Sharing Stories Across Generations

By Rosie Gertzman

This spring, students from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Holocaust Education and Reflection Club (HEAR Club) loaded up a bus and headed to Wesley Enhanced Living (WEL) in Media, a senior living facility previously known as Martins Run. The eighth- through 11th-grade students embarked on a day of sharing, learning and growing with the WEL residents. It was a day filled with laughter, tears and thought-provoking questions. [Read more…]

Life-Affirming Holocaust Painting Draws Attention in Reading

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

What is your reaction to this Holocaust painting by Juliette Aristides?

Now on display in a one woman show Observations at the Reading Public Museum that continues until September 14, the large canvass titled 1945 (Bendheim Remembrance) attracts rapt and immediate attention. Ownership of the painting quietly changed hands during the opening weekend, shortly after Alison Rotenberg brought her husband Dr. Larry Rotenberg MD, a child survivor of the Holocaust, over to see saying: “We’re buying this.” The Rotenbergs plan to temporarily place the work in their Reading, Pennsylvania home, for depth of contemplation and then move it to a more permanent, public venue.

See their interview following the jump, and see Dr. Rotenberg’s article A Child Survivor/Psychiatrist’s Personal Adaption in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry.
How do I know all of this? Full disclosure: Juliette Aristides is my step-daughter, though she was an adult when I married her father, Barry Bub, then a family practitioner in Reading, PA. Juliette was born in South Africa, and while yet in her infancy, immigrated with her parents to Reading, PA. Many family members were murdered in Nazi death camps on both the paternal “Bub” and maternal “Bendheim” sides of her lineage. Her long period of research and work on the canvas was encouraged and funded by a surviving branch of the Bendheim family.

Juliette’s usual theme in her art is “beauty” — making this work all the more significant. When I first saw this painting, it was unframed, leaning against a wall in Juliette’s atelier in Seattle. Tears rushed in as I witnessed this new evolution in Holocaust-related art. Even so, since the painting’s inception I had wondered how this interpretation might affect survivors and their loved ones-both here and overseas.

The couple who will take possession of the painting when the show closes, Alison and Larry Rotenberg were willing to be interviewed for this article. They own several other pieces of her work and have known her since childhood when she was an art student. I ask Alison, a retired realtor in the Reading area, what touches her in the imagery, some aspects are so subtle that they can only be discerned by viewing the 49″×72″ oil on canvas work in person.

“It is evocative of so much. On the right hand side of the painting are the crematoria, the smoke, and perhaps the souls going up. Then the two people–he is looking off to the side with that sort of pained expression, with the striped shirt that was so common in the concentration camps. She is much straighter, looking ahead. She steps out, she’s stepping forward…they’re leaving that all behind and the future is ahead. Or he could be one of the prisons and she could represent the future, for as it is said we can light a candle or curse the darkness. We recently went to the 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Larry and our second son went to the original gathering in Jerusalem around 1981. There are fewer and fewer people alive to attend these things. This painting, it’s for future remembrance.”

Dr. Larry Rotenberg was born in Romania, where his family was walled into the ghetto that was set up for the Jews of Czernowitz. In the fall of 1941, not yet eight years old, along with his family and 200,000 others he endured a forced march to the Ukraine in mid-winter where his beloved parents would die of the extreme conditions in a village turned-internment camp. His sisters foraged for food until two sisters and Larry were shifted to an orphanage in Bucharest by way of Yasi in 1944. From there the youth made their way to Western Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark and finally to Canada in 1948. This data I’ve taken from his published article which is a poignant valuable piece for all who wish more understanding of the beautiful, sustaining, early life family remembrances, experiences, reactions and emotional development of a young Holocaust survivor. During our interview, he indicated first meeting his wife in Vancouver, Canada. Still, it is the painting that he wants to speak about on our call:

“The work has a degree of both dread and grandeur. Dread of what they have left behind and the grandeur of their future. It reminds me of Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
doth walk in fear and dread.
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend.
Doth close behind him tread.

It sort of summarizes for me what this couple are trying to do, trying to escape from this frightful scene but they can’t quite do it, although they are going into a hopeful future, they still have to take the weight and heaviness with them spiritually and mentally. They will always carry it with them. What is so amazing is that this painting is such a powerful evocation of the spirit of survival of the Holocaust.”

I ask could this image have been received ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Dr. Rotenberg explains:

“The immediacy of the past was still sufficiently there to keep this from occurring. Well, it is so that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. In a sense this couple carries with them a hope of humanity, a hope of the world. If you go back to the Talmud it teaches that one who saves a life, saves the whole world. This painting captures aspects of that, too. Each human being contains a world that lives within him or her and dies within him or her. Triumph and tragedy are combined in this picture, evocative of the importance of the singularity of human survival.

