Archives for posts with tag: holocaust

 

terezin quote fixedI just learned of another baby that was born in a concentration camp. This is something worth celebrating—another sharp stick in Hitler’s eye! When I learned about my mother-in-law’s birth in a camp, I didn’t understand how that was remotely possible. Then I heard about a few more babies born in camps and was forced to suspend my disbelief. And now, another one.

Although this baby died in January at age 70, his name, Rudi Klobach, popped up in my news feed today. As the much-loved soccer coach of Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd when she was a student at New Jersey’s Delran High School (1997-2000), his death is noted for the sole reason that he will not be able to watch Carli go toe to toe with Japan in the finals this year.

As exciting as the Women’s World Cup is, I’m more interested in his family’s history. Born on June 18, 1944 in Terezin concentration camp, little Rudi went on to have a good life that positively impacted many children.

Per an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Klobach was born in 1944 in the Nazis’ Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where his father was given the job of collecting bodies to put in graves,” his wife Barbara Klobach said.

Like so many survivors, he rarely spoke of his family’s experience during the war.

I learned a little bit more about him in his obituary. He and his parents, Klara and Karl Heinz Klobach, were rescued from the camp by the Russians and eventually settled in Düsseldorf Germany, where his sister Maria was born. In 1948, when he was four years old, the family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Pennsylvania after his father, a trained architect, received sponsorship from an American architectural firm.

rudi klobach hall of fame trophy

Photo: courtesy of Mark Makela for The New York Times

In addition to coaching the girls’ soccer team through many a winning season, Coach K, as he was affectionately called, also taught German at Delran High School. In fact, the school’s German program wouldn’t exist without him: he built it from one class to a full-time curriculum with five levels of study. Deepening the school’s ties with all things Deutschland, Rudi established a German Club and traveled with his students every other year to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to enrich their language learning.

In 2011, Rudi was inducted into the South Jersey Hall of Fame in 2011. As a New Jersey native, I appreciate that they left off the “New” in the title. Sometimes Jersey is just Jersey, plain and simple.

Advertisements

 

 

 

 

 

Rich Cohen, perhaps best known for his book Tough Jews, just wrote the most crystal-clear explanation of the current state of American Jews on Tablet. He answered things I didn’t even know I was wondering about. Here are some of Cohen’s main points, via quotes taken directly from his essay:

Our seven-decade bubble
“The unimaginable evil of the Holocaust seemed to kill anti-Semitism, even the polite country-club variety that shows up in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. After the war, Hemingway disavowed Jewish jokes, which, he seemed to realize, were connected, in some way, to what happened. It created a bubble, a zone of safety not only for Jews but for other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the civil right movements came in the wake of WWII. Anti-Semitism still existed of course, but, in America, it became socially unacceptable. It retreated to the bedrooms and parlors, where it was expressed in the way of certain mystery religions, in secret, behind closed doors, so quietly you might think it had vanished.

“This is my childhood, the world where I grew up. The horror of the Holocaust purchased us a 70-year vacation from history, though we didn’t know it. We believed the world had changed, as had human nature. Jews remained distinct in the new dispensation, but in a good way—a near-at-hand exotic, a symbol of exile, which we were told was the natural state of modern man. For perhaps the only time in history, you might actually want to be a Jew. Because of the close families and good husbands and yada yada. Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Mel Brooks. To those of us who came of age in these years, the future seemed like it would be more of the same, the present carried on forever.

Jews can no longer pass
“It’s as if Jews are bell-bottoms or fringed coats. Once upon a time, we’d been in fashion, but not anymore. What you have now is a return to the green-screen hatred, which, like malaria, spikes and remits but never goes away.”

What changed?
“Well, for starters, there are just fewer of us in proportion to the whole. Whereas Jews once constituted five percent of America, and as much as forty percent of New York, those numbers have shrunk. We’re perhaps thirteen percent of New York and around two percent of the nation. In this sense, American Jews are living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole.  Like the caboose of a train, we’re getting smaller as we go away.”

