In search of the truth about Diana Nyad
Hammer Conversation with Catherine Opie (2013)
I told a story once, a corporate speech, on stage about the sexual abuse I went through as child. And that night I went out to dinner with some of the faculty of the University that was there, and there was an older woman — she’s retired — she was in her upper 80s at that time. And we all went out to a noisy restaurant. You couldn’t hear a thing except the person right next to you. And I was seated right next to her. And she had a light of light in her eyes. And you could tell that her colleagues in the university respected her. And, you know, she was kind of the queen.
And but I was close to her, and so we started talking. And at one point, she reached her arm like this, and her sleeve pulled back and I saw the numbers etched on her wrist. And I said to her, “you’re a survivor.” And she said, “yeah.” And I said, “boy, this is, this is pretty crazy. And we’re in this noisy restaurant, but we’re almost having this intimate night together. Do you want to tell me about it?”
And she started, she was three. Her sister was six. Her father said, if they ever came to get their family, he wouldn’t go, they’d have to shoot him. They came, the father wouldn’t go, they shot him. They took the mother and the two daughters on a train to Treblinka. And when they got off the train, the mother held the six-year-old in her right, and she held the three-year-old, this woman I met, in her left hand. And when they got to the bottom of the platform, the mother and daughter were taken that way. And this little girl never saw them again.
And that day, she became the SS officers’ concubine. At age three. And she started in for the two and a half years that she spent at Treblinka, anal sex, oral sex, and intercourse every day, many times a day. And this woman is telling me this at this dinner, and I started to weep — partly because of her story and partly because I felt so ashamed that I told my little story of my little girlhood on stage that night.
And she grabbed my hands and took me in a corridor of the restaurant. And she said, “number one, you never compare yourself to anyone else. Because all of us, every human being on this planet goes through pain and heartache, and sometimes worse. And it’s up to you to find your way.” And I said, “How did you ever find your way you have the light of light [sic] in your eyes? How did you?” And she said, “I was adopted by a family in Paris. And the first night I got there, I was only five and a half, I had just survived. And the Allies came and got us. And I was taken to Paris, and this woman took me in the garden, she held me, and she said, “Tell me everything, bare your soul.” And I told her, and I didn’t even know the words for intercourse. I told her everything I had to do. And I cried, and I was lost. And she held me, and she said, “Listen to me. You will never be able to forget this. It’s going to be in your soul. But keep it in your soul. You know why? It’s a beautiful life. People are beautiful. You ran into a few very bad people, but don’t live it on your skin. Keep it in your soul.”
Full Frame (2015)
Nyad: I met a woman who was in the Holocaust. And, uh, crazy, we were at a . . . I spoke somewhere, and she was at the speech, and we went out to dinner with a whole bunch of people. It was so loud and noisy. I could only hear her ’cause she was next to me, you couldn’t talk to the other people. She reached like this across the table to get her water glass, and I saw the numbers in her wrist [indicates inside of wrist].
And I said, “you’re a survivor of the Holocaust.”
And she said, “I am.”
And I said, “I know this sounds insane at this noisy restaurant. But you and I are just together anyway. Do you feel like talking about it? She’s three years old. The geshtapos [pronounced like that] came to get her, the roundup was happening in Poland. Her father said, “if they ever come to our house, they can just shoot me — I’m not leaving.” They came, they shot him, he wouldn’t leave. She saw this whole thing. She remembers at three because it was so traumatic.
She and her sister — who was six — and the mother left. They were on a train. They got to Dachau. They got off the train. The mother’s holding each in a hand. As they got to the bottom of the stairs on the platform, the mother and the sister, the six year old, were taken that way [Nyad motions to her right], and this little girl never saw them again. She’s taken this way [Nyad motions to her left] and that day she was forced into becoming SS officers’ little concubine.
So for the 2½ years before the Allies rescued them, she lived at . . . this tall [Nyad holds her hand about three feet off the ground], you could weep to hear this story, as doing oral sex and anal sex and intercourse with these grown men. And she lived through it.
And when she got out — she’s telling me this in this noisy restaurant, I don’t hear a fork drop after she starts. And I start crying, ’cause I told the story of my little sexual abuse story that night on stage. And she said, “don’t ever do that. Everybody on this planet has pain, has disappointment. And we have to find a way — Amy Purdy uses that phrase — throught whatever our obstacles is. If you want to leave it or to live a good life.
So I said to her, “how did you, after living that?”
She said, “I got adopted by a family in Paris. The mother, first day there, takes me out — I’m six years old — into the garden. She holds me. She knows I’ve lost my mother, my sister, my father. But she doesn’t know the other story. And I start to tell her ’cause she says, ‘you need to speak it out. Tell me every detail of what happened to you in that Dachau camp.’”
And she spoke it out — all of the rough, you know, graphic words. And that mother held her close, and she said, “listen to me. You may not believe this today, but life is beautiful. And you’re going to live a beautiful life. And all you have to do is take that dark story, stuff it down, and it will live in your soul forever. But don’t live it on your skin, because you are gonna embrace the sunrise every day. And she did.