If you want to be even more symbolic, it is almost like Adam and Eve have re-emerged from being thrown out into the world and have come through a crisis and through the crisis to somehow survive and yet carry the memory. The painting is complex, offering dozens of layers of meaning. The thing about art is that ultimately you like a piece because it speaks to you. It captured Alison and certainly captures me.”

Our call ends, and so I turn to find that section of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Colerige, a poem my father had me memorize as a youth. Its fullness capturing the essence of our the feelings they’d presented with such unity of vision:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring-
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
wetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Observations, the solo exhibition of works by Seattle artist Juliette Aristides continues until September 14 at the Reading Public Museum.

Never Forget: Help Pennsylvanians Remember the Holocaust

— by Ed Snyder

A bill was introduced by State Representative Brendan Boyle. The bill would amend the Public School Code of 1949 to require all public and nonpublic schools in Pennsylvania to include in their existing curriculum age-appropriate education for grades 6-12 on the Holocaust and other
modern genocides.

The bill in the Education Committee and is coming up for a vote on April 8. We are urging everyone to contact Mr. Paul Clymer (chair of the Education Committee) He can be contacted by calling tel. 717-783-3154. Please leave a message indicating you support the bill. Also have your friends and relatives do likewise.

I am Nothing without Them: Holocaust Olympics Solidarity Tattoo

Today is the Jewish festival of Tu b’Av, which after Tisha b’Av, brings the message that we can overcome trauma, live again and find. First, we have to love ourselves and have inner strength and conviction we merit existence and support. The photos chosen for this article show an expression of love, remembrance and resistance. I never thought a tattoo could bring me to tears again after seeing number tattoos on Shoah survivors. But these photos are powerful, too, because they are about resistance.

More after the jump.
We are called by to holy resistance in the Torah, to act as the midwives did when they refused to follow a murderous edict of Pharaoh to murder the male Israelite infants. And so you can see a wonderful example of resistance, love and memory in this article’s accompany photos, on the arm of swimmer Fabien Gilot of the French team at this year’s Olympics. The tattoo began as a tribute to his grandmother’s Jewish husband, Max Goldschmidt, an Auschwitz survivor and a huge influence on his life.

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat also engaged in an important act of resistance in the face of the refusal of the Olympic Committee to offer a main event memorial to the members of the Israeli Olympic team who were taken hostage and eventually killed by the Palestinian group Black September at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Bavaria, in southern West Germany.

The Palestinian Olympic Committee called the idea of such a memorial “racism”!?

Here’s what JTA reported:

The head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee called the campaign to hold a minute of silence for the 11 Israelis murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics “racism.”

In a letter written to International Olympic Committee head Jacques Rogge, Jibril Rajoub wrote that “Sports are a bridge for love, communication and the spreading of peace between nations and should not be used for divisiveness and the spread of racism,” according to the Times of Israel, citing the media watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch.

Rogge has declined numerous requests to hold the minute of silence at the opening ceremony of the London Games on Friday. He held a minute of silence in memory of the athletes at a small ceremony in the Olympic Village on Monday.

In my humble opinion, the Palestinians are shooting themselves in the foot with such objections. I am an advocate for the Palestinians to experience the opportunity to try for ethical nationhood in a land of their own, just as Israel now has this opportunity. This behavior in their name and also by the Olympic Committee is brings dishonor to their cause. I was so sad to read it.

I’ve always adhered to the Jewish tradition that the body is the instrument on which the soul plays life for God and they we aren’t to add any cosmetic holes or engravings to it. But these images remind me of what the midwifes in denying Pharaoh’s edict in the Exodus story, this is an example of a kind of resistance to terror and we can all contemplate it, and then find our own particular creative manifestation of holy resistance.

Another wonderful example on this matter is found in the transcript of a radio interview with Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat at the beginning of the week:

Despite all the appeals from parliaments and heads of state, including Obama, Romney and Clinton, the heads of the International Olympic Committee decided not to honor this request to stand for a minute’s silence during the opening ceremony. Therefore, I think it is fitting that I make this protest in the name of the State of Israel. I did it by standing in the section of the sports ministers. I stood up, I bowed my head. I wore a black band on my left arm, which was very noticeable. It was aimed at precisely when [IOC President Jacques] Rogge was speaking.

