I had given a speech in New Mexico, an occasion where I had mentioned briefly my sexual-abuse story. I do talk publicly about that time in my life, because implicit in doing so is the message that going through that ordeal doesn’t have to keep an individual from becoming a strong, happy person. It’s important for me to address the epidemic and help create paths toward curbing it, even if only in some small way.
After the speech, I joined the group for dinner at a very noisy restaurant, where I was seated next to an older woman. Clearly the life of the party, she had a light in her eyes and was introduced to me as the pillar of their community. The clinking of glasses and silverware, the hubbub of other diners, and the poor acoustics of the room made it impossible to talk to anybody but the person immediately adjacent, so the two of us were a pair for the evening.
At one point she reached for her glass and the sleeve of her blouse pulled short to reveal the numbers etched on her wrist. I said, “Oh, you’re a survivor.” She nodded yes. I asked if it were too rude, the wrong time and place, for her to tell me the story. For the next half hour, the noisy din of the restaurant fell away. All I heard was this woman’s voice. I was transfixed.
She was Polish and the roundup of Jews had already begun in her town. [Note: In other versions of this story, Nyad says that the family lives in Krakow.] Her father declared that if they ever came to their house, they could shoot him. He wasn’t going. They came. The family—this woman was only three, her six-year-old sister, her mother and father—were told they had fifteen minutes to gather some possessions. The father refused. They shot him.
An interminable train ride to Dachau, standing for more than a day pressed body to body with dozens of others, forced to urinate and defecate on the floor, they finally arrived at the camp. They descended onto the platform, the mother holding the six-year-old with her right hand, this three-year-old with her left. Once off the train, the mother and older sister were pushed to the right. This little one was taken to the left. She never saw her mother or her sister again.
On that day, and for the next two and a half years, until the Allies came in, this innocent child was forced into sexual slave labor. She became the little concubine of the SS officers. Oral sex, anal sex, intercourse. At age three, she was forced to perform these heinous acts many times a day.
I began to cry. I told her I felt deeply embarrassed to have mentioned my “little” story on the stage that night. She held my hands and pulled me close to say, emphatically, “We should never compare our pain to another’s. You have every right to feel anger and grief for the loss of part of your childhood, at the hands of your perpetrators. It’s your life, and you need to find your peace in whatever way you can.” So I then asked her how, how could she have possibly lived a normal life, smiled at the sunrise, after what she endured as a little girl.
A family in Paris adopted her. On her first day with them, the mother took her into the garden, held her close, and told her it would be healing to speak it all out. She had no idea what she was about to hear. This little girl voiced every graphic detail. Then the mother assured her:
“You will never forget what happened to you. You cannot. And I will never replace your mother. I cannot. But you must believe that this is a beautiful world. People are basically kind and loving. You are going to live a wonderful life. You must take these memories and bury them deep in a corner of your soul. Don’t live them on your skin. Tomorrow you will wake up for the first time in your new home, here with us. You will not wake up a tortured little girl. You will wake up a citizen of the world, deserving of a happy and meaningful life.”
That evening in that bustling restaurant, this gentle woman and the intensity of her unfathomable story inspired me to a crucial new revelation within my own journey.