Learning from the Holocaust

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Photo by Paul Ericson

On Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet Red Army troops entered the Konzentrationslager on the edge of the Polish town of Oswiecim. In the three main camps and numerous subcamps they found 7,500 emaciated survivors amid the remnants of a vast death factory.

In the months and years that followed, Auschwitz—the German word for Oswiecim—came to represent the horror that the Nazi regime inflicted on millions of European Jews and others who were prisoners in thousands of forced labor and extermination camps. Over a period of less than five years, the Germans sent at least 1.3 million people there, including 1.1 million Jews. Among the Jews, an estimated 900,000 were murdered upon arriving. Many who survived the first hours were killed later; others succumbed to malnutrition or disease.

Altogether, 1.1 million people died at the Auschwitz camps—nearly one-fifth of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.

On Monday, heads of state—including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier—from more than two dozen countries are expected to attend the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. Some 200 Holocaust survivors from around the world also will be there. Along with physical and documentary evidence—the Nazis were fanatical about record keeping, among other things—the survivors’ testimony has been essential to understanding what occurred at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. They’ve also helped keep alive our memory of these crimes against humanity.

The number of survivors is steadily dwindling, however. The youngest among them are now in their 80s. At the same time, there is reason for concern that awareness of the Holocaust is fading and anti-Semitism is on the rise again in this country—including Rochester—and abroad. In a 2018 survey, 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, could not identify Auschwitz.

The liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – January 1945 (slideshow)

How is the Holocaust taught today? What are the key lessons that should be learned? And what will happen when there are no more survivors to tell their own stories?

“It may be that this, these very lines I am writing, will be the only witnesses to what was my life.”

—Załmen Gradowski, a Polish Jew and author of two scripts that were discovered at Birkenau after the war

I’ve given a lot of thought to those questions since last May, when my wife, daughter and I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. My wife and I had been there once before, 35 years earlier. In 1984, Poland was still part of the Soviet bloc and only recently had emerged from martial law; few Westerners were venturing there.

At Auschwitz, which had been converted to a museum and memorial site after World War II, we were among only a handful of visitors. The exhibits housed in former barracks, I wrote in my notes, were starker and more explicit than at Dachau, the infamous concentration camp outside Munich that I’d visited a few years earlier. Displays included piles of shoes, clothes and glasses taken from prisoners. At several places outside the buildings there were small impromptu memorials—flowers with candles.

The main camp operated by the Germans is known as Auschwitz I, which before the war was a Polish military barracks; today, it houses the visitor center and museum. At 49 acres, it is dwarfed by Auschwitz II or Birkenau, which was constructed starting in 1941 and is roughly 10 times bigger. At their peak operations in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz I had approximately 16,000 prisoners, while Birkenau held 90,000. Few survived long at Birkenau, which was designed to be an extermination camp. The complex also included Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labor camp built for IG Farben (where Primo Levi, author of “Survival in Auschwitz,” was a prisoner); and many subcamps.

In addition to the Jews killed, the toll at Auschwitz included 140,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 25,000 prisoners from other countries. Approximately 232,000 were children under 18.

In addition to the exhibits at Auschwitz I, you can visit the courtyard of Block 11—known as the Death Wall. At least 5,000 people were shot to death there. In the basement of Block 11, several thousand people were murdered by injection of phenol to the heart. The basement also is the location of the first trial of the mass killing of people using poisonous Zyklon B gas.

The structure housing the Auschwitz I gas chamber and crematorium, which operated from autumn 1941 to December 1942, has largely been preserved. The furnaces, however, are reconstructions. After operations began at Birkenau, the originals were dismantled.

Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1984

From Auschwitz I we drove to Birkenau, a distance of two miles, near the village of Brzezinka. Unlike Auschwitz I, which resembles an orderly, tightly clustered hamlet, Birkenau is like a sprawling cityscape laid to waste. (To hide their crimes, the Germans destroyed most of the camp as the Red Army approached from the east.) The “enormity of the death camps became clear,” I wrote in my 1984 notes. The museum guidebook describes it as the largest Nazi camp devoted to the extermination of Jews and the largest Nazi concentration camp overall. It contained more than 300 buildings and 11 miles of electrified barbed-wire fencing. A railroad spur known as “the ramp” was the destination for more than half a million Jews sent to Auschwitz. Gas chambers and crematoria were on both sides of the end of the ramp.

The murder of Jews began on a mass scale in the first half of 1942. According to the museum, the capacity of all five crematoria there was 4,756 corpses per 24-hour period.