It was very crowded in the gallery, and anyone who wanted to come over to me and say he was supportive – it was extremely difficult for him to get to me. Even so, there were a very few around me who did express support. We mentioned the massacre of the 11. The terrible massacre that took place. Yesterday the Syrian delegation marched here, and no one uttered a peep. Nothing. People are being slaughtered by the regime and no one voices so much as a chirp in protest. It’s business as usual for the world, like nothing happened. So everything here is sheer hypocrisy.

Because it is Shabbat here, and I don’t want to desecrate the Sabbath in an event of this kind, and it is also Tisha B’Av, I walked during the morning to the only place that is walking distance here, which is the swimming complex. Unfortunately, they did not succeed in making it to the finals, more’s the pity. Tomorrow night I am already returning to Israel, and I will return here again for the commemoration of the 11, which will be held at the [Israeli] Embassy on August 6.

Shabbat, Tisha b’Av and resistance. That is pure Jewish chutzpah klapei shamaya — holy and healthy courageous audacity, the Jewish way. No one was blown up, tortured or defamed, this was resistance done honorably in the face of Olympic Committee decision against remembering murdered Olympic athletes. Add your voice, every way you can. One day may we all treat each other with kindness and all live under their own fig tree on a square of land to call their own.

John Raise (R-WV) Smoking Restrictions Like Holocaust

Last week West Virginia Republican Senate Candidate John Raese made an insensitive comparison between the Holocaust and smoking restrictions:

I don’t want government telling me what I can do and what I can’t do because I’m an American. But in Monongalia County you can’t smoke a cigarette, you can’t smoke a cigar, you can’t do anything. And I oppose that because I believe in everybody’s individual freedoms and everybody’s individual rights to do what they want to do and I’m a conservative and that’s the way that goes.

But in Monongalia County now, I have to put a huge sticker on my buildings to say this is a smoke free environment. This is brought to you by the government of Monongalia County.  Ok?

Remember Hitler used to put Star of David on everybody’s lapel, remember that? Same thing.

Yesterday — which was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 19, 2012 — Raise doubled down defending his obscene remarks:

No, this is not a standard line, nor a misstatement. It is a loss of freedom. As Ronald Reagan once said, there is no such thing as partial freedom, there is only freedom.

NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris commented:

Comparing smoking restrictions to the Holocaust is never acceptable on any day of the year. But for West Virginia Republican Senate candidate John Raese to apparently defend those comments on Holocaust Remembrance Day takes the insensitivity and callousness of his remarks to the next level. Raese-who is just the latest Republican to use this type of inappropriate rhetoric-must apologize immediately and quit defending his offensive remarks.

With this remark, Raese joins the ranks of other Republicans such as

who have shamefully abused the Holocaust to make political points.

Philadelphia Remembers: Commemorating Toulouse and the Shoah

Rabbi Eric Yanoff led a procession from Temple Adath Israel to Merion Park to mark the shloshim (30-day mourning period) for the victims of last month’s massacre in Toulouse, France, and to commemorate the eve of Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

About 200 Hebrew school students and members of the community marched solemnly holding signs with photographs of the victims declaring:

  • We remember Rabbi Jonathan Sandler.
  • We remember Gabriel Sandler.
  • We remember Arieh Sandler.
  • We remember Miriam Monsonego.

They were gunned down outside of the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse simply because they were Jews. Rabbi Yanoff led the march to the stream in Merion Park where every year at Rosh Hashanah the community comes to say the tashlich prayer and expunge their sins in living water. After his remarks, he led the crowd in a recitation of kaddish in memory not only of the Toulouse attack victims, but of all who perished l’kiddushat hashem — in sanctification of the Holy Name. As we were approaching the eve of Yom Hashoah, we were especially mindful of the six million Jews who were martyred during the Holocaust.

May their memories be a blessing to us all. Zichronam l’Vracha.

More after the jump.
Helen Loeb who grew up in Toulouse shared her feelings.

I remember when my husband called me to tell me about the shootings on that tragic Monday. I just could not believe it. We always had some kind of security around Jewish buildings in Toulouse but we never took it seriously. Somehow, we felt nothing would happen in suburban Toulouse. I now feel that anything can happen anywhere and it is very hard to build security. I am thankful to Rabbi Yanoff of Adath Israel for organizing this event. It feels good to see how people came to march for the victims on this shloshim. As it happens it is also Yom Hashoah. Let us all pause today and recite Kaddish to remember the victims of antisemitism, then and now.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.