And I tell ya’ something: Nothing helped me more in my evolution out of that disgusting sexual abuse I went through as a kid — which is wrong and it’s heinous, and these people should be locked up — I don’t live it on my skin. I’m a pretty happy, confident, together person for having gone through sexual abuse.
Interviewer: Was there somebody in your life that did that for you?
Nyad: No. It wasn’t until I met that woman. You know, I was afraid to tell my mother. My mother was so embarassed. She was a French, formal woman. Didn’t want to hear about it.
When she had Alzheimer’s later in life, she said to me all the time, “I was a bad mother, wasn’t I?” And I said, “no you weren’t mom. You were the best mother in the world.” We forgave each other.
Most families go through the same thing. Somebody’s there not to protect you, and then they forgive each other later. It’s a very common story.
KQED Forum (2015)
I met a woman many years ago who, in the Holocaust, lost her whole family and became the little concubine of the SS officers. And when she — had mentioned the night I met her my, shall we say, little story of sexual abuse that rocked my world when I was a young person. And frankly, I’m afraid to say it, but still has an imprint somewhere. You don’t, you don’t, you don’t outgrow and forget your life experiences, some of them.
And so I met this woman, and she was elderly. And she told me the story. I won’t go the whole thing right now. But she started at age three with her. Three years old. We’re talking about — not to be graphic — but every kind of sex under the sun with these adult SS officers. She lived through it. And she told me that when the Allies rescued them and she, without her mother without her sister — they were taken off to chambers, her father was shot — she wound up in Paris, adopted by a family. And the mother took her out into the garden that first night and she said — I think she was now six years old — “I think you should tell me. I know you’ve lost your mother. I can never become your mother. But I’m going to try to take care of you and show you that most people are loving. Most people are good, it’s hard for you to believe it right now, but they are. Tell me what happened.”
And this little girl didn’t even know the words for these things: anal sex, etc. But she told her in her little girl’s vocabulary. The mother had no idea that’s the story she was going to hear. She held her close, and she said, “Tomorrow you’re going to wake up in your new home and you are going to make a meaningful, happy life because you deserve it. And you’re going to believe and find out that most people are good.”
Self Made with Nelly Galán (2018)
I was giving a speech in New Mexico, and I did mention my sexual abuse story just in passing, you know. I think I stand up as somebody who’s happy, somewhat successful, has the tiger by the tail so, you know, you may go through things, but you thrive and you, and you press on if you want to live a good life.
So I didn’t mention it very briefly kind of glossed over at that night on stage. That night I was taken to a dinner, and there were a lot of the academics from that university. One of the women was very old, and she had been in the Holocaust. So we started talking and she reached to get the water and I saw the the numbers etched in her wrist and I said, “oh, you’re a survivor?”
And she said, “I am.”
I said, “Is this the craziest thing place to ask you to tell the story, in this restaurant?”
And she had heard my speech that night, so she knew I had that particular background. And she said, “I was three. We were in Poland. We were Jewish. My father said, ‘if they come to get our family, I’m not going, they could shoot me right here.’” They came to get the family he didn’t go and they shot him right there. The mother and the six-year-old and this three-year-old, who is now elderly and telling me this story, were taken to Treblinka on a train. They got off they had been pooping and peeing in their clothes on the train for two days. When they walk down on the platform of the Gestapos herding them around, the mother and six-year-old were taken that way, and she went alone this way.
And that day she became the SS officers little concubine. And for the next 2½ years before the resistance came and saved her, she performed every sex act that I couldn’t even name, every day, many times a day, as a little girl. And I started crying at this restaurant. And she took my hand, and she took me into the hallway where the waiters were coming in and out, and she said, “I was rescued by a French family. They adopted me.”
And I said, “But how did you ever go through that and find this light in your eyes? You showed me the picture of your children and your grandchildren. You’ve been revered at this University how could you have gotten over that? How could you have lived a happy life, after that found a smile?”
She said, “The French mother took me in the back garden the day I arrived. Now I was six years old. Never saw my mother again, never saw my sister. They were both gassed at Treblinka.” And she said to me, “Listen, I could never replace your mother. I’m not even going to try. But you need to tell me today what happened. Speak it out. Tell me everything that happened, and we’re gonna start living a new life tomorrow here.”
She had no idea what she was about to hear. And when she heard it, she held this little girl, and she said, “Tomorrow you’re gonna wake up and you’re gonna you’re gonna grab the sunrise, and you’re gonna live a meaningful, loving life. And you’ll never be able to forget this. But we today are gonna take this story and put it into a corner of your soul. And you’re not gonna live it on your skin ’cause you can’t believe it, but people are good. Most people are good, and you’re gonna find them, and you’re gonna start with me right here in this house.”
So that woman can get over the Holocaust. I was molested by my swim coach. I’m angry about it still to this day it affects me in certain parts of my life that I still have not gotten over, shall we say? Maybe I never will, but I’ll tell you something: people . . . every human being on earth has heartache; every human being goes through pain. And what we do is, we hold each other and we say, “let’s look at the next sunrise together, let’s live meaningful lives.” So, if that woman could bound out of her pain, I could certainly bound out of mine.”