I’m learning to meditate with an app called Headspace. I’ve completed the free “basics” module and just began a 30-part unit on anxiety. This is connecting me to my iPhone much earlier in the day than usual. I’m one of those who typically doesn’t check the phone first thing in the morning. I don’t want it to rule my life. But I like this meditation practice and as I finished it, a reminder came up on my calendar. “Anna Steinbach’s birthday.”
How do I describe the feeling that arose? A tenderness, a sadness, and a desire to celebrate. Anna Maria Steinbach was born into a Sinti family in the Netherlands on December 23rd, 1934. She was named Settela. A local doctor’s wife had a tradition of inviting the local Sinti to her home for a Christmas meal. She agreed to be godmother for this newborn girl and gave her a Christian name—Anna Maria. That’s the name used in the historical stories of “the girl in the headscarf.” But I will write about her by the name her own family gave her, Settela.
It was an unlucky time to be born. By the time she was eight years old, the Nazis had invaded the Netherlands and targeted not only Jews but also the Sinti and Roma people (known derogatorily as Gypsies). Her family of seven brothers and sisters was rounded up, along with the other members of their community and brought to a transit camp called Westerbork. There, everyone’s head was shaved. Settela covered her head with a torn sheet to hide her baldness. She was wearing that sheet when she was filmed looking out of a cattle car on its way to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death a few days later. The image became famous—“the girl with the headscarf.” It’s one of the pictures we use in our art workshops, so you can see in our Portrait Gallery the many images of her made by people around the world.
Today, the joy of this holiday season is also colored with the devastating stories of ongoing deportations and refugees. Yet I want to celebrate the birthday of this child. To offer to her memory the joy and play she should have had in her life. I have plans to see the Rockettes with my sister and my niece. I will imagine Settela’s wonder at this spectacle if she were with us. I will renew my own childhood delight and enjoy it with my family. I’ll be kind to the people I encounter; greet the hordes of tourists at Rockefeller Center and Radio City with equanimity and a smile. I’ll make a small donation to HIAS for their work with refugees. I have become humble in my approach to dealing with the terrible things happening around me. I will not be complacent, but I will not give in to despair. I will enjoy the gifts I have and find a balanced way to give back. Settela would be 83 today—not so old by today’s standards. She might still enjoy the Rockettes.
If you wish:
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Donate to HIAS to support refugees: https://www.hias.org/