Who will tell survivors’ stories when they’re gone?
In the spring of 2011, David Benson, found himself walking with his grandmother, Holocaust survivor Sidonia Lax, down the “black path” that once led to the crematorium at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was Lax’s fifth trip with the annual International March of the Living as a survivor, with the Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) teen delegation, his first as part of a large family contingent with the BJE Los Angeles adult group.
As they headed toward the massive circular mausoleum that now stands at the end of the path, holding the ashes of some of the approximately 59,000 Jews and 19,000 non-Jews who were murdered there, Benson, then 35, found himself alone with his grandmother, then 83, for the first time during the trip. Something came over him, something that he can’t explain to this day, and he vowed, “As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”
Benson’s sacred promise to his grandmother represents a welcome response to a mounting challenge facing museums, historians and educators as survivors of Nazi-era atrocities grow old and die, taking their firsthand accounts with them: How will their memories be kept alive for future generations? More and more, it is the survivors’ descendants — their sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — who are taking on that responsibility, and beyond them, anyone who hears their stories.
It also is spurring wider efforts to record survivors talking about their exploits for posterity, much in the way the USC Shoah Foundation videotaped more than 50,000 testimonies of Jewish survivors between 1994 and 1999 and how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is continuing to expand its collection of more than 12,000 audio and video recordings of Jewish survivors.
Benson is one of the many children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of survivors — known within the Holocaust community as Second, Third and Fourth Generation — who are stepping up to tell the survivors’ stories as educational programs, institutions and museums worldwide prepare for a world without survivors.
For the past five years, Benson has left behind his wife, his two young children and his business for a week to accompany his grandmother to Poland. This year, after 10 March of the Living trips, Sidonia is unable to participate. And although David cannot attend this year because of preparations for Sidonia’s 90th birthday and other conflicts, he already has signed up to lead an adult group next year.
“As long as you want to come on this trip, I will come with you. And I’ll come in your stead when you can’t anymore.”
— David Benson, to his grandmother, on a march of the living trip to Poland
He knows his grandmother’s story intimately, how she and her parents had been crammed into a small cellar bunker with 35 people in the Przemysl ghetto in Poland for three months in the fall of 1943. An escape plan for her family failed, and her mother was captured and later murdered. A few days later, her father slipped out of the bunker in search of a smuggled apple for his severely undernourished daughter. He never returned.
Benson has followed his grandmother inside her former barracks in Birkenau, one of six camps in which she was imprisoned, where she’s pointed and said, “This is the bunk where I slept.”
“There’s nothing like someone, firsthand, standing there and saying that,” said Monise Neumann, director of the BJE Center for Teen Experiential Education, who has led 12 trips with the BJE Los Angeles delegation. “You can’t duplicate that.” Still, she said, “David serves as an amazing kind of figure as we transition from firsthand witnesses.”
Seven decades ago, at the end of World War II, approximately 3.8 million European Jews were alive, according to research by demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Today, among Jews who were in camps, ghettos or hiding under Nazi occupation, only 100,000 worldwide are alive, including 14,000 in the United States, Amy Wexler, public relations manager for The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, said via email.
In Los Angeles, extrapolating from the 1997 Jewish Population Survey, in which survivors self-identified, demographic researcher Pini Herman estimated the current number of living survivors at 3,000, excluding child survivors, those born Jan. 1, 1928, or later.
But even among the living survivors, many are ill or memory-impaired. And others, especially those born toward the end of World War II, survivors by definition, simply were too young to consciously recall their Holocaust ordeals.
In 2016, the BJE Los Angeles March of the Living delegation had only five survivors, the smallest group since it began participating in 1988. And these were mostly child survivors. This year, six are participating, all child survivors.
Over the years, staff members have become the storytellers for the next generation. Freddy Diamond, a survivor who accompanied the group five times over 10 years, used to stand outside Block 11 of Auschwitz, telling students the story of how his brother Leo, a member of a little-known resistance group, was tortured and hanged in front of 15,000 inmates. When Diamond could no longer attend, Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE associate director, stood outside Block 11, holding a photo of Diamond and relating his story. Now Neumann tells it.
“Look, it’ll never be the same,” Neumann said. “But because of the way the stories are being told, people will tell you that they’ll always remember them.”
In more recent years, Neumann and others have recorded survivors recounting their stories at different locations in Poland. Staff members carry these narratives on their digital devices.