What else?
“Which brings up the second point—the Holocaust, which is one reason there are so few Jews. We lost almost half our population not long ago. “Never Forget” is one of the admonitions we heard in Sunday School. But people do forget. Everything, all the time. As the events exit living memory, as the people who survived it as well as those who liberated the camps, die, tragedy shifts from memory to history. As memory fades, the old thing returns, filling the subterranean cisterns.”

The all too common conflation of Israel with Judaism
“Some attribute the hatred to the policies of Israel. (“Bibi is to blame.”) But this confuses cause and effect. Israel is not the source of anti-Semitism, but a result. Before the Holocaust, it was said that the Jews in their statelessness were the cause of wars and disturbance, the burr under the saddle of mankind, the ghost in the machinery of statecraft. After the Holocaust, it’s said that Israel, the Jewish State, is the burr under that saddle. Though the condition has changed—no state v. state—the conclusion remains the same: It’s the Jews. To me, this is the world settling back into the Jew-loving and Jew-hating equilibrium that was unsettled, for a time, by the Shoah. After, all, the dream of the early Zionists was neither to be hated, nor loved—it was to be normal, treated as individuals, like everyone else.”

(This is Julie speaking now, up until here it was all quotes from Rich Cohen’s piece)
Although this is not wonderful news, it brings me some relief. I realize that I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s going on, why there’s been such a surge of anti-Semitic acts of late, and this helps me understand it better in a historical context. It’s not that the last seven decades have been idyllic, but they have certainly been a reprieve from what came before. If it indeed represents just a lull in the hatred and vitriol, we have our work cut out for us. We will not be silenced.

*This is Cohen’s phrase; I just used it for my headline because it was a perfect encapsulation.

LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, 1945

Pete Petersohn 2001-v3

LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, 2001

I’d like to introduce you to a really important person who unwittingly made a huge difference in my life. His name is LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn and he was a medic in the United States Army during WWII. He’s the other protagonist in my book, along with my mother-in-law, Hana. He’s truly the yin to her yang. Without him she wouldn’t exist. I’ve been working on the chapters about him recently and well, Memorial Day just snuck up on me. I want to dedicate this post to him, because without him my husband would not be here, and as you can gather, neither would my children. Pete saved Hana’s life when he discovered her at three-weeks-old at Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, and swiftly administered medical care that staved off fatal infection. He was a war hero through and through.

He died in 2010 at age 87, but I did have an opportunity to meet him in 2008 when he was presented with the Golden Shofar Award in Albany, New York. I am in regular contact with his youngest son, Brian Petersohn, who has been generously sharing all of his father’s clippings, writings, photos and other war-related mementos with me over the past few years. Most endearing, however, are Brian’s own memories and stories of growing up with him. He sounds like one of those dads every kid wishes he or she could have, someone who’s loving, kind, fun and funny. It gets emotional at times, but it’s been so beautiful to share my journey with one of Pete’s kids. Pete really feels like family now, and indeed, he is. Thank you Brian, for bringing your father vividly to life for me and for the future readers of the book.

subway seat graffiti

I take my children to school each day via the subway. One morning a week or so ago my six-year-old daughter excitedly told me I had just sat upon a square and to stand up so she could show me. And this is what I saw: a swastika in black permanent marker. But at second glance, I saw something else. Some other subway rider had whipped out her ballpoint pen and filled in the corners of the swastika to make it look like a square. And then she added peace symbols and hearts in the quadrants.

“What’s wrong Mommy? You don’t like the picture?”

Here’s what my first-grade daughter knows and understands so far:

  • She is Jewish
  • Her father is Israeli
  • Her mother (me) is writing a book about her Savta’s extraordinary life (savta is Hebrew for grandmother)

“This is a swastika,” I said. “It’s a symbol of the nazi party.”

(I just now decided that I will not capitalize the “n” in nazi because it somehow legitimizes them; it’ll be capped in my book though, I’ll make sure my editor makes sure of it…).

