Monday, November 11, 2013

Naomi Warren

Naomi Warren was born in Poland in 1920. During the Holocaust, she survived three concentration camps – Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Bergen Belsen. Her mother and her first husband, Alexander Rosenbaum, both died in Auschwitz.  Naomi survived the war and came to Houston in 1946. She married another Holocaust survivor, Martin Warren, and together the couple raised two daughters and a son in Houston. They established a successful import company which she continued to run after her husband’s death.  Naomi has made very generous donations to numerous organizations, particularly supporting projects which educate younger generations about the Holocaust.  These gifts include support for the Future Teachers Fellowship which Naomi founded at Houston’s Holocaust Museum and the forthcoming US premiere by Houston Grand Opera of The Passenger by composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz.

What’s your story, Naomi?
I was born in Poland in 1920.  My 19th birthday was on the first of September 1939, the day that war broke out.  It was a very special birthday because I had just finished high school and I was going to go to the university, but of course, the war changed all the plans that I had. 

In 1938, Poland was divided into two parts.  The eastern part, where we lived, was occupied by the Russians and the western part was occupied by the Germans. My father was a president of a bank and as such, he was considered an enemy of the communist system, so they arrested him and deported him to Siberia.  It was a tragedy at the time, but thanks to the Russians, my father survived the war. 

Naomi as a young woman
Photo courtesy of
In 1941 the war started between Russia and Germany and that was the point that the Germans occupied our part of Poland and that’s how I had the “pleasure” of experiencing of the concentration camps. I survived three concentration camps before being liberated by the British in 1945. 

It’s really very strange; out of every experience you draw certain ideas and strengths.  I don’t think I would be ever have been the same type of person had I not been in a concentration camp.  I was so lucky to survive and I was so happy to be alive, but you had to be very strong. My brother was also a doctor, but he survived. My sister survived because she was already in the United States. 

My mother and my young husband were both killed in Auschwitz.

Many times I have wondered why I was one of the survivors, but I was always thinking of my father.  First of all, education was very important to him, but besides that, he taught me to be strong, he taught me to fight for what I believed in and perhaps that has resulted in who I am now.  I was reunited with my father in the United States, and my brother and sister too. He lived to age 95.

The war, of course, changed my life totally because I had to fight for survival.  So as a result of that it has been a very, very exciting life – a very tough life from many points of view, a life of fear and a life of not being so happy and not knowing what was going to happen tomorrow, but I always had hope. I never gave up my hope.

After Liberation, I chose to come to the United States because I had a sister and an uncle who both lived here.  In 1946 a new life started for me in Houston.  Later on I remarried, I have three children and a rather wonderful life.  Really, I am a very happy person.

Have you ever returned to Poland?
I went back to Poland ten years ago in 2013 though I never wanted to go back.  When we got there, I forgot a lot.  I think I had wanted to erase it from my memory.  I went to where I thought we lived, but it wasn’t the right house, it was a different street.  I felt very sorry that I had messed that up because later I remembered the name of the street that we lived on.  But at my grandfather’s house, we met a lovely lady who invited us all into her garden to talk to her.  It was very interesting to meet her.

I forgot so much but yet I remembered such little incidents.  I had a sister and a brother. My sister was seven years older than I and I saw a clear vision of my mother standing outside the door.  The boyfriend of my sister came to see her.  He was absolutely gorgeous and a magnificent dancer and my sister liked him very much, but it was a problem for my mother. She didn’t like that my sister was going out with this guy.  My mother said to him “Are you back already?”  He went for a vacation or something and the first time she saw him when he came back, she said, “Are you back already?”  I remembered that so clearly.

The gates of Auschwitz concentration camp
Photo courtesy of
We went to Auschwitz and it was absolutely incredible.  I cried all the way from Krakow, the closest city, because I really did not know how I would react.  But when we came there it was different. There is a big gate and the gate has a big saying over it, Arbeit Mach Frei, which means work makes you free.  All my family stood outside the gate and suddenly so much strength came to me and I thought to myself, “My goodness, I survived this hell and look at who is with me, my whole family.”  

I don’t know where I found the strength to deal with it, but I did.  But was so tragic to see the railroad and to see the cattle cars which transported us.

