In 2001 when she was director of Holocaust services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Tucson, a survivor reminded her that the military was responsible for holding Holocaust days of remembrance. Eager to help share the survivors’ life experiences, Wallen contacted Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona to set up a presentation. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship and partnership.
“I think in many ways, the survivors felt validated…. This was the first time that the survivors got to see themselves through the eyes of men and women in uniform and were admired,” she says. “This is a generation that grew up surrounded and being hated by people in uniform in Europe.”
Wallen was approached by a commander at Fort Huachuca who requested that she and the survivors speak with his troops stationed at other military bases. This led to presentations in other states, including Florida, Texas and New Mexico. She says the Survivors see the education as vital, allowing them to both teach and to say thank you.
“The survivors are bound and determined to go out and speak as much as they can because it’s a message they’re determined to get out,” says Wallen. “This is their way of saying thank you to the American military for liberating them as well as honoring their family and friends who died during the Holocaust. Some of the survivors still have nightmares and flashbacks. But they feel it’s important for teaching purposes, and also to say thank you for what you’re doing today.”
Although Wallen’s job with Jewish Family and Children’s Services ended, her work with Holocaust survivors continued. She dedicates her free time to working with the survivors as an unpaid volunteer. “This is my gift to them, my promise that I would continue to work with them in this way.”
The most incredible moment for Wallen came in 2003, when she encountered German liaison officers at Fort Huachuca. She says she “took a gamble” and asked if they would like to speak with the survivors. What followed was a long-term partnership with German military liaison personnel stationed there.
“Both sides have moral injuries,” says Wallen, who holds both a master’s degree in Latin American History and a doctorate in history from the University of Arizona. “The Holocaust survivors have a great deal of guilt about speaking to the German military: are they betraying their murdered families and friends by doing this? The Germans have the legacy of the army that they are part of, and they have the legacy of their parents or grandparents (in World War II), who may have been silent, complacent or played an active part in the Nazi regime.”
Wallen stresses that the German military continues its commitment. She and the survivors have spoken at bases in Texas, New Mexico and at the headquarters of the German Armed Forces Command United States and Canada, in Reston, Va. She says the work reflects a shared commitment to ensuring that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.
She says sharing the life experiences of survivors becomes paramount in a time when survivors are dying and “the voices of hate are growing louder and louder.” She cites hate crimes, such as the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and suggests that we are on an “ugly slope downward” that can only be corrected with first-hand education.
Wallen, who had family murdered during the Holocaust, says now is the time to come together against hate and the “dark side of society.”
“We are a nation that’s multicultural; we need to embrace and celebrate that and not separate from it,” she says. “We need to speak up, to say ‘this is not going to happen again.’ ” As one German military commander in Texas told me, ‘never again, means never again.’
“The survivors lived through horrific unimaginable life experiences and had to begin life again. That’s a lot of courage. This is important to them, that others know their life experiences, so that this can never happen again. That’s their hope and their prayer, and it’s mine as well.”