“The nazi’s wanted to kill all the Jews and they succeeded in killing a lot of us, including some of your relatives. That’s why I’m writing a book about your Savta.”

“How come you never work on the book anymore?” she asked.

How could she have known? (Kids always know). I had spent the last few days contemplating whether or not to leave my job as an editor at BBC to work fulltime on my book. I had taken the position in December 2013 and have barely touched the book since. I miss it. I crave it. I really, really, really need to get back to my book.

“Well, I work fulltime and my life is really busy. I’d like to get back to writing my book,” I said. “What do you think? Should I leave BBC to work fulltime on my book?”

She looked away and then down at the ground.  I could see that she was really thinking about how to respond. And then, “I think it’s a decision you have to make, Mommy.”

Well knock me over with a feather! Holy sh*t! I laughed and hugged her and said, “Thank you my oh-so-wise daughter.”

A week or so later I resigned from the BBC. I’m exhilarated about this decision and as of May 8 I will have a new fulltime job: to complete the manuscript for “What Happened to That Baby.”

For those of you who have been on this intermittent journey with me, please continue to check back. I will try to post somewhat regularly. For those of you who are just joining, welcome! I hope you’ll come visit once in a while too. I encourage discussion on these pages, but I do moderate all comments before posting. Please be respectful and no ad hominem attacks. These are very charged topics but there are ways to engage without resorting to intolerance and hatred.

heart symbolpeace_symbol_u262E_icon_256x256

peace and love

BTH cover

I met Deb Levy because we had something in common. We were both writing books based on someone else’s Holocaust story. Deb’s book, Bury the Hot, is now published. She sent me a copy and I read it in one big gulp. I had so many questions for her afterward but limited it to nine, which are answered by her below. You can purchase your own copy of Bury the Hot at amazon, which I encourage you to do. It’s a page-turner.

1. What was it like telling someone else’s story?

One of the very first things Sal [Wainberg] said to me after asking me to write his story was this, “Do not make a Hollywood version of my account. Do not embellish for the sake of storytelling. Do not make me out to be a hero. I just want the truth.” So, I felt a tremendous responsibility to hold to the truth. I also felt a tremendous responsibility for earning his trust, and that of his wife, Sandy. They were both sharing their memories and their marriage in such an honest and open way, and I held their trust in me in very high regard.

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot (courtesy of Deb Levy)

Deb Levy, author of Bury the Hot

2. How much and what kind of research did you do?

Sal sent me the VHS tape and transcript of a video testimony that he had given in 1995. I pored through it and filled a spiral-bound notebook with hundreds of questions. We don’t live near each other, so we spoke on the phone for several hours at a time – Sandy sitting silently on the line listening in. We called into a conference call center that recorded our conversations so that I could listen and respond without worrying about writing things down. We spoke once or twice a week, for hours on end, for several months. I also (like you!) used Google quite a bit and found amazing resources – from a Hebrew/Gregorian calendar conversion tool, to the Yizkor (memorial) book of his shtetl. And I went to Yeshiva University and the JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] and looked through their archives to get more information about historical events that he was part of.

3. Who else did you interview beside Sal? How did you handle any inconsistencies in his story?

I interviewed his wife Sandy quite a bit, privately, because a good part of the book focuses on their marriage, and how the repression of his childhood experiences impacted their relationship. (She was learning some details of his past along with me, believe it or not.) I also spoke with his daughter, who is my age, to get a different perspective. But Bury the Hot is mainly Sal’s story, as he remembers his experiences and as he perceived them. Any historical inconsistencies, I checked with him and we compared notes on things like dates. For instance, he recalled the war breaking out on Erev Rosh Hashanah (he was three years old.) But every history book notes Germany invading Poland on September 1, which was about two weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 1939. When I pressed him on this, he said that he remembered wearing his new Rosh Hashanah clothes and going outside as planes darkened the sky above his home. And so he assumed it was Rosh Hashanah. But he realized that he must have just gotten his new outfit a few weeks before the New Year, tried it on, and then gone outside to show off his new clothes. To be honest, I was really amazed at how accurate and vivid his memories were.

