Features  When their voices are gone

Kortney Shapiro commits to keeping memories of Holocaust survivors alive

Millions of innocent people were annihilated between 1939-1945 under the Nazi regime as a cloud of black smoke sat atop Eastern Europe. The world turned a blind eye while the sky filled with human ash. The proverbial saying in our human constitution, “never again,” means nothing to most of us today as we have become desensitized to the current debilitated state of our world. Through retelling the personal accounts of survivors, we can ensure that the Holocaust lives on in our speech, rather than fading from our memories. It is our responsibility to promote education, remembrance, and discourse between generations.

Thirty years ago, a New York Times editorial affirmed that the “annihilation of European Jewry should be a mandatory subject” within the public school curriculum. Today, the Holocaust is not as secure in national curriculums as we might expect. In 2007, Alexandra Frean reported in the Times Online that teachers in the U.K. were “dropping controversial subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from history lessons because they do not want to cause offense to children from certain races or religions.”

The Holocaust is a crucial and major historical event, weighted with moral and sociological meaning. However, the subject’s teaching presents many pedagogical obstacles, including the lack of factual knowledge among elementary level teachers. Despite the inherent difficulties, the Holocaust cannot be abandoned. Students must learn to understand the past in order to explain the present, embrace the future with more tolerance, and adopt civil virtue and morality. The Holocaust’s removal from the curriculum is unacceptable. Students need to be exposed to genocide and intolerance so that they can prevent these horrors from repeating themselves.

As a member of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, Filip Müller’s job entailed assisting in the killing of the death camp’s prisoners. After the burden of guilt had plagued Müller for some time, he decided to end his life by joining a crowd of Jewish inmates. “Now, when I watched my fellow countrymen walk into the gas chamber, brave and proud and determined, I asked myself what sort of life it would be for me in the unlikely event of my getting out of the camp alive,” wrote Müller after the war. Upon entering the obscurely lit “shower” house, Müller recounts: “Death had come menacingly close. It was only minutes away…. Suddenly a few girls naked and in the full bloom of youth came up to me…. One plucked up the courage and spoke to me: ‘We understand that you have chosen to die with us of your own free will, and we have come to tell you that we think your decision pointless: for it helps no one. We must die but you still have a chance to save your life. You have to return to the camp, and tell everybody about our last hours. You have to explain to them that they must free themselves from any illusions,’ she went on, ‘you can do me one last favor: this gold chain around my neck: when I’m dead, take it off and give it to my boyfriend Sasha.’” Müller survived the war, and did not die along with the hundreds of others who were packed into the gas chamber that day. He has since written a book on his time spent at Auschwitz, and still today speaks about his experiences, proving that personal testimonials carry with them the weight of millions who went up in smoke.

The media has turned these stories into corporate and commodified popular culture. Various films and other media outlets have watered down the seriousness of the Holocaust. In “Towards a Methodology of Teaching about the Holocaust,” Henry Friedhandler warns educators against the popularization of the Holocaust as a subject, for “unfortunately, it can also mean sensationalism and exploitation…. The Holocaust demands treatment with taste and sensitivity; it is not likely to receive this if it becomes a media fad.” One needs to draw the line between truth and entertainment (Quentin Tarantino, I’m talking to you). However, films like Defiance, Schindler’s List, and The Pianist have been essential in documenting and preserving true historical accounts of survival.

Other popular cultural representations may lack the sentimentality of these films, but they do function to check our perspective. An episode from Larry David’s mockumentary sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm entitled “The Survivor” works to question the meaning of the term survivor. Larry and his (now ex-) wife Cheryl Hines renew their marriage vows. Larry’s rabbi asks him if he may bring a “survivor” to the rehearsal dinner, and of course, Larry assents. Larry then invites his father’s friend Solly, a Holocaust survivor, to the meal. On the eve of the rehearsal dinner, to Larry’s surprise, the rabbi has brought Colby Donaldson, from the popular reality TV show Survivor, leading to a stomach-churning argument at the dinner table about who is the “true” survivor. The show ends as per usual, with Larry in a complete funk, everyone yelling across the table, begging audiences to ask, through curdled humour, what the hell has the media done to our reality?
The episode, though writhing with Larry David’s dark humour, made me realize that as a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I, along with so many others, must foster a greater dissemination of Holocaust and genocide awareness in any capacity that I can. The episode may be offensive to some, but it shows us how easily we as a population have become completely desensitized to critical events in our history, and the only way we know how to deal with these events is through entertainment provided by the media.

The episode mocks our generation and reveals how impatient we are to hear the stories that we pass off as unimportant. We are a spoiled generation, and we need to remember that in time, we will no longer have the privilege of first-hand survivor accounts. We will need to be the storytellers. It is hard enough for survivors themselves to speak of the horrific nightmare they lived through not that long ago, and so we must help spread their experiences. We must listen and retell them. Their voices will soon be gone.

My grandmother Vera is a survivor of the Holocaust. Soon after her family’s arrival at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, her mother was transported to another camp, Bergen-Belsen. In a lecture she delivered, she recalled: “One day my mother and aunt came to tell us that they were being taken to another labour camp, but will return soon. They kissed us goodbye and that was the last time I saw my mother.” Author Kathy Kacer writes novels centred on the Holocaust and is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors – their personal memories and stories have inevitably impacted her appreciation of personal survivor testimonies, and the significance she grants them is evident in her writing: “The thought that those firsthand accounts of survivors could in fact be gone in a few years to me is so startling.” Who then, must keep their voices alive? It is the students, young community leaders, authors, and determined, passionate youth who are the ambassadors of these stories and memories; they must soak in all the information they can so that they can one day relay the testimonies to the next generation of listeners.

I have heard my grandmother’s story from the moment I could comprehend what the Holocaust was. In my teenage years, I began to understand the gravity of “genocide.” I had been asking my grandmother Vera questions about her childhood: when her family went into hiding in a cave in the mountains, and she spent time behind barbed wire in a German concentration camp surrounded by the smell of lingering death. Her father, who survived the war, was a prisoner at Sachsenhausen, one of many camps whose entranceway read: “Arbeit macht frei” (work shall set you free). Rarely is she brought to tears, and due to her positive outlook, she finds sheer pleasure and happiness each day that she spends with her husband and family. “Life is very precious to me, and I try very hard to make the most of every day,” my grandmother Vera continues, “and to somehow, always look to a good tomorrow.”

Your mind is a sponge. Soak up all the knowledge that you can before it is too late. We must accept responsibility for keeping the future full of these memories. As the mountain of human ash at Majdanek death camp’s memorial site sits atop a mass grave, one can recall the nightmare that happened there; one can retell the nightmare that happened there; and one can pass on the legacy to forever seal our promise that “never again” will become a commitment of a new generation of storytellers, educators, and youth. If no one is left to speak for them, how can we know that anyone will speak for us?

Holocaust education week calendar of events:
Monday, November 2 from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Lower FieldReading of the names of those who perished in the Holocaust.

Tuesday, November 3 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Come by Bronfman Lobby to join in raising awareness about the Holocaust.

Wednesday November 4 at 4 p.m.Free trip to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.Transportation offered from Roddick Gates. RSVP at ihearthillel@gmail.com.

Thursday November 5 at 6 p.m. in Arts 150Exclusive screening of Healing Voices – a film by Riva Finklestein with question period and light snacks to follow.

Friday November 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Shatner Ballroom (3rd floor)Dinner with Holocaust survivors: optional prayers at 6:45 p.m.RSVP to Rachel at office@hillel.ca.Cost: $10