What’s your Houston story?
My sister came to Houston because my uncle lived in Houston. He owned a steamship company and his ships were hauling newsprint. When my father came to Houston after the war, my uncle helped him start a business selling newsprint to the local newspapers. My father was a very bright man.

A few of Naomi's enormous
collection of pigs
After I remarried in the United States, my husband and I started a business called the International Trading Company.  We started importing sardines because he saw that there were no Maine sardines to be had – Maine sardines were the most important sardines in the United States – so we brought our sardines from French Morocco.  That’s how we started our business and then we started importing ham too.  Later it was just ham.  We were one of the largest importers of ham from Denmark – Danish pigs were smaller and had less fat. Later we started producing ham in the United States. That’s why I have all these little sardine boxes and pigs everywhere.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
Certainly my father, but also my mother.  She was a very unusual person and she was very bright.  In Russia, she finished the gymnasium [high school] and she was accepted to medical school.  She wanted to become a doctor, but she met my father, they fell in love, and that was the end of the medicine.  My mother was born in 1890 and my father was born in 1885. 

What advice would you give to someone trying to start a new life after a tragedy?
As far as I was concerned, I felt that a new life was starting for me when I came to the United States and I felt that the past was the past.  I thought, “Now I have to start building something else.  Will I be capable of doing that?  I don’t know.”  But I had to experience it and somehow it worked.

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I enjoy life, I always like to be doing something and I enjoy my family too.  I keep busy, I just cannot stay home do nothing.  I can read or I can listen to music but then I have to do something. I enjoy family and friends very much.  I am always so happy when my children come to see me.

What does Houston mean to you?
I like Houston and I like living here.  I don’t think I would feel as comfortable living in another city.  However it is so hard if you don’t’ drive.  You have to get used to living without a car, but I am very fortunate to be able to afford all the help I need at this stage in my life.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
My home, because I feel secure here, because I feel that my family will always come when I need them so I don’t feel alone.

What is your favorite restaurant?
Oh, there are not enough restaurants in Houston!  I have visited almost all of them, I can tell you.  I like Toni’s and I like Café Rabelais, because they have good bread.  There’s Pologna, but it’s still Polish food and anyway, I think we make better Polish food at home!

What is your Houston secret?
I used to love to go to the theater, The Alley was such an important part of my life, but right now, I don’t go so much because I am not hearing as well as I used to, and so I have to have very good seats.  It’s hard for me to get around, to get out of the car and to move around.  It’s a different life that I have now.

I am also proud to support The Passenger at Houston Grand Opera very soon.  The opera is about a survivor of the concentration camp and a guard.  They travel together years later and they recognize each other.  I was in Auschwitz and I am a Holocaust survivor so that’s why I am involved.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
I feel sad that people don’t walk.  They go to Memorial Park to run, but people don’t just walk.

Naomi was nominated as one of the many Inspiring Houston Women by Andrea White. 

To hear more of Naomi Warren’s amazing story, please watch the touching film by Leslie Sachnowitz Meimoun called NAOMI WARREN: A Story of Hope and Renewal. The film recently received a top Grand Remi Award at the 2013 WorldFest International Film Festival. You may view this incredibly moving documentary about Ms. Warren's experiences and survival of the Holocaust here.

For more information on Houston Grand Opera’s US premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger in January 2014, please visit the HGO website.

For more information on the Warren Fellowship for Future Teachers at the Holocaust Museum Houston, please visit the Holocaust Museum’s website.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sarah Fisher and Trish Morille

Sarah Fisher and Trish Morille are the Co-founders of +Works (pronounced Positive Works), a parent-driven program serving as catalyst for positive community change in eleven Houston public, private and parochial schools.. Building up from grass roots, Sarah and Trish have driven forward a campaign which encourages positive debate and creates opportunities for positive action within families, schools, and the wider community. Their distinctive logo, with the blue and black positive sign, can be seen in schools buildings, on the fences of sports fields, and on cars, declaring that these environments to be a positive zones, where high expectations for positive behavior are clear.

What are your stories, Sarah and Trish?

SARAH – I have been married for 23 years to my husband and best friend, Ken Fisher. We have two teenage boys, ages 16 and 13. I was born and raised in the mid-west, and have lived in three other countries. This is the third time I’ve lived in Houston and I first met Trish on our first round in Houston 15 years ago.

