None of us know life without living, breathing Holocaust survivors
I’m far from a historian — or even all that well educated — but I don’t need a degree to wonder how the tools and materials used to teach people about the Holocaust will change when no survivors remain to tell their stories.
The easy answer is film, video, family, Shoah Foundation histories, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but none of these can match the power of personal interaction with a death camp survivor. There is no experience in the world like simply being in the same room with someone who has lived and breathed such a range of human nature, who has faced such evil incarnate and, well, survived.
While you yourself may never have gone out of your way to speak or even listen to a Holocaust survivor, until now we’ve all at least lived with the ability to do so. Taking advantage of the opportunity doesn’t make us better people, but it is an addition to one’s soul. And now our chances to interact with survivors are narrowing – too quickly.
Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest remaining survivor (and the oldest living pianist), has just died. It’s bitterly ironic that a short documentary film about her life, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” is up for an Academy Award this year. And without people like Alice, to whom will the next generation turn – to truly get a sense of their history?
I was born a military brat in Germany, later returning to live there and now occasionally going back to visit friends. I’ve spent an accumulated 200+ hours inside the preserved and elucidated KZ camp system, at Holocaust and D-day memorial sites, as well as at the ruins of Third Reich glory. I’ve done all of this entirely on my terms, and given that I’m not the descendent of a survivor (or, for that matter, even Jewish), to some this may sound odd. But my gut has always pulled me toward these places and lessons and examples of courage. And yet, as many times as I have shared with anyone who will listen some of the wonderful, life-affirming stories that can be found in such dark places, I can’t remotely do a life like Alice’s — let alone the expressive magic in her face — justice. So find the documentary and see for yourself.
Most importantly, consider searching for an opportunity to introduce a young person to a Holocaust survivor. Families of survivor lineage often have this ground well covered, so maybe pick some goy kid you know and say you’re taking him or her to get some bacon-wrapped meatloaf. Lie. Whatever. Visit a survivor you know or take in a lecture by a stranger; just take advantage while there’s still a little time left.