4. Tell me about your decision to include Yiddish words, especially how you deftly handled their definitions, i.e., weaving them into the narrative rather than footnotes or parenthetically.

I love any book that weaves a foreign language into its prose – it brings a culture to life in a way that mere descriptions cannot. And Yiddish is such an amazing language, full of flavor and feistiness and a “hamisheh” quality. It’s the language of my family and our history, and the language that Sal spoke for the first 15 years of his life. It’s also a dying language and one that I wanted to revive in some way.

5. Has writing this changed the way you think about WWII and the Holocaust? What about your faith? I can’t imagine going through the process of interviewing, researching, writing and publishing and not coming out the other side unfazed.

To be honest, when Sal first asked me to write his story and his wife said, “His story is unbelievable,” my first thought (which I kept to myself!) was, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before.” I cringe now thinking about that. We may think that by reading Anne Frank and watching Schindler’s List we’ve heard it all before, but we haven’t. We haven’t even come close. There are millions of stories that need to be told – each one unique and heartbreaking and filled with truths and teachings. I don’t know that writing this changed the way that I practice or believe, but it changed me as a mother. I have three young boys, and raising them while writing about another young boy in peril was fraught with challenges. I struggled between wanting to do everything I could (as we all want to do as mothers) to give them a good life and protect them from harm. But at the same time, I started to resent their good life and innocence. I wondered often if they would have survived the things that Sal endured, and it terrified me, because I didn’t think they would. And so there was a part of me that wanted to “toughen them up” so that they could survive if their world, God forbid, turned upside down. But that is impossible, and probably not the best way to raise children!

6. How do you feel about the book, the people involved, the fact that the last survivors will soon be no more? 

I’m incredibly proud of the book, and incredibly, incredibly grateful to Sandy and Sal both for trusting me with their memories and laying themselves bare. Seeing it in print, seeing it go so public, I realize the incredible courage they exhibited in opening themselves up so completely. They were incredibly honest, and honesty is not always so attractive. Also, I think I was so close to it that it’s only been through the response I’m getting from readers that I realize I did something very important for history and humanity. Every day that goes by, there are less and less of those who can provide a first-hand account, or who can tell it cogently. And so there is this race against the clock to make sure we capture as much as we can and then share it with generations to come.

7. Any interesting or surprising responses to your book? Would love to hear what kind of feedback you’re getting from readers, whether they be from survivors, kin of survivors, Jews, non-Jews, etc.

The response has been incredible. Certainly, it is a Jewish-interest story. But some of my most fervent fans and supporters are non-Jews. And why not? It is a human story and one does not have to be Nigerian to appreciate Chinua Achebe, or Indian to read Salman Rushdie. But perhaps the greatest response was from Sal’s daughter, who hadn’t read a page of the book until it was published. The whole time I was writing his story, I worried about how she and her brother would feel reading about their father’s suffering, or their parent’s marriage. But she said, “I feel like we are now somehow related. Over 40 years, I have managed to absorb some of this history. But in 1/10th the time, you got it. And now you are my sister. This is why he chose you.”

8. Anything you wish you had done differently?

Yes! Like I said, I found the Yizkor book of Zelechow (his shtetl) online and used it as a resource for corroborating his memory of historical events. It also listed the names of people from his village, which I incorporated into the book. But it wasn’t until I went back to the Yizkor book, while I was working on the approximately 8th or 9th revision of Bury the Hot, that I realized there were pictures at the end of this online document. And I found pictures of his family, people he hid with. I had chills seeing the faces of the characters I had been writing about. Unfortunately, Sal had passed away by this time, and so I couldn’t share those photographs with him, or seek his help in identifying some of the people in group photos.