Work-wise, I have a marketing degree from the University of Notre Dame, after which I joined a big national advertising agency and then had my own one-woman ad agency at age 27. I love doing the strategy all the way through to the creative production and I am known for my rules-breaking creative approach. . When we were moving around the world with my husband’s job, it became clear that one of us needed to be home with the kids. I put my advertising career aside for 13 years – a time Trish calls my ‘long nap’! I did a lot of pro bono work in my boys’ schools and also started painting.

TRISH – I am married to the love of my life, Rock Morille and we have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We have two amazing children – our daughter is 19 and a sophomore at Texas A&M and our son is 15 and a sophomore at Strake Jesuit high school. I am a first generation American on my mother’s side, with roots in Germany and I was the first person ever to graduate from college from my family. I put myself through school, willing to make coffee, hold-down nighttime retails jobs, and do whatever it took to follow my goal to work in journalism. I interned in Austin at the NBC affiliate, KXAN helping the political reporter, and then had my first paying job at KXAS in Dallas. When I moved to Houston, I went to work for KHOU while finishing up my degree at the University of Houston. I was pregnant with my daughter when I graduated with a degree in Journalism – finally! I then transitioned from working in broadcast journalism to working in public relations, heading up Macy’s special events and public relations division in Houston, but my desire to get back into serious news drove me to the Houston Post where I worked until they were purchased by Hearst in 1995.

I’ve always worked, even when my children were young but I worked differently and smartly.  I had to look strategically about how I could buy more time with my children and still have the career that I loved and be able to support my family, something which really was important to me. My work was very demanding and I knew it would be a challenge to rethink it all. I went out and starting interviewing other women about how they did it, how did they have full time careers and manage to be good mothers? I wanted to be the best mother I could be and still have time for my career.  Through all this, my husband was incredibly supportive but really it was a balancing act.

In 1995, I started my own consultancy, Morille & Associates working with a variety of businesses and non-profits. For about the last ten years, I have had the great fortune to work alongside Sue and Lester Smith and help run the Smith Foundation. It gives me the flexibility to do +Works and maintain other causes I feel passionate about including support to Houston’s cancer community at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, mental health and Houston’s homeless. In addition, I am a founding board member of Dress for Success Houston and had the great opportunity to help establish some other incredible organizations including Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Purple Songs Can Fly at Texas Children’s Cancer Center.

Why did you create +Works?

SARAH – As our family was moving around, it was getting harder and harder for our boys to be ‘the new kid’. If it’s hard when you are in first grade, it’s even harder when you are in fourth grade and by the time you get to sixth grade…! If you don’t know how to handle being targeted, you can get into a pattern that can be difficult to escape. . And for me, it wasn’t easy to be the ‘new mother’ in all these schools either. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.

This came to a crescendo when we were in Europe eight or so years ago, and Trish was going through the same challenges with her kids in Houston. Trish and I had many long long-distance phone conversations, trying without much success to help each other and help our kids. There was a lot of shame involved. Look at us. Can you imagine us just bawling? We are not exactly wimpy women, but the bullying issue reduced us to tears.  It was very difficult to know what to say to the schools, and it was very hard to know what to say to our children. It’s very lonely when you are a new parent.  You don’t want to be high-maintenance from the get-go and yet your child is really upset.  It’s hard to understand why they are upset because you don’t have the words to talk about it. It’s awful. Here we were, both writers, both PR experts, yet we couldn’t find the words to help our kids.

TRISH – And we couldn’t find the words to help ourselves either. My daughter was really struggling with bullying – and seeing it taking place with others, too.  I didn’t know how to react or respond appropriately. Everything was about reacting, about a bully and a victim. We didn’t want to raise victims; we wanted to create a new community language to deal with it, asking why are we here? Why are we as a community allowing this to happen? And how do we get ahead of it?

SARAH –When my older son was in 5th grade, he made the school soccer team. He was young and one of the smaller kids on the team. At a scrimmage early in the season, I was standing on the sidelines and heard another mom say, “Why is our team so small? How could this have happened?  It’s going to be such a long year!” My son then stole the ball from the largest and most athletic boy on the other team and took it up the field and scored our first goal. It was like a Nike commercial! Even so, a week later, I heard another kid on the team ask, “Coach, why is our team so small?” And I thought, “Wow, how many times have I said something to my kids that’s then come out of their mouths at some other place and time?” It was like a lightning bolt for me. I immediately called Trish and said, “I want to do an awareness campaign!” That was a key point in the beginning of +Works.

