Five years ago, when Caroline Kennedy was in the 8th grade, a guest speaker visited her Kansas City area school to share her extraordinary story. She could have never predicted the big impact this woman would have on her life from that fateful moment forward. This is Caroline’s heartfelt and incredibly powerful “thank you” to Holocaust Survivor, Sonia Warshawski, now 91 and still proving every day that ‘small matters big’.
In the spring of 2012, you changed my life for the first time and have continued to change my life ever since. I remember sitting in our middle school auditorium as an eager thirteen-year-old, ready to listen to your story. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I was prepared to absorb every word, because I knew that anyone who survived the Holocaust must be brave and strong, a real fighter. I was right about that with you, but there is so much more that I didn’t see coming.
You walked onstage and as you recounted the horrors you endured, I became angry. I was angry at the world because for the first time, the Holocaust was not a paragraph printed in small black letters on the white pages of a textbook, it was not a statistic, or a photograph. The Holocaust was real. You put a face to the stories I had read about for years. And the strangest thing, I think the reason your story resonated so deeply with me, was that I felt I could have been you. If I was just born in a different place, a different year, it could have been me that faced such great tragedy. As you spoke I noticed how similar we are. You are optimistic and outspoken, you make jokes and you give hugs and you cry… just like me. Of course, I knew the people who were persecuted by the Nazis were real people, but I never understood until that day, that the people were just regular people, not so far removed from my little hometown in Kansas. They were people like you. People like… me.
I wanted to build better world with you. I wanted to be like you, my hero. So I did something, I took a step in the direction of change…
After your speech, a small group of students – including myself – were fortunate enough to sit with you and ask you questions, hear more of your story and understand how it still impacts your life. When it was my turn to speak with you, I vividly remember your kind eyes, your aged skin failing to hide your beauty. You stared back at me as tears as warm as your expression began streaming down my cheeks. I cried because on that day, for the first time, I saw the world for what it really could be. I was mad at myself for being so naive, for not understanding until now. And I became really afraid because in that moment, it felt like I was drowning. All I could see was darkness in the world, all I could think of was how it was really possible for someone to terrorize you, an innocent child, and your family.
But you spoke to me and acknowledged the difficulty in hearing your story, implicitly reminding me that you were not telling us your story to scare us, or to turn us into pessimists. It was actually the opposite. You were telling us your story because it screams hope. You’ve experienced some of the worst practices of discrimination and hatred our world has ever seen, yet you remain optimistic that the world can be better. You say we can move forward as a unified species, we must remember that there is much more light than there is dark, and that we all can change the world and together, end human suffering. You told us that it’s us 8th graders who can step up and help prevent the amount of darkness in our world from growing.
I wanted to build better world with you. I wanted to be like you, my hero. So I did something, I took a step in the direction of change, and I decided to help educate kids like the 8th grade me about today’s major global issues, because as we become educated, we become empowered to do something that matters. In your honor, I started Empower: Educate & Inspire, a nonprofit organization, to foster a generation of people who stand together, unified, connected, and, most importantly, who stand up for human equality.
You are a small woman with a heavy presence and an extraordinarily strong heart. You endured some of the worst experiences I could ever imagine, and yet you do not hate people or think all people are inherently bad, and you definitely do not believe that there is no hope. You believe that we are the hope for a better world. I will try to be that for you for the rest of my life. I would have never been able to do this, to start this nonprofit, to be passionate for change, without having met you. You changed my life forever, you gave me purpose. Even after all these years since you first spoke to me, I am still just as affected by you. And for that, I will remain indefinitely grateful.
Your Biggest Fan – Caroline Kennedy
About The Author
Caroline is a rising sophomore Morehead-Cain scholar at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. She still works on Empower: Educate & Inspire, her youth-run nonprofit that creates lessons for students about today’s global issues and teaches them leadership skills so that they can pursue their interests, regardless of age, and make an impact on the world now.
Editor’s Update 11.20.17: Caroline is also featured in “Big Sonia“, the award-winning documentary about Sonia Warshawski, which was directed and produced by Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, an accomplished filmmaker. The film, which was just named a contender for the 2018 Oscars, kicked off its Theatrical Premiere in New York City last Friday on November 17 at the Quad Cinemas and runs through November 23. It will makes its way to theaters around the country from there. Check here for a screening near you. View the trailer below…