Neumann also enlists the help of Third and Fourth Generation survivors who are March of the Living participants. In 2015, Caroline Lowy, then an 18-year-old student at Milken Community Schools, stood near a cattle car on the Auschwitz-Birkenau tracks and talked about how her great-grandfather Hugo Lowy arrived at Auschwitz in April 1944. He was dispatched to a line of men selected to work, but he refused to part with his tallit bag, which a guard grabbed and threw to the ground. When the guard turned his back, Hugo retrieved the bag, refusing to go anywhere without his tallit and tefillin. The guard beat him to death.
Caroline had attended the dedication of the cattle car in 2010, which had been restored and donated to Auschwitz-Birkenau by Hugo Lowy’s son, her grandfather Frank Lowy. She felt honored to retell the story to her peers, though it was difficult. But, she said, “I have a duty as a young Jewish person to keep telling the stories.”
When the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened in 1977, the organization sent survivors into the community to share their stories. And survivors have been speaking at the Museum of Tolerance, the Wiesenthal Center’s educational arm, since it was opened in 1993. Currently, the museum boasts a roster of 45 survivor speakers.
“There really is a difference when it is the survivor standing up and telling their own testimony,” said Elana Samuels, director of museum volunteer services at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
When survivor John Adler, now 93, came to Samuels more than three years ago, he said with tears in his eyes, “I can’t speak anymore. I have to retire.” Samuels suggested they approach his daughter, Eileen Eandi.
Eandi, 67, had wanted to become involved with the museum. Plus, she said, “I wanted to do this for my father. I wanted to be involved in carrying the story forward.”
Eandi researched her father’s experiences, putting together a timeline and selecting photographs, and then worked with Samuels and Emily Thompson, a Museum of Tolerance intern at the time, to present the story in a creative but compassionate way.
In her presentation, Eandi focuses on her father’s growing up in pre-Holocaust Germany as a child and teenager. Adler’s family moved to Breslau in 1933, where they lived on a main street that contained the headquarters of the local chapter of Nazi stormtroopers, who emerged every morning marching and singing. They then hung out in the cul-de-sac where the Adler family’s apartment building stood, forcing Adler to pass them on his way to school every morning.
In 1937, when Adler was 14, the Jewish school he attended closed. No longer able to use its sports field, Adler and his best friend went to a local public field, where one day they were accosted by three Nazi youths on bicycles. Adler and his friend bloodied their noses and the young Nazis hastily retreated. But several visits later, the boys were met by older Nazi youths who punched Adler, breaking his glasses and his bicycle. He limped home.
After this experience, followed by Kristallnacht in November 1938, Adler joined a hakhshara, a kind of kibbutz where he learned agricultural skills necessary for immigration to Palestine.
Adler’s parents left for Shanghai in February 1939, and Adler, not quite 16, left for Palestine on Aug. 30, 1939, two days before Germany invaded Poland. He joined a kibbutz, and at 18, he enlisted in the British army.
At the end of every presentation, Adler rises and answers questions. “The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you,” Eandi said, adding that people want to hug him, shake his hand and be photographed with him.
Eandi doesn’t know what she’ll do after her father no longer can accompany her, unsure how effective her talk will be without him. But Adler’s plan is that his daughter will speak for him for a long time, followed by his grandson, Matthew Eandi. “I don’t ever want [the Holocaust] to be forgotten,” Adler said.
“The mood changes totally when my father stands up. There’s nothing like having this person in front of you.”
— Eileen Eandi, daughter of a holocaust survivor
Using the experience of Eandi and Adler as her model, Samuels reached out to other Second and Third Generation descendants to form a group called Looking to the Future, which first met in November 2013. And while some of the participants are working with various media to carry forward a parent’s or grandparent’s legacy — including film, photography or memoir projects — Samuels wants to make sure that storytelling remain the centerpiece of these efforts.
“Clearly, the most important program we offer is our witness to truth testimony, where every day we are open, visitors have the opportunity to sit in a room and hear primary testimony,” she said.
As the Looking to the Future group envisions a future without survivors and focuses on building the next generation of speakers, Samuels acknowledged that it’s also important to incorporate compelling video testimony, such as footage from a USC Shoah Foundation interview. “You need that emotional connection,” she said.
These Holocaust eyewitnesses, who are now revered, were shunned in the first two decades after World War II, sociologist Arlene Stein writes in her book “Reluctant Witnesses.” Even those who wanted to speak were told to keep quiet and move on with their lives. Only the survivors — and there were few — who had fought in wartime resistance were celebrated.
