Obstacles to Gathering Holocaust Survivor Stories
By Khalil Ayvar
North Miami Beach, 
Florida


 

Even as a new generation arises, with little connection to the horror of the Holocaust in the last century, another generation declines, and the painful scars that have never faded are now vanishing one by one, as those who bear them pass on. The survivors of the Holocaust hold in their memories the stories of suffering, but these warders will not be around forever. Their burden, their memories, their stories must be taken up by those who remain, and committed to record, for all posterity to see. For the generation that will oversee the better part of the next century must have those stories to keep the lesson alive, so we never have to forcibly re-learn it. Many people and organizations have taken up the difficult charge of immortalizing the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust, that the lesson may live on. However, the pain of telling is very great for most survivors, for some too great to bear. It is difficult for many survivors to recount the testimony of anguish suffered during the Holocaust, making recorded legacies all the more precious. The need for survivor testimonies is compounded by the distressing scarcity of written accounts, such as diaries and letters, of the era, and the obvious decreasing number of survivors who have yet to tell their tales. Therefore it is of the utmost priority to gather and record the tales of the remaining survivors of the Holocaust, however difficult it maybe, to reconstruct the entirety of the horror of the Nazi regime.

The Survivors of Shoah Visual History Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg after filming Schindler's List in 1994, has undertaken a major effort to preserve the dark history of the Holocaust through the eyes of those who know it best - the survivors. As of November 1999, they had conducted 50,441 interviews worldwide. The legacy of the experiences of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust are: carefully recorded by trained interviewers. Included in these histories are survivors of ghettos and camps, child survivors, those who survived by hiding or living under false identities, refugees, members of the resistance, rescuers and aid providers, Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti and Roma survivors, homosexual survivors, survivors of eugenics policies, liberators and liberation witnesses, war crime trials staff members & witnesses, and other eyewitnesses (Shoah VHF Prod. Stat. 1,4).

The Foundation has developed an effective protocol for establishing a historically valuable archive. Particular emphasis has been placed on training interviewers, cataloguing testimonies, and collecting as many survivor experiences as possible - while there is still time. Before giving testimony, participating survivors are pre-interviewed to collect pertinent background information and prepare them for the interview. Conducted in the language most comfortable for the survivor, interviews are taped in the survivor's home (unless another location is requested), using broadcast quality Beta SP video equipment. The production crew consists of an interviewer, a camera operator, and a volunteer camera assistant. The interviews focus on experiences before, during, and after World War II. Spouses, children, and grandchildren are invited to appear on camera for the final moments of the interview. (Shoah VHF More Info 1-2)

The utmost care is taken to elicit as gently as possible the precious, unedited testimonies in these interviews, knowing the pain it evokes. Another organization, Holocaust Survivors, records audio files as well as written transcripts of survivor stories. They publicize stories for which they receive permission on the Internet, where it can be easily accessed by those who wish to learn, and listen to the actual pain-filled voice of a survivor recalling those vivid images. The ones who collect the stories do not merely request an interview but actually try to become a friend to the survivors. Says John Menszer, director of the organization, "My method of working, which leads me to go back again and again for clarification, has helped me to feel a part of their lives. I am happy that I now have a big extended family. I can truly say that what has motivated me to keep on persevering with this project has been my personal relationships with survivors" (Menszer 1).

Gathering stories of child survivors is even more difficult, though just as vital an important. "It is very difficult to recover the authentic young voice. Very young children do not have the linguistic skills and therefore are unable to leave written records like diaries, letters, or journals ... under the shadow of Nazism such an undertaking was frequently physically impossible and, when feasible, an extremely hazardous business" (Dwork xxii). The use of oral history for a study on the world of the children is not a simple or straightforward task. The question remains whether or not the stories of children survivors can be considered typical, being as they were extremely atypical in the mere fact of their survival. Nevertheless, the oral histories of child survivors are legitimate testimonies for a history of youth victims in general, and not of survivors alone (xxxiii-xxxiv). The plight of the children victims of the Holocaust symbolized all the suffering in its entirety. "Two beggar children sat. in the street holding up a sign that read S.O.S. One is forced to concede that this is the simplest and truest statement ..." (xxviii).