9. Name one thing you learned about the Holocaust that you didn’t know before starting this project.

I learned a lot about the difference between Polish and German society at that time, and the many years leading up to the war. I learned that the war’s end in 1945 did not bring an end to the suffering of Jews in Poland – at all. Anti-Semitism was centuries old, and persisted long after the Holocaust.

P.S. Click here if you’re curious about the book’s title.

pinchasgutter_610x343

Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies

It won’t be long before people besides Joel Haley Osment start saying, “I see dead people.”

You know how one of the main laments of Holocaust studies for future (and current) generations is that the survivor population is dying out? How books and movies aren’t the same as face-to-face encounters with in-the-flesh survivors? Well, the University of Southern California is trying to do something about it.

According to a recent CNET article, “As the aging Holocaust survivor population dwindles, USC scientists scurry to create life-size 3D holograms that can answer viewer questions through Siri-like voice-recognition technology.”

The hologram initiative is a collaboration between the USC Shoah Foundation and design firm Conscience Display. According to CNET, they are developing “installations that let students and others converse with the hyper-photorealistic life-size digital versions of the survivors. Viewers ask questions, and the holograms respond, thanks to Siri-style natural-language technology, also developed at USC, that allows observers to ask questions that trigger relevant, spoken answers.”

Quick aside: I knew USC was home to Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, but I didn’t know it was responsible for Apple’s Siri technology. Nice. Great way to use what you’ve got and keep things in-house, USC!

The initiative is called New Dimensions in Testimony and USC says it will “display testimony in a way that will continue the dialogue between Holocaust survivors and learners far into the future.”

If you can get past the creepy aspect, (can’t help but see this played out in a Scooby-Doo episode), it sounds like a potentially viable solution to stem the despair of those who feel the memory of the Holocaust will die with its survivors. With the amount of Holocaust literature, art and film already in existence, plus those in the works (like mine) or that will be made in the future, I highly doubt that, but still, it will definitely have a less dire effect when there are no survivors on the ground.

This is the part I like best (aside from the cool hologram element, of course): “New Dimensions in Testimony will yield insights into the experiences of survivors through a new set of interview questions, some that survivors are asked on a regular basis, plus many of which have not been asked before.” (italics mine)

Hopefully they can get this project done quickly while the remaining survivors are still lucid enough to answer these new questions with some degree of clarity. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. But I must say, I trust these guys at USC. They seem to know what they’re doing.

I’m more interested in the “holy-hologram-wow” factor, but for those of you interested in the techie stuff, the aforementioned CNET article goes into greater detail and includes relevant links.

What do you think about Holocaust holograms? Creepy? Brilliant? Not sure? Do you foresee potential problems or glitches? Do you think kids will be freaked out by this or intrigued? Please, do tell.

Lost Childhood - by Rachel Konnely

Lost Childhood – Photo: Rachel Kornelly

I came upon this student Holocaust exhibition in a rather somber fashion, after reading an obituary for Kathy Carlisle, the high school teacher who had assigned it. The project, The Holocaust: Illuminated Memory, showcases the collective work of photography students at St. Francis High School, Spring Semester 2012. In Ms. Carlisle’s own words,

“This conceptual photography assignment required students to utilize historical research about the Holocaust to create symbolic photographic imagery.  An exploration of artists employing symbolism, metaphor, and allegory in historical and contemporary art established the foundation of the project. Students began their work by expanding their knowledge of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945 through personal and collaborative research and class assignments.

The students’ creative challenges began as they refined their research to focus on a single personal narrative from a survivor or someone who had perished in the Holocaust. They were asked to personally assess and symbolize the essence of that single person’s story through photographic imagery. Students were limited to a palette of sepia or black and white photography, using only tonal value to describe the depth and breadth of their concept. The final step of the project required students to write an artist’s statement about their work, elucidating their creative process and its connection to their research.”

