Betty Kale resisted telling her Holocaust stories for 50 years. But once she started, the 90-year-old Santa Rosa resident has hardly stopped.
“I think the world ought to know what happened to six million Jews,” the native of Sterbfritz, Germany said. “The world wasn’t very interested in them back then.”
The energetic Kale will share her stories once again on May 1 at a Yom HaShoah commemoration at the Friedman Center in Santa Rosa. Other survivors, as well as children and grandchildren affected by the Holocaust, will also speak during the annual two-hour event.
Over the past two decades, Kale has delivered numerous talks on the Holocaust and its lingering effects. Her willingness to speak out started when she and a Jewish friend were volunteering one day at Sonoma State University.
“Betty,” the friend said, “it’s about time you talked.”
Since then, Kale, a member of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, has spoken at scores of high schools, junior colleges and universities. She was videotaped by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, and she even spoke at the Fritz Bauer Institute for Holocaust Research in Germany.
“For 50 years our mouths were shut tight,” Kale said. “American Jews never asked us [to tell our stories].”
For her speeches, Kale has boiled down her story into a succinct narrative: mass deportations, the killings, hunger, violent abuse, and the selection of those to live or die.
“I don’t sit and cry about my past,” said Kale, who spent time in six concentration and labor camps, three in Estonia and three in Germany, including Bergen-Belsen, before she was liberated on April 15, 1945. “I am trying to prevent other Holocausts from happening in the future.”
But Kale’s speeches are much more than a straightforward description of her history, so she emphasizes in every speech that “when you see things around that you know are wrong, speak out and fight back.”
While Kale will recite her story to just about any group, she does limit herself at times.
“I do not like to speak to junior high students because they are too young to understand,” said Kale.
In addition, she cut back on her speaking engagements after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, and she spent much of her time caring for him before he died seven months ago.
One time, she turned down an invitation to speak at a synagogue after being told she’d only get a minute — basically just enough time to introduce herself amid a flurry of survivors of genocide from around the globe.
“I am memorializing my people,” said Kale, who worked for many years at a center for developmentally disabled adults and children, including her own daughter, who died six years ago. “Yom HaShoah is our day to remember the six million Jews — my mother, my sister, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins. Everyone was wiped out.”
One time, after a presentation at Sonoma State University, an instructor asked Kale, “If all this happened to you, how come you look so good?”
Kale always stressed that people must “get along with your neighbors. Maybe [with all these talks] I did some good, maybe I didn’t. I don’t know. But nobody has ever fainted. I just don’t know if I’ve had any influence.”
When Kale considers the world today, she is not encouraged by her influence, or anyone else’s for that matter.
“Men will never learn,” she said. “Hatred against Jews has gone on for 5,000 years.”
In addition to educating children and adults about the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, Kale is an avid and honored supporter of Hadassah.
“I am hopeful that a strong, resourceful Israel will help prevent mass murder of Jews,” she stated.
Another key component in her message is that even amid despair and terror there were slivers of hope. Kale even nominated a former neighbor, Fritz Hohman, to be a Righteous Gentile at Jerusalem’s Holocaust remembrance complex, Yad Vashem.
“When we were at the labor camps, many of the Estonians there helped us survive,” said Kale, who loves to read and belongs to a Jewish book group and a Friendship Circle sponsored by the Sonoma County JCC. “And if we [the inmates at the labor camps] hadn’t helped each other during the war, we wouldn’t have survived, either.”
Kale shares her history even with strangers. She recently opened up to a hairdresser about the horror story she lived: watching a woman exit the cattle car cradling her dead baby, learning that her mother and sister had been massacred and enduring daily torture at the camps.
“She said to me, ‘I feel it’s an honor to have met you,’ ” Kale said. “She wouldn’t let me pay. I invited her over for dinner.
“My whole sense of living after the Holocaust has been to help people,” she added. “If I feel I can do some good, I will speak.”
“Enduring Voices: Living Memories,” Sonoma County’s annual Yom HaShoah observance, is 2 to 4 p.m. May 1 at Friedman Center, 4676 Mayette Ave. Santa Rosa. Free. Information: www.jccsoco.org.