I don’t recall seeing other visitors at Birkenau. In fact, a guard who apparently had little else to do drove us around the site, to the ruins of the showers, gas chambers and crematoria, and back through the serene woods to the meadow where the ashes of thousands are buried. He pointed out some holes where the ashes were visible and said people still looked for gold from tooth fillings, calling it ‘Polish contraband.’”

When we revisited Auschwitz-Birkenau last May, the two camps at first glance looked much as they did before—but the experience was wholly different. Auschwitz has become a major tourist destination. Oswiecim, located 31 miles west of Krakow, now is a prosperous-looking town of about 40,000 with McDonald’s and KFC outlets along the main road. When we arrived at Auschwitz I, tour buses packed the parking lot. It’s difficult now to visit as an independent traveler. You need to register for a tour—often weeks in advance—or arrange a visit through the numerous tourist agencies in Krakow.

In the Auschwitz visitor center, there’s a Coffee & Snack shop offering sandwiches, “caffee to go,” snacks, sweets, ice creams, fresh fruits. Next to it is a shop selling books, posters, postcards, guidebooks and DVDs. At Birkenau, security personnel scoot around on Segways. 

Groups of students, many wearing shorts, were a large presence at both camps. They were not rowdy, but often seemed to be chatting idly. Some posed for photos by the train car where Jews and other prisoners arrived, before being led to the gas chambers.

It was heartening to see so many people visiting Auschwitz. Yet the ways in which it now resembles a theme park were unsettling. Is it a sacred site, a museum or just another notorious place to check off a must-see list? What insight and understanding do visitors take home? 

Auschwitz-Birkenau today

  • The Death Wall at Auschwitz I, where at least 5,000 people were shot to death.

“Excepting the few elderly survivors …. what meaningful witness can any of them bear so many years after the fact? … What can they hope to offer besides prayer in belated atonement for the guilt of absence, of having failed to share in unimaginable sufferings?”

—Peter Matthiessen, writing in his 2014 novel, “In Paradise

After returning from Poland, I reached out to Karen Elam, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester and director of the Levine Center to End Hate. I wanted her thoughts on the questions I’d brought back with me. In early September I had a nearly two-hour conversation with Elam and two other women associated with the Jewish Federation: Sarah Walters, a 2019 graduate of Hobart & William Smith Colleges who in August had been hired as Holocaust education and community relations program director, and Helen Kashtan, the daughter of survivor parents—David and Esther Przewuzman—who has chaired the Center for Holocaust Awareness and Information committee and who recently had returned from a mission to Poland and Auschwitz with the Journey for Identity program.

For nearly four decades, the Jewish Federation has operated CHAI (the acronym means “life” in Hebrew). Its mission, CHAI’s website says, is “to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust through the life stories of local survivors and their families.” As part of that effort, it has assembled the online Rochester Holocaust Survivors Archive, which contains text and video interviews with scores of local survivors. (The archive also includes survivor profiles and photographs provided by Monroe Community College’s Holocaust Genocide and Human Rights Project.) In addition, CHAI helps lead the Journey for Identity program, which every other year pairs Jewish students from Rochester and Modi’in, Israel, and takes them to Poland.

Sarah Walters

Schools in New York by law must include the Holocaust in their curricula, “but there are no specifics to it,’ Walters said. In Connecticut, where she grew up, teaching the Holocaust also was required. Most students “had a weeklong unit on [Elie Wiesel’s] “Night” in middle school and then the only thing that they heard about the Holocaust after that was three or four sentences in a chapter on World War II in their history book. And that is fulfilling a mandate to teach the Holocaust to students.”

CHAI provides teacher training and runs the award-winning Survivors in the Classroom program for 6th graders through college students. The Jewish Federation also takes junior high school students on Zikaron (“remembrance”) overnight trips to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Jewish Federation’s Center for Holocaust Awareness and Information runs the award-winning Survivors in the Classroom program.

Kashtan’s mother was from the town of Lancut in southeastern Poland. She and Kashtan’s grandmother survived Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, as did her uncles. But Kashtan’s grandfather died there. Her mother and father, who have passed away, met after the war on a Joseph Avenue street corner.

Her father, from Lukow, had survived imprisonment at Mauthausen in Austria—a fact she learned only after he filled out documents for reparations funds.

“He never uttered the word (Mauthausen),” she said. “(My parents) didn’t want anyone else to understand the pain they had experienced and the loss they had suffered. My dad is the only one from his immediate family who survived.”

Helen Kashtan

Kashtan has volunteered on the committee for the Journey for Identity program—”both of my kids participated in the program, and it became a passion project for me”—in addition to chairing the CHAI committee.

“It’s become my way of carrying on my parents’ legacy of that knowledge they had that they were reluctant to share,” she said.