What I like about this assignment is that it required the students to get in real close and seek out one person or one moment and create art around that. To see the trees instead of the forest. St. Francis is an all-girls Catholic school, so I’m assuming none of the young women have a personal connection to the Holocaust, although it’s quite possible I am mistaken. Some of the students were able to go beyond the cliché, not an easy task in our over-saturated Holocaust memorializing world. I did not write that last sentence as a criticism of the vast amount of Holocaust art and literature that exists, only that it’s quite a feat to capture something that goes beyond “Never Forget.”

Some of the students’ work worth mentioning include:

Lost in the Snow - Photo: Hibba Munir

Trapped in the Snow – Photo: Hibba Munir


Trapped in the Snow
– by Hibba Munir
I linked my images to the personal history of Hanna Mueller. Hannah Mueller was reading about the harrowing treatment of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and she told her grandmother, “We’re fortunate that we live in the 20th century in Czechoslovakia and such a thing can’t happen to us.” It was only six years later on March 15, 1939, when the Germans occupied Prague. On a cold and snowy day, when Mueller was only a mile from her home, the Germans entered the city on tanks and trucks, with their guns pointed toward the rooftops. The picture I chose symbolizes how calm the cold and snowy day seemed, until the Germans entered the city. In my second image, the fence symbolizes how the Jews were trapped and how they were just waiting to reach the other side, which contained trees, a symbol of freedom. Mueller’s story really moved me because it made me think of how innocent the Jews were, and how bad luck just came upon when they least expected it. I learned how much suffering the Jews went through both emotionally and physically. I learned how unjust the Germans actions were. By reading Mueller’s story and other stories, I was able to grasp a better perspective of what occurred at the concentration camps.

The Valued Potato - Photo: Nhi Le

The Valued Potato – Photo: Nhi Le


The Valued Potato
by Nhi Le

In this image, I wanted to emphasize the importance of a potato to a person living during the Holocaust. I was surprised that someone compared a potato to a diamond. I didn’t think anyone would compare a small worthless potato to a valuable diamond. When I read about this, I thought of how much I eat every day and how I have taken so much for granted. In the photograph, I compared a bowl of food that I eat everyday to one potato that can last a person a whole day or even a week.

 

The Wall in the Way - Photo: Maxi Wilson

The Wall in the Way – Photo: Maxi Wilson


The Wall in the Way
– by Maxi Wilson

I chose to portray the life of David Rubinowicz. He loved nature and enjoyed looking out a window that faced a road and a large field. He said that he remembered when his favorite field was blocked by marching soldiers. I was inspired to portray having things that you loved forcefully taken away. I learned that the Holocaust involved a lot of sneaking, hiding, and running away than I had originally thought. I know that many families were separated during the Holocaust, but I feel like losing something inanimate, like a field, is just as heartbreaking. If you lose the joyful things in life, along with the love from your family, what do you really have? I felt that having a gate in front of the field would portray the dividing aspect of the Holocaust. In other words, it shows that victims of the Holocaust were unable to have what they desired.

 

AshesHolocaustSweden

The mausoleum at the Majdanek concentration camp outside Lublin, Poland. Photo: CC BY-ND Kasia/Flickr

You know the definition of chutzpah wherein a man kills his parents and then begs for leniency on account of being an orphan? Well, here’s something that closely adheres to that definition: a Swedish artist used the remains of people murdered at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland for his painting, currently on display at a gallery in Lund, Sweden.

The artist, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, defends his use of the ashes, per his artist statement at the gallery: ‘The ash has followed me, always been there …  as if the ash contains energies or memories or souls of people … people tortured, tormented and murdered by other people in one of the 19th century’s most ruthless wars.’”

Uh, yeah, and that’s why you should not have used their ashes in your art. Those ashes are sacred. And they don’t belong to you. According to The Blaze: “[von Hausswolff] apparently collected the ashes 20 years ago, however there is not much information regarding how he acquired them. The Telegraph claims that he ‘took the ashes during a 1989 visit to Majdanek.’ A translation from a description on the gallery’s web site seems to indicate that the artist nabbed the ashes directly from cremation ovens during his visit.”

What an ash-hole.

