I’ve been thinking a lot this past week — for reasons that will soon become apparent — of my first car trip outside the United States. I was only nineteen in 1967 when my older cousin and I crossed the border into Canada so we could join the throng of sixty-four million (!) visitors who were headed to “Canada Expo 67” that was held on Notre Dame Island in Montreal, Quebec.
My parents were wary of letting me go with my cousin Ron, who was only a year older, on such a long drive where we also had to experience a border crossing and passport checkpoint. So I had to swear to them that Ron would do all the driving while I would be constantly scanning the highways, alerting him to dangerous drivers he might not see.
I faithfully kept my word until we stopped at a Dairy Queen less than two hours after we’d left home. There we switched drivers so he could sleep off a bad hangover he had from a wild party the night before, and I merrily drove all the way to the border and beyond, listening to the radio full-blast and listening to him snore from the back seat. Ah, youth!
Even these fifty-five years later, I still can remember the one word I used back then that best described my Expo 67 experience: outstanding. It seemed to me that most of the sixty-four million people who attended the event were there on the same days that we were, and so my cousin and I spent most of our time out-standing in the interminable lines that snaked around every last one of the pavilions. Little did we realize that when we decided to go to Expo 67, we were making such a “long-standing“ commitment to this world culture showcase.
But the one pavilion that was worth every minute of our hour-long wait was the Israel exhibit. And, by far, the most moving part of that pavilion was the final section.
Using photographs, written explanations, and visual aids (including weapons, tools, archeological artifacts, and religious garb), the general exhibit gave a thorough and fascinating history of Israel and its inhabitants from Biblical times to the present. We moved from one lofty hall to another, pausing before the many different vibrant display areas. Then we abruptly came to an end wall in the last huge vestibule and had to make a sharp left turn which led us into a much smaller, much darker room entitled “The Jews and World War II”.
Before we turned that corner, we saw written on the wall in large blood-red lettering: During Hitler’s wholesale slaughter, the Jewish people lost six million of their family. After reading those appalling but all too well-known words, we proceeded into the dimly lit room. What then was before us was a single, greatly enlarged photograph of a seven-year-old boy about to be shot by an S.S Guard. And in the center of the room, in a display case lit by a quivering spotlight, there was one small, scuffed child’s shoe on a tall plexiglass stand. A typewritten explanation below the footwear read:
This is a shoe of a child who died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Next to me, as I stood gazing at this piteous sight, was a woman and her traveling companion whom I remembered seeing in line with us at an earlier pavilion. These two women were also deeply moved by the simple yet thoroughly heartrending display. The lady turned to her friend and said, just loud enough for me to hear: “It would take more than a thousand Hitlers to ever even begin to destroy a people as extraordinary and enduring as the Jews.” And she was quietly crying.
I have never forgotten her words, even all these years later. It wasn’t so much the fact that she had tears in her eyes, nor the fact that she spoke so highly of my Jewish people.
It was the fact that she was a nun.