We came back to Houston at the end of that school year and though we got into that same horrible cycle, what was interesting and different was that news stories were starting to pop up which moved us to act. There were two in particular: the awful story in January 2010 of Phoebe Prince who was bullied and killed herself.

TRISH: Then on March 27th, at 7.30 in the morning, I was at my son’s West U Little League game and Sarah called me and said, “Where are you? You have got to see the front page of the Houston Chronicle. It was yet another dreadful bullying story, but this time in Houston.  Sarah came right over and put the newspaper in my hand and said, “We have got to come out of the Positive closet.”

SARAH: That was when Trish and I really started to look for solutions and to think more as ‘brand people’. We let the professionals in us take over from the mothers, which was therapeutic in itself.  We came up with the Positive Works name, and I created this positive sign with the black and blue cross. Within a month, we were up and running as +Works. We had a three person board, with another friend acting as Treasurer and we filed our papers with the state.

We decided to have two +Coffee meetings in my backyard. We put an eight-page presentation together that basically said, “Families need schools and schools need families to get ahead of the bullying problem, and we cannot just wait for bad things to happen. We have to understand why bullying is happening in the first place. Why are we blaming other people when we should be working together to help our kids?"

TRISH – One of the things that became clear to us at that time was that how we parent matters. The choices we make and the choices we allow in our homes, our cars and in our community greatly impact all of us. In order to begin to see change in our kids, we had to first look in the mirror.

We were thrilled to get the support of Dr. Stuart Twemlow of Menninger Clinic, an international expert on bullying. It was the first time he had seen a program started by parents and after reviewing our materials and unique approach, he endorsed us.

TRISH – One of the unique aspects of our program, are visual reminders such as banners, stickers and signs, placed on campus in the physical locations where negative behavior choices tend to happen. What’s cool about what Sarah designed is that it is customized to reflect the culture of each school.  At Annunciation Orthodox School, it is Agape in Actionagape is the Greek word for love. It’s just fabulous!

One of the banners inside Pershing Middle School
SARAH – It’s all about building +Community. Each school wraps its own idea and unique culture around the common core which means that both the kids and the school community own it; the teachers and the parents, as well as the kids.

TRISH – Our message really is first to the adults in the lives of children because we strongly believe that in order to raise them, we have to look at ourselves first. There’s a reason that the flight attendant on a plane tells you to put your oxygen mask on first before you help others. Children pick up negative things and they regurgitate what we feed them. Are we raising children to be compassionate and respectful by showing them compassion and respect? Are we raising them to handle life with resilience and a little grit? Are we introducing them to what it means to fail, so that they can enjoy the success? Life is tough and it gets tougher.

I look at my daughter and see how this work is impacting her. She’s a resident advisor at college and she is using the Positive Connection inventory with her charges on the first floor. +Works is about raising resilient kids, kids with determination but in the right way, kids who care, kids who are speaking up with respect and dignity for themselves and for other people.
The first +Works rally, at Mark Twain Elementary School in January 2011
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?

SARAH – My husband Ken has been a huge influence on me. He’s been my best friend for thirty years, and I have always appreciated his sense of humor and his ability to step back and take the long view.

TRISH –Parenting has been the biggest influence in my life. And when I reflect on my own childhood, I recognize how difficult it was for my mother, who largely raised three girls on her own and has struggled with major depression throughout her life. She grew up during war times in Europe, and my late father served three tours of duty in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war. When he came home, he suffered from what I believe was post-traumatic stress disorder. They both really struggled but no one talked about it as we do today. They ended up divorcing. I just knew that I wanted a different life for my children and I learned how hard I was willing to work to achieve that.

What advice would you give to someone trying to launch a campaign for a cause?