One such child survivor tells of her difficulty after the war in expressing the pain within, the trauma she had experienced as a child so young that her memories remained hidden shadows and vague visions, hinting at some darker entirety.

For years it lay in an iron box buried so deep inside me that I was never sure just what it was. I knew I carried slippery, combustible things more secret than sex and more dangerous than any shadow or ghost. Ghosts had shape and name. What lay inside my iron box had none. Whatever lived inside me was so potent that words crumbled before they could describe ... I saw things I knew no little girl should see. Blood and shattered glass. Piles of skeletons and blackened barbed wire with bits of flesh stuck to it the way flies stick to walls after they are swatted dead. Hills of suitcases, mountains of children's shoes. Whips, pistols, boots, knives, and needles. (Epstein 9)

The survivor went on to speak of the internal defenses she placed as a child around her 'iron box'. "I built my iron box carefully, the way we were taught in school that nuclear reactors were built. I conceived lead walls around the dangerous parts, concentric circles of water channels and air ducts that would soften and contain any explosion" (13). However, over the years, when she tried to dredge up and sort through her traumatic memories, she found that the fortifications she built to contain worked to keep her out. She found as well that the only keys that would allow her access to her own memories were conversations with others who had fared as she did. She began a "secret quest," to find a group of people who, like her, "were possessed by a history they had never lived" (14).

Another reason many did not share their experiences of the Holocaust is that the truth was almost to fantastic to be believed. An SS man himself, SS Rottenfuhrer Merz, in a conversation with a Jewish prisoner, knowing of the advance of the Red Army and the Nazi defeat, reassured himself: "'They would not believe you. They'd say you were mad. Might even put you into an asylum. How can anyone believe this terrible business -- unless he has lived through it?... (Willenberg-1). Other, even more cynical statements made by SS-men to their Jewish prisoners demonstrated their belief that even if they lost the war, they would still have won the war against the Jews. Even if some survived, and if some evidence remained, the events described would be so monstrous as to be impossible to believe. The stories of survivors would be discounted as exaggerations of Allied propaganda, and the only other witnesses to turn to would be the defeated Nazis, who would be enabled to dictate the history of the war. However, while the Nazi's war against the Jews was largely won, the victory was kept from completion by the survival of the Jewish nation, and the people who did bear witness. However., some claim that the survivors are not true witnesses, and only those who "saw the Gorgon," and did not survive, are the one's whose deposition would have general significance (1-2).

The difficulties posed in gathering the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust must not thwart the task of recording, of remembering. In each survivor, there lies a story, a personal holocaust that must be overcome and exposed to the sunlight, though painful it may be touch upon those memories. "Within each Jewish child who survived the war, the past remained intact and undigested. It became an unspoken and unintegrated personal history; an unopened internal package" (Dwork 270). Many survivors have not recounted their histories to their spouses or children, yet when Deborah Dwork asked them why the), were willing to do so with her, they answered the same, in every European language: ... Because you asked"' (270).

So Ask.

Works Cited

Dwork, Deborah. Children With a Star. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Epstein, Helen. Children of the Holocaust. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.

Menszer, John. "Holocaust Survivors: About the Project -- Directors Statement"

http://www.holocaustsurvivors.org/about/directors statement.html.

"Survivors of the Shoah Visual Research Foundation".http://www.vhf.org/.

"Survivors of the Shoah Visual Research Foundation More Info".

http://www.vhf.org/More Information.html.

"Survivors of the Shoah Visual Research Foundation Production Status".

http://www.vhf.org/Production status.html.

Willenberg, Samuel. Surviving Treblinka. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1989

 

 

 


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