It often takes a person a while to figure out what their legacy is in life. Most of the time is right there in front of us, or just a quick look back into our history. Some get confused on that journey and their vision is unclear due to outside sources, motivation and self confidence. Those people get stuck and without proper support, dedication and goals, they may never really understand who they are in bigger picture. I was fortunate to have known my legacy for a long time, but I didn't really foster it until 2002.
My life's work has been working with kids, teens, college students and people of all ages. As I have gotten older, I have been blessed with the connections and friendships from my past that still inspire me today and who I am. Being a mentor, a friend and an advocate is something I am very humbled and grateful for beyond words. When my own family had shut me out for being gay, it was the people I had been a mentor and friend to that embraced me. The love and support helped me in my journey to where I am today. One day soon, I am going to share the many beautiful stories, e-mails and connections in a book about my life. We all have stories to share. The one thing I encourage people to do when I lecture is to sit down and have a conversation with someone and get to know them. You will be amazed on what you will learn.
In 1998, I was blessed to have met a woman who now is a good friend and mentor. From 1996-2003 I was the Director of the North Central Michigan College Lecture Series in Petoskey, Michigan. I was very fortunate to have met some celebrities and inspirational people, but my friend Nesse Godin who was a guest speaker, proved to be someone I will never forget.
Nesse is a true survivor in every since of the word. She has dedicated her adult life to teaching and sharing memories of the Holocaust. She has the ability to translate the Holocaust into a personal glimpse of this enormous and horrifying history. Nesse is a loving, grandmotherly type of woman with a heart full of love to give any perfect stranger who is open and willing to hear her story. She was born in 1928 in the Lithuanian city of Siauliai, not far from the Latvian border. Her parents owned a business that sold dairy products. The Jews called the city Nesse lived in, Shavli.
In Nesse's own words she will tell you that, she was a prisoner from the age of 13 to 17, and lived through a ghetto, concentration camp, four labor camps and a death march. She told me that she was not strong and not smart. "I was a little girl. I think that I survived the Holocaust by the grace of the Lord above and by the kindness of Jewish women that gave me a bite of bread, wrapped my body in straw to keep me warm, held me up when I was hurt by the guards, gave me hope, but also asked me to promise them that if I survived I would not let them be forgotten. I will never forget and always remember and tell the world what hatred can do.
In my years of knowing this wonderful woman, she has shared heartfelt and horrific stories of how gays and lesbians were treated in the Holocaust. Gays and lesbians were at first identified with the words "homo" or "Paragraph 175" on their uniforms, later by pink or black triangles. Emotionally she recalls of how two-thirds of the gay prisoners died as victims of slave labor, castration, or surgical experimentation. It was part of the Nazis' campaign to eradicate homosexuality, which they viewed as a threat to the "Aryan purity" deemed essential to Germany's comeback from World War I humiliation. According to respected historians within the Gay community, the number of homosexual men who died in the camps was between 5,000-15,000, and also a small number of women. Another homosexual historian has published an estimate of 6,000.
In 1950 she and her husband Jack (also a survivor) came to the US and settled in the Washington DC area. Nesse and Jack are the proud parents of a son and two daughters, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. She volunteers weekly at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and continues to speak out against the horrors of genocide, violence, and hate.
People come into your life for a reason and there is a lesson to learn and a reason why they are there. It is how we embrace those relationships that will have a positive impact on us and others. Even if it is for a short while, those connections are there for us to grab on to learn, feed your soul, motivate, connect and that we all have a place in the larger universe.
On my wall is a picture and note from my dear friend Nesse. From 1998 she writes, "Dear Greg, Just a little note to thank you for making my visit to Michigan special. I will never forget your warmth and friendship. You are a very special soul." I hear from her often and value my wonderful friend. She has given me the gift of unconditional friendship and love. Her path is unselfish and as she says when she speaks and meets people, she shares memories.
On every card and e-mail I get from her, it is signed her with own special way that warms my heart. With love and friendship, Nesse.