Serving the survivors is one aspect of CHAI’s mission. At the forefront, however, is education.

“In the last few years the focus has been survivors in the classroom, coming in to speak in classrooms,” Kashtan noted. “And quite honestly, that’s the most impactful part because you’re getting to see somebody and hear them and see their tears, or not, when they talk about what they lived through.”

What will happen when all the survivors are gone?

Karen Elam

“The (online) archive was designed to be able to capture video of survivors telling their stories and keep it accessible,” Elam said. The book “Perilous Journeys,” and “Survivors,” a play that the Jewish Community Center commissioned in 2018, also serve that goal.

“But I think the bottom line is, we are going to have to be creative, because those voices are going away,” Elam added. “It’s not even decades (in the future); it’s now. It’s a decade ago. It’s a very present and real thing. 

“One of the things (we’ve) talked about is training, G2, G3—second, third generation, even fourth—how to tell that story. And how to tell it in a way that does have the impact that we’re looking for it to have.”

Eight times over nearly two decades, the Journey for Identity program has given small groups of teens—with an educator from Israel who leads the tour, a Polish guide and typically accompanied by a survivor—the experience of visiting memorial sites in Poland. 

“When my daughter went on the trip, on trip 2, it was difficult for my parents to think that one of their grandkids was going to see these places,” Kashtan recalled. “My daughter said it beautifully: ‘Zayde,’ which is the Yiddish word for grandfather, ‘I’m going to be the next person to tell the story.’ By the time, four years later, when my son went, it was a much easier transition for my parents to deal with that. The kids who are participating now are the ambassadors.”

What they encounter on the trip can be wrenching, in ways they might not expect.

When Kashtan accompanied a Journey for Identity group, one of the teens “was devastated seeing kids put up on the train car in Birkenau. They were so impacted by the places we saw.

“We were at a massacre site in Tarnow,” she added, “and throughout that the kids were picking up candy wrappers, handfuls (of trash), to make sure that the sacred site was cared for. And they are going to bring that home with them. And they’re going to be able to teach their peers. So that’s a way of continuing the work that’s happening today. These kids will carry that with them wherever they go.”

What did the survivors who took part in the Journey for Identity think of the experience? Do they believe that future generations will be aware of and learn from the inhumanity they suffered? To try to find out, I had to speak to one of them.

“Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness.”

—Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz”

Born into a family of Hungarian Jews, Lea Malek was about 5 years old in 1944 when they were forced to move to a ghetto in southern Hungary. After three or four weeks, those living in the ghetto were put on trains.

“Every family wanted to be together,” she recalled when we spoke recently, but as people were pushed and pulled, members of her family—including her mother, younger sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles—were separated. 

The deportees were being taken to a labor camp in Hungary, they were told. That was a lie, however.

Lea Malek

“People started to look out (through) the cracks in the (cattle) cars and began to see the name when passing a town and said, ‘That’s not where we’re supposed to go. We’re going to Poland. Why would we go to Poland?’” she said “As we were entering Poland, the train stopped and idled for a long time. And then all of a sudden, (the cars) detached. (It) exactly happened between us and the other cattle cars where the rest of my family was, the majority of the family. And they continued to go and most likely got gassed on arrival (at Auschwitz-Birkenau). … Ours made a U-turn and went toward Austria.”

Malek, her mother and sister were taken to the Strasshof concentration camp near Vienna. Only many years later did she learned what had happened. In June, Adolf Eichmann—a chief architect of the Nazis’ genocidal “Final Solution”—reached an agreement with the Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest. As described by Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, Eichmann offered to put thousands of Hungarian Jews “on ice” in Austria, as part of an offer he had made called “Blood for Goods” that would exchange Jews for trucks and other equipment that the Nazis desperately needed. Almost 21,000 Hungarian Jews were brought to Strasshof and nearly all of them—including the elderly and children—survived the war.

After the war, Malek returned to Hungary, but fled with her sister during the chaos of the 1956 revolution. They went to Austria, then Israel (where Malek met her husband), before coming to the U.S. The family eventually opened Malek’s Bakery on Monroe Avenue.

A few years ago, Malek took part in a Journey for Identity trip to Poland. I asked her what it was like to go to Auschwitz for the first time.

“(It) brought back lots of feelings,” she said.

“When I was younger—even after I came to this country when was 20 years old—for many, many, many, many, many years I had nightmares,” she added. “And the nightmares were always the same nightmares. … I used to tell myself, don’t worry, it’s only a dream; don’t worry, you’ll wake up.” Though she’s “not someone who scares easily,” certain noises or if touches her shoulder from behind, bring the fear to the surface.