Waiting to hear their names called… photo: courtesy of The Sun

First they were fighting for their lives. Now they’re fighting for the crown?

Yesterday in Haifa, Israel, 14 female Holocaust survivors aged 74 to 97 competed in a beauty pageant for the title of Miss Holocaust Survivor (at the very least they could have extended the courtesy of Ms. Holocaust Survivor.) Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer L’Haver (Helping Hand), the organization that produced this event, said that the pageant was a celebration of life and that “the fact that so many women entered prove that it’s a good idea.”

I beg to differ.

That so many women — the 14 contestants came from a pool of 300 — does not mean it was a good idea. I’m no scientist but if you’re going to use the words “fact” and (a variation of the word) “proof,” it should at least pass the smell test. And this pageant reeks of wrong on so many levels.

Critics have alternately described the pageant as macabre, inappropriate, misguided, offensive, and gimmicky. I believe it is all those things. And it’s surely in bad taste.

Ms. Sabag says  the winners were chosen based on their personal stories of survival and rebuilding their lives after the war.  She’s quick to note that “physical beauty was only a tiny part of the competition.” Grrr.

I wonder if she and the other organizers of this pageant were responding to the fact that survivors  —and their children and grandchildren — are desperate to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive. There are so many books and memoirs out there and many people complain that there’s nothing left to be said, or at least nothing new. This was a nice deflection perhaps, to offer up something new to talk about something that’s becoming increasingly old. But even so, it still feels crass and misguided.

I like what Gal Mor of Israeli site, Holes in the Net, wrote:

“Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women’s appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks? This is one step short of ‘Survivor-Holocaust’ or ‘Big Brother Auschwitz.’ It leaves a bad taste.”

Indeed it does. What do you think?

USHMM curator Kyra Schuster, right.
Photo credit: Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post

Every few  weeks Kyra Schuster flies down to Palm Beach County in Florida to meet with Holocaust survivors. Yeah, so what, you may ask. Well, here’s what:

Ms. Schuster is a curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and makes these trips as often as she can to retrieve the precious artifacts and remnants that many survivors have carried with them all these years: diaries and suitcases and photos and postcards. All tangible reminders and in some instances testimony to their experiences.

Reminds me a bit of “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien‘s book about what soldiers carried with them in Vietnam. [I’m aware it’s a bit anachronistic to refer to an earlier war using a literary catchphrase from a later war, but please give me some slack, or at least some poetic license.]

“Kyra Schuster is a treasure hunter who measures her victories in tattered scraps of paper and suitcases that outlived their owners,” is how Lona O’Connor described her in last Sunday’s Palm Beach Post.

Ms. Schuster says she loves her job and from my vantage point, what’s not to love? Sure, the subject of the Holocaust is inherently a downer but I kind of have a bit of job envy here. What an endlessly fascinating project to be working on. Well, not endlessly, obviously, and that’s kind of the point.

Per stats mentioned in the article, the median age of survivors in Palm Beach County (which has the second largest community of survivors in the country, estimated to be between 12,000 and 18,000) is 85. That means Ms. Schuster has to cull these artifacts as fast as she can, before they are lost to history by death and default.

A lot of people work best under pressure; deadlines impose a ticking clock and death is the ultimate deadline. Schuster seems to handle it with grace.

Her retrieval and acquisition of these items is not really about the objects themselves, but about the people who donate them. She hears their stories and weaves them into the exhibition for historical context.

The USHMM receives more than 800 calls a year from people with artifacts from Jews living during the Nazi era and the post-war displaced persons camps. My mother-in-law Hana Berger Moran, who was born in German concentration camp, was one of those callers. A baby born in a camp seems unfathomable, but it happened and Hana is living proof. A few years ago she donated her newborn clothes to the museum. They were made by women in her mother’s camp who managed to scrounge up scraps of cloth to make her a shirt and hat. They even found a bit of colored thread to stitch both a pink and a blue flower,  not sure if the baby would be a girl or a boy.