TRISH – Do it with someone you enjoy being with and have fun. Even though we work very hard, we have a lot of fun together and we laugh a lot. You have to have a passion for something. It sounds trite, but you do. We are doing this work pro bono, and when we walk into a school and hear these anecdotes from teachers we say, “My goodness there’s a reason we are supposed to be doing all this”. I do think there’s a calling in it all. It isn’t an easy thing to do, but we do it with people we enjoy and we are astounded how much we can achieve.

SARAH – Our skills are very complementary. We are both strategists, and we’re both writers. I bring the branding, the graphic design and marketing to the table, and Trish has the journalism, PR, event management experience.  Starting a non-profit is the hardest work you’ll ever love. Put your time in, hang in there, and be open and flexible. 

What does Houston mean to you?

SARAH – Houston is an amazing place to start something like +Works.  People here are so open to ideas, it’s incredible. I’ve lived all over the world and there’s no place like Houston. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. I’m living proof of that. We didn’t know a soul when we came here sixteen years ago, and we were warmly welcomed.

TRISH –I agree totally. Not only are people generous with their time, their talent, their money and their energy, they are also generous with their people. I think that is really the biggest thing. They say, “You need to meet so-and-so” and they follow through and they show up.

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?

SARAH – I try to take time to appreciate nature. I try hard to stop and look at the sunrise as I’m taking my son to school. I really try to find peace and joy in little moments like that and I have been trying to teach my boys to do the same.

TRISH – I love to walk and I love Jazzercise. Being outdoors with my family is also wonderful – skiing, hiking, and riding bicycles together. On most Mondays, I do a healing rosary with a group of other moms. It’s so peaceful to sit in a room of faith-filled women, such a moment of quiet in a busy week.

Where is your happy place in Houston?

SARAH – For me, it’s walking around Rice University. I really enjoy walking under those beautiful live oaks.  If Trish and I need to get together to work something out, the two of us will go all the way round and we are fast! We are probably the only one the other one can walk with.

TRISH – She’s right. We are both power-walkers. I walk with other friends when they ask me, but then they say they can’t keep up with me because I’m too fast. Sarah’s the only one who can match me, other than my husband.

SARAH – The two of us work at the same frenetic pace and we walk at the same frenetic pace! We do very well together.

TRISH – My happy place is my home. I am so grateful to have my family and friends in it. The more the merrier.

What is your favorite restaurant?

TRISH – My kitchen!

SARAH – Yes! Her kitchen! Trish is an amazing cook!

TRISH – We cook as a family and so enjoy those times together. We also have so many great options we can walk to in Rice Village. We love Café Rabelais.

SARAH – We walk to the Village – it’s just so easy. And there are so many great choices.

If you could change one thing about Houston…

SARAH – Mosquitoes!

TRISH – Zoning! My neighborhood is where we’ve had the big struggle over the Ashby high rise. Although I love our neighborhoods – all of them – I just wish that we had a better framework for building in our city.

Who would be your own Inspiring Houston Woman?

TRISH - The woman I would like to nominate is Anita Kruse.  I am so crazy about her work.  Anita taught my children the piano from when they were three.  She used to be the music instructor at Poe Elementary, has a background in classical music and is a songwriter and composer.   I met her when one of my neighbors, an MD Anderson Hospital doctor, asked me if I would write a press release about a CD Anita wanted to do.  It was a Christmas CD and she wanted to give the proceeds to MD Anderson, and there was born the idea of Purple Songs Can Fly.  I helped her to build a recording studio at Texas Children’s Cancer Center where children with cancer and their siblings can write and record their experiences through music. Anita is so inspiring to me. She started her own non-profit, a few people came together to help fund it and get it off the ground, and now each child gets a purple CD.  The songs have literally been in outer space.  She is just awesome.  To read Inspiring Houston Women's interview with Anita Kruse, click here.

SARAH – I would like to nominate Susan Fordice who is now the CEO of Mental Health America in Greater Houston.  We met her when she was the Chief Operating Officer and she was a very early supporter of Positive Works and has remained so.  She has such a passion for advocating for a better understanding of mental health and getting rid of the stigma. She has a great line, “Putting the head back on the body”, understanding the whole person and making it okay to talk about what is such a tough and challenging issue. I think she’s amazing.  Talk about someone who puts everything she has into what she does! To read Inspiring Houston Women's interview with Susan Fordice, click here.

For more information about Sarah and Trish's work and about +Works, visit the campaign's website at: