying abroad through the summer and fall. And after I come back from abroad I plan on attending school in San Francisco.
J: Okay. Where do you want to go abroad?
VH: I’m going to go to France. I’ve traveled many times with my family. As a matter of fact, when I was younger, my mother and I summered in Germany for two consecutive summers. We lived there in a small town outside of Frankfurt. I probably would have gotten more out of those trips if I was a little older and I could appreciate..
J: How old were you?
VH: I was about nine and ten, and then I went back when I was 16, I went to France. But we had traveled to Hungary, that’s where the other side of my family is from—I’m Latvian and Hungarian—and we visited family who was still there. When we went to Budapest it was just insane. I’m this little ten-year-old girl, looking up at these huge high-rises, these dark, smoggy, evil, just insanely imposing buildings. I remember—I had no real knowledge of what the Holocaust was—but I remember my brother saying, "oh is where that happened." I could relate it a little bit, but now, when I use my memories, I can picture officers charging through the streets, and hording people here. I just remember relating parts in stories to what I can visual from being in Germany and being in Hungary, and traveling around through Switzerland and the Alps.
J: Do you know if you visited any World War II historical sites while you were there?
VH: Not specifically World War II sites, but I remember…Funny, I have a great, great, great relative who was a dictator in Hungary, and he has a statue of himself in one of the Royal/Public huge park place with all the fountains and stuff…and they have profiles of dictators all along the walk ways, and they are still there, even the dictators who would now be considered "evil," they are still there. And one of my family relatives is one of the people in the cement profiles.
J: How old is your brother?
VH: He’s nineteen. He was only a little bit older than me..
J: But he had studied..
VH: It was always just that he knew…just everything my brother says is true..
VH: I don’t know how valid it was..
J: But because he was your older brother it’s all true.
VH: But because he was my older brother I believed it.
J: Do you have any questions for me?
VH: Not necessarily.
VH: This is pretty impromptu; I just came to get this [Nina’s letter to the Young People].
J: This is really impromptu, it’s good, but I just didn’t expect that I would be doing it today. But it was really good. I’m going to put it on the website. Actually, let me give you the website [write down site address].
VH: What does this website entail?
J: Basically what it is…is it’s this big Oral History Project..
VH: Conducted by students?
J: Conducted by students and by our professor..
VH: What is the class title?
J: Well, it’s many different classes. I’m a History major, and it’s all history students, and we’ve been all working on it. It’s a lot of different stuff. It’s when Nina comes and talks—we’re doing Independent study with this professor right now, so those are the people that work on the website—and when Nina comes and talks, I go and talk to the students that have heard her. I try to get a little bit before, I did some pre-interviews down here before Nina came, and today I am doing some post ones. We try to get that going, to see the effect a speaker has. My professor focuses on how history is taught and how students learn history.
J: So that is what we are trying to get at. And then this site is like a big teaching tool out there, and it’s on the net for anyone to access. So students doing research can get some from it, or teachers can look at it if they need to prepare for a speaker. It’s that sort of thing.
VH: Oh, I do have a question. Are there any other local people who are involved, or is Nina the only one from Santa Barbara?
J: Well, Nina actually lives in Pomona now.
VH: Yeah, Mr. Roberts said something about how she lived here, but her daughter lives down in Pomona so she moved down to..
VH: When I saw her she was in the process of moving.
J: There are some other speakers…none that I work with…most of our work is dedicated to Nina, so I don’t work with anyone else but Nina. But there are some other speakers around here. A lot of times students have heard from a speaker named Rene Firestone…if that sounds familiar?
VH: The Firestone name is familiar.
J: Yeah, Firestone also sounds like the Brewery or Winery up north..
VH: Yeah, my stepfather’s winery is adjacent to the Firestone winery.
J: I don’t know if she is related to those Firestones…but she is kind of a professional speaker. I mean there are some speakers, but you saw Nina, she was born in 1920, so there isn’t a whole lot left, and it’s even more rare to have people that want to talk about there story, because like you said, it’s so hard.
J: But as far as an answer to your question, I don’t know. Mostly Nina because she is willing to come and talk. One of the things you discover when you start studying the Holocaust, and focusing on it so hard, it’s easier to use one speaker. It’s just a way of cutting some of the factors out. If we were doing many different speakers, then it would become this huge project, so if we just follow Nina, then we can get in there and just take it step-by-step. But the project is still getting of the ground. But it’s coming together.
VH: It’s a good project.
J: Thank you.
VH: Would it be student friendly, as far as information, or is it mostly her story.
J: There is her story on there, and then there is…some of the Freshmen last quarter wrote up some papers for my professor’s class, and we posted some of those on there. And those are really cool, because students who have questions can click on those, and it isn’t like reading a big textbook, it’s just going to answer the question directly and keep it in simple terms. My stuff with the interviews, transcribes of them and some analysis is on there. Recommendations for books are on there. It’s basically a lot of stuff, and then there are also the Senior Theses…they’re posted on there.
VH: Are the History senior theses all in relation to World War II history.
J: The professor that we work with is the German History professor..
J: So the theses are all at least kind of around that. So yeah, they are all kind of related to that, because that is what he focuses on…it’s this whole Modern Europe thing. But, I think some of the papers on there deal with different stuff, like some deal with the Russian side of World War II. I mean it’s a broad spectrum, but all linked around World War II.
VH: I don’t know if you give any credit to teachers, but Mr. Roberts is a really good teacher. He has this certain passion about it…where you can’t help but have respect for it, because he approaches it in such a way…that he makes it seem very important. It obviously is important, but…he is a really good teacher.
J: Yeah. My professor has known Casey for a number of years now..
VH: Yeah, he actually a really good family friend.
J: Oh really?
VH: Yeah, he is good friend with my uncles.
J: Yeah, he is really cool. I’ve just talked to some other students, and I can just see the respect that they all have for him. It’s been pretty amazing to watch. And I really respect him, and I’ve only met him twice.
VH: He is a really cool guy. He’s one of those people…one of those teachers that you’ll always remember. Because one, he genuinely a good person. And two, because I had so much respect for him as a teacher, it reflecting in my work, and I got into it and really enjoyed it. Because it was like, "Mr. Roberts is gong to be reading this." He genuinely reads your work and grades it on content and how you approached it, as opposed to just checking if you did it.
J: Yeah, definitely. I talked to one of the other students, and she was saying that she might want to start teaching…one of her future plans would be to teach history just because of Mr. Roberts. She actually didn’t used to like history, but the way he approaches it makes it fun, and makes you want to learn more about it.
VH: He has a very realistic approach. It’s not just "write me a ten page essay on what you think should have been done in the German parties towards x, x, crap, crap…" He is more interested in how people have told their story. I just think he did it in a really realistic way, and didn’t over do it.
J: I think he can make it all personal too.
VH: Yeah, and he is just genuinely a great guy, so you want to do well. Like I had honors Modern World, so it was all competing for who Mr. Roberts would give the highest grade to. So if you give credibility to people, give it to him.
J: Oh, I definitely do. He is also one of the few teachers that gets speakers to come down and talk.
VH: Yeah, he seems like he has some sort of personal relationship with Nina, also.
J: Yeah, I think actually the first time Nina spoke—she had just come up with a friend, I think it was a Japanese-American woman who was in an internment camp—I don’t know if that was in Mr. Roberts’ class or not. Nina had come with her just to watch, and then they started talk. Mr. Roberts told me he was there the first time Nina talked, and she was so nervous she forgot her notes behind the podium. She was just this really she, quiet, older woman..
VH: She probably developed as far as being more comfortable speaking.
J: I think so. I mean she has definitely gotten a lot more professional since then. Did you get a sense that she was a pretty professional speaker?
VH: Well, it didn’t seem…I guess it depends on what your idea of professional is, but the way she approached wasn’t non-chalet, it was very…"this is my story, I want children to hear it, so they have a face to relate the stuff they are learning about.
J: How about the emotions. Do you think they were still there?
VH: Yeah, I mean you can’t…yeah she had told her story before, but you don’t lose emotion over something just because you have pondered it over and over again. I think her emotion was just as strong. I think that her story was tragic enough, so it isn’t going to lose its appeal.
VH: She wasn’t in an emotional breakdown like some of the students were in the class, but you can tell just by her body language and the way she spoke of it, that she still had a lot of emotion about it. She certainly wasn’t dead to that.
J: Right, no she is still there with it. It’s hard for her to tell these stories to..
VH: I mean anyone would get choked up. It’s easy to get choked up when you are speaking about something that has so much personal meaning. It’s about her, it’s putting herself out there and making herself vulnerable to these 60 glaring eyeballs. But she wasn’t unprofessional, but she didn’t have a stuffy professional layer around it.
J: So it was more of a talk than a presentation?
VH: Yeah. It was speaking. It wasn’t presenting. It was talking, communicating, having a conversation. A one-sided conversation, I mean it was a monologue. It was pretty emotional just having speakers reading her story, as opposed to her reading her story, because I remember the reason that she didn’t read her story was because she would get too choked up about it. That is what Mr. Roberts had detailed to us, prior to her coming.
J: Okay. Any other questions, or things you want to talk about?
VH: I have to go read papers, my teacher is going to kill me. I told her was just dropping by Mr. Roberts’ class.
J: Tell them that you were doing work with UCSB and you’ll be okay.