But by 1962, as survivors testified at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann trial, revealing the enormity of the horrors they suffered, the world became more receptive to hearing their stories. Through the 1970s, the Second Generation, whose lives had been overshadowed by the Holocaust, came of age. And as they sought to carve out their own identities amid the social and political upheaval in the United States, they prodded their parents to talk about their Holocaust pasts.
In 1993, the film “Schindler’s List” opened to wide acclaim. “It made the Holocaust more accessible to the general public and it gave the average survivor greater confidence to be able to speak,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.
Today, survivors are viewed as heroes. They have taken on a mantle of moral authority as, even in their 80s and 90s, they continue to share their narratives, to testify to what really occurred, to thwart Holocaust deniers and to encourage people to love, hope and create a better world.
And Holocaust museums and organizations worldwide are stepping up their programs to provide them with speaking opportunities. Last month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began a program called “First Person, Conversations With Survivors.” It includes two sessions a week with survivors and continues through Aug. 10.
“I tell my story for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop by drop,” said Pinchas Gutter, an 84-year-old survivor originally from Lodz, Poland. But for decades after the war, Gutter was silent, afraid to burden his children with his sad stories. Then in 1992, historian Paula Draper approached him in Toronto, where he has lived since 1985, convincing him of the importance of giving testimony.
“I cried. I was shaking. It was very, very difficult,” he recalled. It wasn’t until 10 years later, when Gutter was the subject of a documentary called “The Void: In Search of Memory Lost,” filmed in Poland and directed by Smith before his tenure at the USC Shoah Foundation, that he could talk more easily about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto and in six concentration camps, including Majdanek, where his twin sister, at age 10, and his parents were murdered. “It was cathartic,” Gutter said of his participation in the film. Since then, he has spoken and continues to speak, all over the world.
And now, thanks to a USC Shoah Foundation project called “New Dimensions of Testimony,” Gutter will live on as an interactive survivor, in a life-size, three-dimensional video display in which he presents his story and then answers direct questions, making eye contact with the audience. “That never existed before in any other context before this project,” said Smith, explaining that the project uses automatic speech recognition software to access a databank of more than 1,500 questions that Gutter has previously answered.
But what’s missing in these interactive encounters, Smith explained, are the nuances of conversation, both in body language and in personalization. Still, Smith believes the audience engages with the witness, not the technology. “What we’re trying to create is something that is a little more natural in terms of how we inquire about the past of an individual,” he said.
The project is still in the trial phase, with the interactive Gutter, currently in a two-dimensional format, now on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie as well as Holocaust museums in Toronto, Houston and Terre Haute, Ind. Twelve additional English-speaking Holocaust survivors and one Mandarin-speaking survivor of the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred Dec. 13, 1937, through January 1938, have been interviewed, a process that takes days. Those videos have yet to be edited.
Gutter hopes many more survivors will be able to participate. He doesn’t want the Holocaust to become just an academic endeavor, with possible distortions and inaccuracies. “When you see a documentary, it doesn’t have the same effect on you,” he said. “I’ve watched people interacting with me [on the two-dimensional projected image] and, believe me, the effect it has on them, they will never forget it.”
The USC Shoah Foundation, always has been focused on preparing for a time when there will be no survivors. Over the years, foundation officials have learned, Smith said, to trust audiences with the stories, sharing them on social media and entrusting students and teachers with the testimony. “The more we trust them to own the story, the more likely they are to tell the story to their own generation,” Smith said.
Currently, the USC Shoah Foundation is in the second year of a five-year project called the Visual History Archive Program, in which it will share and augment 53,000 video testimonies, including survivors of other genocides, with scholars, educators, descendants of survivors and organizations. “This gives us an opportunity to work with multiple audiences on figuring out how they best want to use this content or contribute to this content in the future,” Smith said.
Currently, 1,815 USC Shoah Foundation testimonies can be accessed online at vhaonline.usc.edu, and in Southern California, the full collection can be viewed at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), Chapman University and the USC campus.
Additionally, with what Smith called “a tight deadline,” the USC Shoah Foundation is continuing to work with survivors to find other ways of telling their stories, engaging them in the process so that it’s a partnership in figuring out the best ways to enable their voices to live on. “That’s very much at the heart of the mission and something we share with the survivors themselves,” Smith said.
Beth Kean, executive director of LAMOTH and herself a Third Generation survivor, is uncomfortable talking about the loss of survivors. “Yes, that’s a fact,” she said, “but there are hundreds, probably thousands, alive right now, so let’s do whatever we can to engage with them even more.”
Survivors always have been at the heart of the museum’s mission. In fact, it was a group of survivors, who were then calling themselves former German prisoners, who met at Hollywood High School while taking English classes and founded the museum in 1961. It was to be a place where they could tell their stories and a place that charged no admission.
That hasn’t changed. Today, there are about 35 core survivors who speak in the Sunday Survivor Speaker Series and whenever a school, law enforcement or teacher education group comes to visit.
Over the past several years, the museum has reached out to more survivors, particularly child survivors, and worked to connect all of their survivors with as many students as possible in a variety of what LAMOTH calls “Art and Memory Programs.” In these activities, students and survivors interact in less traditional, more informal settings.
Children and grandchildren of the survivors also play an important role in keeping memories alive.
3G@LAMOTH is a program founded in 2013 by Third Generation survivors Rebecca Katz and Caitlin Kress. The members, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, work on ways of carrying forward their grandparents’ legacies, meeting regularly for narrative workshops, film screenings and other events.
Marissa Lepor, 23, a 3G@LAMOTH board member, found strength confronting her life challenges — although not comparable, she pointed out — by learning about her grandparents’ Holocaust travails. Her grandmother, Sarah Jacobs, now 92, was 3 when her mother died in childbirth and 15 when she lost the grandmother who raised her. Three years later, Jacobs was taken to Landeshut and then Peterswaldau, both subcamps of Gross-Rosen concentration camp. After the war, in 1950, she and her husband, Max Jacobs, immigrated to Los Angeles, where they raised a family.
Now Lepor brings together 3G members and other interested millennials to an event she calls Startup Stories, which began in the summer of 2015. There, Lepor briefly recounts her grandparents’ stories and interviews two or three Holocaust survivors about how they dealt with the challenges of rebuilding their war-torn lives.
“Learning from [the survivors] is really a privilege,” Lepor said.
“It’s really important today for the 2Gs and 3Gs especially to be stewards of that history. We have this responsibility to retell our parents’ and grandparents’ history,” Kean said.
Other programs at LAMOTH are aimed at young people who may not have a familial connection to the Holocaust.
L’Dough V’Dough, launched in 2012, brings together students elementary school age and older, as well as adults, to braid and bake challah while sharing stories and sometimes personal artifacts. “It’s transformative for these students,” Kean said.
And in Voices of History, students in various high schools and colleges reflect on and retell survivors’ testimony, which they condense into short films that are used in teacher-training workshops on the Holocaust and in school classrooms.
In the summer of 2015, for example, students in a digital storytelling workshop at Harvard-Westlake School toured the museum and later filmed survivor Dana Schwartz as she related her story. The students then produced an eight-minute, mostly animated film, “The Story of Three Rings,” depicting Schwartz’s life as a 6-year-old confined with her parents in the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in November 1941. When deportations began four months later, the family hid in a cramped hole. Then, with false papers her father had procured, Schwartz and her mother escaped to a nearby town, posing as non-Jewish Poles until the war’s end.
Students also interpret these narratives through music, photography and theater.
This year, LAMOTH teamed with students from Santa Monica High School’s theater department to present “Voices of Survivors,” in which students performed some of the more chilling scenes from the lives of four survivors. During the eight-week project, the 35 students visited the museum, where they learned about the Holocaust and then met with the survivors in preparation for scripting their scenes, with help from Writer’s Room Productions, and performing them on March 22.
“What does it mean for an elder who was a child in the worst possible moment of Jewish modern history to be connected to a child who’s living in a time and place of unprecedented prosperity?” That was the question Samara Hutman, director of Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project and The Righteous Conversations Project, asked.
And that became the genesis of The Righteous Conversations Project, which began in 2011, connecting teenagers with Holocaust survivors. Since then, the two generations have come together at various synagogues and schools for discussions, filmmaking and other creative workshops, and social justice work, which includes relating the survivors’ experiences to current issues and filming more than 60 public service announcements on subjects such as bullying, Islamophobia and racial discrimination.
“The central piece is the reciprocity of the exchange,” Hutman said, explaining that the students then become the stewards of the survivors’ stories, finding a way to honor and carry forward the their words. “There’s love and memory that doesn’t leave.”
Survivor Helen Freeman, 95, who has taken part in Righteous Conversations Project workshops since the organization’s founding, understands the power of these intergenerational encounters.
At the culmination of a summer 2012 workshop, Freeman told participant Trey Carlisle, then a 13-year-old student at Aveson Global Leadership Academy in Altadena, something that she has continued to tell students at subsequent workshops:
“Because of the way you have listened to me and because of the work you have done hearing me,” she said, “I now feel that I can die in peace.”