The other visitors she observed at Auschwitz also stirred a reaction.

“I felt it was like a tourist attraction,” she said. “I hope people won’t go to church with halter tops or mini-pants, but when I was sitting there seeing tourists who just came from the tour bus and they were dressing so inappropriately. Almost like naked, you know, like you would go to the beach or a carnival, (in) a place of suffering.”

Malek believes in education and thinks the lessons of the Holocaust must be learned. She worries, though, about the loss when all of the survivors are gone. She turns 81 in April, and believes she might be the youngest remaining survivor in Rochester.

“Soon nobody will be here who really was there,” she told me. “And I am afraid that the farther we get, the whole memory is fading. Lots of younger people haven’t even heard about it.” 

From the Rochester Holocaust Survivors Archive – Simon Braitman, cofounder of Simcona Electronics Corp.:

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.”

—Part of the famous post-war confession of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller

The 2018 finding that nearly half of adults in this country, and two-thirds of millennials, could not identify Auschwitz was part of a survey of 1,350 Americans commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The survey also found that:

■ Almost half of Americans (45 percent) could not name a single concentration camp.

■ And 22 percent of millennials had not heard of the Holocaust or were not sure whether they’d heard of it.

However, the Claims Conference said Holocaust denial is very rare in the U.S., and the survey respondents overwhelmingly said it is important to teach about the Holocaust so it does not happen again.

In the Rochester area, MCC has run the Holocaust Genocide and Human Rights Project since 1990. Walters majored in genocide, peace action and human rights at Hobart & William Smith Colleges and in 2016 was one of four students who represented the colleges at the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials in Nuremberg, Germany. She also took part in The March: Bearing Witness to Hope, a program run by Hobart & William Smith and Nazareth College, in which undergraduate and graduate students travel to Germany and Poland to study the Holocaust, accompanied by Holocaust scholars, survivors, and Israeli and Polish guides.

One of the most renowned Holocaust historians, Peter Hayes, spoke at MCC in December 2017 during at observance of Human Rights Day. A longtime Northwestern University professor, Hayes talked about his new book—”Why: Explaining the Holocaust”—which he wrote to answer some of the most fundamental and vexing questions that his students asked. Questions such as: Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why the escalation to mass extermination?

Hayes was motivated less by some students’ lack of awareness or loose grasp of basic facts than by common misconceptions. As he explained in a 2016 interview: “In the late 1980s, students didn’t know much, so you taught them about the Holocaust. By 2010, students thought they knew a lot, and you had to un-teach them.”

The introduction to a collection of essays published in 2005 by the Institute of European Studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow makes a similar point:

“Teaching about the Holocaust is not only a matter of teaching facts, although reliable knowledge, the lack of which often leads to arrogance and prejudice, is of great importance. It is important to comprehend the meaning of those facts, to cultivate empathy and sensitivity.”

At the end of “Why,” Hayes quotes a German proverb “that captures the meaning I hope readers will take away from this book: Wehret den Anfängen, ‘Beware the beginnings.’” 

As he writes further: “The Holocaust was not mysterious and inscrutable. It was the work of humans acting on familiar human weaknesses and motives: wounded pride, fear, self-righteousness, prejudice and personal ambition.”

So, it could happen again; in fact, it has—in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and elsewhere.

In my conversation with Elam, Kashtan and Walters at the Jewish Federation, they also spoke about the broader lesson of the Holocaust.

“It can happen to any group. And it did. It wasn’t just Jews who were killed in the Holocaust,” Elam said, who added that “we’re seeing it happening now. Immigrants are being vilified, women of color in the Congress are being vilified.”

The Levine Center to End Hate was created in response to the August 2017 torchlight march by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. The center—funded by a four-year, $1 million grant from the William and Mildred Levine Foundation and led by a multicultural, interfaith steering committee—aims to develop and promote anti-bias efforts in Greater Rochester.

“We do have to connect dots for people to genocides including the genocide of African Americans and Native Americans in this country,” observed Elam, the center’s director since 2018. “So, it’s figuring how we create the universalistic lessons. You know, what are the lessons of the Holocaust and how do we make it feel universal?”

At the same time, she said, “Jews hold the particular distinction of having anti-Semitism be the oldest hatred and it just doesn’t seem to get better or go away. … I’m perplexed that human nature can be such that we can get to a place where there can be genocide.”

Walters said: “The Holocaust isn’t an isolated issue. I’m bothered by the Holocaust being taught as purely history because it’s not.”

Tel Aviv University report released in May said violent anti-Semitic incidents rose in 2018, with the largest number occurring in the U.S. Among them were the shooting that killed 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. Last year, fatal attacks included a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and the attack in December at a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City.

