JEFFERSONVILLE — Unforgettable. That is the only word Allison Clary could utter to describe the whirlwind of emotions she has experienced in recent weeks.
"It was amazing, but it was also shocking," said Clary, a long-time teacher at Jeffersonville High School. "A word that has neither a negative nor a positive connotation to me is unforgettable. It's really the best word I can say, because it really is something I'll never forget."
On Monday, Clary returned to her native Southern Indiana after spending more than a week in Poland with organizers from the CANDLES Holocaust Museum. One person who didn't make the trip home, however, was Eva Kor, who after surviving the Holocaust made it her life's work to shed light on what happened to the Jewish people under Nazi rule. Kor died in Krakow on July 4 at the age of 85.
In the days leading up to Kor's death, Clary was able to spend time by her side. Her journey with Kor, someone she deeply admired, began with a bit of serendipity, eventually evolving into one of her most memorable experiences.
Clary's interest in the Holocaust began — like many people — with a reading of "The Diary of Anne Frank." Her desire to learn more about the topic grew upon reading Elie Wiesel's "Night," a book Clary said changed her life. She then began teaching it in her English class.
"I kind of built a small Holocaust unit that went with it, and the kids started asking for more," Clary said. "They asked if I could teach a class. The kids took it, and the class took off. I've now been teaching my own course that I created since 2007."
In 2012, Clary became aware of Kor's life and work and immediately became fascinated by her story. Learning about Kor instilled within Clary a desire to meet her, but circumstance made it difficult.
"I wanted to do it, but it just wasn't easy to get to Terre Haute as a single mom," Clary said. "My now husband decided right then and there that he was going to take me for my birthday. She met us at the museum on my birthday, and she sang 'Happy Birthday' to me and showed us the museum."
After meeting Kor, Clary continued to teach her story in the Holocaust class she had established. At that time, she never dreamed that she would be visiting Auschwitz with Kor seven years later.
Last January, Clary requested a new documentary about Kor, a book about Wiesel, and "From the Heart of Hell" by Zalman Gradowski — a Jewish member of the Sonderkommando (a group of prisoners forced to dispose of the remains from the gas chamber) at Auschwitz — for her class. The latter took weeks to arrive, even after the other items had been delivered.
"I was told it was coming, but it was coming from Warsaw," Clary said. "About another week later, it showed up in a beautiful ornate, white package, and it's straight from Auschwitz. I read the back of it out loud to my students. It's very emotional. I was crying by the time I finished it. It was a huge epiphany to me that this document was so important. I knew I had to go. I can't explain it anymore than that."
Clary had heard of the CANDLES trips, but she knew it cost $4,000. She had just gotten married last year, which made her hesitant to spend even more money. Another factor dampening her prospects was the fact that she was without a passport.
"My husband really encouraged me to look for a spot on the trip," Clary said. "There was a spot for trip B, and he told me I should go. I had my passport in my hands in 14 days, which was pretty shocking. That was another fateful thing. Had my husband not encouraged me, it would've been super easy for me to never do it. It was a very emotional decision for me, and I made it in 24 hours. I got the book, and I signed up the next day."
The group left for Poland on June 30, arriving in Krakow to find Kor waiting for them in the hotel lobby.
"She was funny," Clary said of getting to know Kor. "She was tough as nails, and you have to be to survive what she survived at 10 years old. She would just say whatever she wanted. She didn't hold back at all. She didn't shake hands because of germs, but she fist bumped. That was cool."
On July 3, the group made their first trip to Auschwitz, visiting the extermination camp at Birkenau. After lunch, Kor met the group there to take them to spots familiar to her.
"She took us up to where her barracks were, where she had been kept as a little girl," Clary said. "There was a little plaque, and you can see the two of us and the plaque in one of my photos. She asked if anyone wanted a picture, and everyone wanted one. We had a line of maybe 100 people. It was really cool. Of course, we didn't know at the time how fateful it was."
Next came the trip back to the hotel, followed by dinner with Kor.
"At the end, she said she was tired, so they got her some help and she went on up," Clary said. "The next morning, we had a very early wake-up call. We always ate breakfast in the hotel. It was kind of odd, because some of the tour leaders weren't there. We got on the bus, and there was a little whisper going around that she hadn't had a good night and that she wasn't feeling too well."
The group carried on with their July 4 trip back to Auschwitz with the conspicuous absence of Kor. Tour leaders said she was resting comfortably back at the hotel.
At the concentration camp, the group's guide asked everyone to walk through the same fences Kor and her twin, Miriam, did at liberation, saying to do it "for Eva." At the time, Clary didn't put too much thought into it.
Rumblings of Kor's condition continued throughout the day, with one fellow attendee mentioning to Clary that she had a feeling Kor had passed away — something Clary shrugged off as nonsense.
Roughly an hour later, however, the main tour guide broke the news that Kor had died.
"You really could've heard a pin drop," Clary said. "I burst into tears. Other people did, too. I've never been so shocked. I don't think I'll ever forget it as long as I'm allowed on this Earth."
Kor passed away at the hotel at 7:30 a.m. that morning. The group had left for their trip at 7:20 a.m.
"They had not told us on purpose, because they knew it'd ruin our day," Clary said. "They knew that Eva wouldn't want to do that. The leaders all knew, but nobody divulged it. Even our tour guides knew. Everybody was able to keep that away from us. They all deserve an Academy Award."
That night, Clary and some of the others on the trip went to the market square in Krakow to toast to Kor. What happened there made them realize that they had to continue the trip in her honor.
"This young girl came over, and she was just really bubbly and sweet," Clary said. "We asked her for her name, and it was Eva. She had a bright blue pen that she was using, and Eva's color was bright blue. That's what she always wore. Everything she did was bright blue. We all felt like she was looking over us. We tried to refocus ourselves to celebrate her. While we were sad, we wanted to do it in her memory, to continue."
Back at Auschwitz the next day, the group took part in a memorial service and candle lighting service. A guide placed a wreath in honor of Kor, then Kor's son, Alex, addressed those in attendance.
"He said her favorite song was 'Sing the Impossible Dream,'" Clary said. "They said the words, and we all sang it. I chose to go up and speak. I lit a candle for Eva, I lit a candle for Zalman, I lit one for his wife, then I lit one for a beautiful woman named Ann Klein, who was an Auschwitz survivor who lived in Louisville."
On the trip home, the group took Kor's luggage with them, including her empty walker. The walk through the airport, Clary said, was "surreal."
Despite the extreme highs and lows of the emotional trip, Clary said she will look back on the memories she made fondly.
"I look at it as one of the greatest honors, blessings and privileges in my life to be able to go with her, to be there with her and then to be there without her," Clary said. "It's something I'll never forget, and it's something you can't re-create. I'm a participant of something so special. There's only 45 of us in the whole world who can say we were with her."