When I asked Walters if increased anti-Semitism was a concern among her peers, she replied: “Absolutely. Particularly after the (2016) election. Being on a college campus is scary. Being on a college campus as a Jewish person can be scary.” The same is true, she added, for people of color, non-English speakers and members of the LGBTQ community.

Speaking about the rise in anti-Semitism generally, Elam echoed Walters.

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely,” she said. “The tropes, that going back to the whole idea that the Jews are controlling. I wouldn’t have believed it, by the way. And I’m seeing it on Facebook and places that I’m shocked by here locally.”

Malek’s perspective was somewhat different. She said, “I don’t think anti-Semitism is ever going away because they always need a scapegoat. Every generation.”

Added Malek: “When Hitler came to power, they thought he’s a joke. And it got worse and worse because it got more acceptable and more acceptable. And when it’s happening like this, to me, it’s like the canary in the mine. The Jews are the canary in the mine. … It starts with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews.” 

As our conversation neared its end, Malek read to me something she’d written about “the fading memory” of the Holocaust or Shoah, a Hebrew word meaning catastrophe.

“The memory of the Shoah protected the Jews from anti-Semitism. … But ‘Never Again’ was never a mandate; it was just a wish, or a hope. No survivor would say “Never Again” was guaranteed. And the further you move away from the Holocaust, the less is guaranteed.”

Malek also described what happened when she and her family were walking to the ghetto in Hungary.

“They told us we can carry whatever we can carry, … it was not that far, maybe 25 miles, 30 miles, but (most) didn’t have suitcases, the majority of the people took a tablecloth or a sheet and made like a package (and) when they got very tired and they couldn’t carry it, they threw it away. … We were walking like a horde of people on this dirt road (and on each side were) houses, people living in them. And they were standing in front of the gate and looking at us, like a horde of people, saying nothing. They were afraid, I agree, but they were saying nothing. And when people dropped luggage, they couldn’t carry it any more, (the bystanders were) like scavengers. They’re running, opening these packages, seeing if they can find something valuable, and taking it. And, you know, it’s very hard to understand the people who stand by.”

She continued: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystanders. … I know they were afraid, but nobody would say a word. They just let us go like (we) deserved it.”

For Malek, this is the biggest lesson of the Holocaust, the one that must not turn to dust.

“If you see something,” she said, “don’t stand by; say something, stand up. … We have to stand for each other.”

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

Editor’s note: To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, CHAI has posted a page of learning resources.

4 thoughts on “Learning from the Holocaust

  1. “If you see something,” she said, “don’t stand by; say something, stand up. … We have to stand for each other.” So said Holocaust survivor Lea Malek in your article. Say something? Yes. Show something? Oh, yes. Perhaps you would like to see what is probably closer than your think. Paintings and poetry are on display in the Orange Glory Cafe (480 East Main Street, Rochester, across from the Eastman parking garage). They are in response to the quizzical look from a young adult when I was speaking about the horror of humanity (I guess he is one of the 22% that do not know). The exhibit is up until Jan 31st. I have read your remarkable piece. Thank you. Now please stop in and see how I, like you, keep this from slipping into the darkness of repetition.

  2. We must hear survivor voices and keep hearing until the speakers are gone. To hear it commits us listeners to words we will internalize forever. Last summer I heard a man called “The Twice Survivor” at the Everett Jewish Life Center at the Chautauqua Institution. Judah Samet’s “twice” title came when he survived Bergen-Belsen in 1944 and then survived the Pittsburgh shooting up of his temple and its congregants when he was delayed at home and got to temple late. His voice will never leave me. “They came for us at noon. The slow were killed immediately.” When you hear these words from a survivor, you go where he did.

    • My Mother survived being imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp with her Mother. They were liberated by Soviet troops. Perhaps because she was both a French and Austrian citizen they were not sent to the extermination camps as other relatives were. The irony is that she rarely spoke of her experiences. I know many soldiers who fought on the front lines of various wars who experienced unspeakable horrors who haven’t shared their stories either. One of my uncles, who was a physician, had a book full of photos of human experiments the Nazis carried out on their Jewish prisoners and twins. The Nazis were responsible for so many atrocities beyond the extermination camps that must never be overshadowed in the stories of remembrance of man’s inhumanity to man. The tragedy is that in spite of all this knowledge and the relatively recent history of these events, there is still hate and violence perpetrated against “the other.” Ignorance is no excuse. People who believe in the sanctity of human life and peace must redouble efforts to actively stand up to hate in its many forms and guises. Every generation has a grave responsibility to ensure that nothing like this nevery happens again.

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