“They Were Our Neighbors”: Our Class at the Wilma Theater

The Wilma Theater begins its season with the United States Premiere of Our Class, written by Polish playwright Tadeusz Stobodzianek (translated by Ryan Craig) and directed by the Wilma’s Artistic Director Blanka Zizka.   Based on true events in the Polish village of Jedwabne and inspired in part by Princeton History Professor Jan T. Gross’ controversial book Neighbors, Our Class chronicles the lives of ten classmates from their childhood in the 1920s to the beginning of the new millennium.   While it is difficult not to be moved by the tragic subject matter, the play’s overwrought writing, full of sensational and clichéd plotting, does not, finally, succeed in translating the events that happened in Poland into an artful, engaging evening of theatre.  

More after the jump.
On the sparse set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, you witness the haunting barn inside which 1600 Jews were murdered, burned to death not by the Germans, but by their fellow Polish citizens.   Slobokzianek’s play raises important questions: how can neighbors be moved to murder neighbors, and how does one survive the aftermath of such atrocities?  How do individuals and societies lives with or bury the memory of such deeds?   Unfortunately, the story itself is not told in a compelling, original manner but too often falls into clichéd writing.  For instance, at the opening of Act 2, Wladek, a Pole who must clean up the burned Jewish bodies describes how the bodies were chopped up: “It was horrific.  It made me wretch. I threw up.”   This kind of writing does not add anything to either our understanding of the events nor, more importantly to the character’s development.  

The characters remain wooden and empty vessels – types — who are not fleshed out human beings who one grows to care about.   Torture and brutality and murder and rape – we are well aware of the atrocities of crimes committed by Stalinists and Fascists; good theatre is powerful because it tells us a compelling story with particular details in an engaging way.  Unfortunately, by the time the fourth rape is graphically enacted on the stage I am repelled not by rape, but by the sensationalistic, unaesthetic depiction of actors on a stage.  This could be any rape anywhere and loses its power to move us.   Rather than making the murder that happened in this barn more real, more intimate, more personal, this piling on of characters and rapes effectively dulls us to the events.  It becomes an all too familiar and general tale of life gone very bad for a young group of class mates.  

Are these class mates – Catholic and Jewish, men and women —  the victims of historical circumstances or did they make choices? Unfortunately the play only hints at such questions but its focus seems to want to make us as uncomfortable as possible.   At the performance I attended a group of women left during the intermission.   I had the opportunity to talk with them and the director briefly.  Ms. Zizka, the director, explained that the play does not provide easy answers.   It depicts Jews who sympathized with Stalin as well as local Poles as being responsible for the crimes that occurred.   She said “The characters’ individual memories are subjective and even contradictory.  I admire Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s resolve to ground the play in moral rather than ideological concerns and to leave it to the audience to create their own picture, their own understanding of the events from this choir of disparate voices.”   The audience members with whom I spoke thought the play to be “too much.”  When pressed to state too much of what – they effectively said that the writing was not engaging, that the story was not told in an original manner.   “The characters are not individual, it’s not that the subject matter that is difficult, for I’ve seen many depictions of the Holocaust, but that the writing did not engage me.”  

Despite all of this, the acting is strong, with excellent performances by Kate Czajkowki, who plays Rachelka, a Jewish woman who converts to Catholicism; Michael Rubenfeld, who plays Abram, a Jewish member of the young Polish class who emigrates to America and becomes a rabbi; Ed Swidey who plays Wladek, gives a striking performance.  

In the end Our Class becomes a soggy tale with too much talk of vodka, beatings, hookers and broken fingers, and too little character development to make the play engaging which is a shame as the subject is an excellent one for dramatic adaptation.   Do we really need to know that “eels had eaten off his face.”  In the end, while I admire Our Class’ political and moral engagement with historical material, (for anti-Semitic vandals recently defaced a Polish monument that commemorated where the Polish Jews were killed, writing “they were flammable” and a swastika on the memorial) it fails to make it new, to give new expression to the Shoah.  This does not mean we shouldn’t see the play, and discuss it amongst ourselves — Jews, Poles, Catholics, priests and rabbis.    

After almost three hours of theater, I am left with a lot of chatter — song, dance, and a deluge of words in Our Class, but not what the quiet gravitas that great art may give us by knowing what to leave out.  I wish Our Class had left more restrained silences, more brokenness in its telling of the story of this Polish village.   The German poet Paul Celan’s ambiguous, often sparse poems, in their quiet, mystical restraint, are humble meditations about the Shoah:  “Count the almonds/count what was bitter and kept you awake/ count me in.”  
On Tuesday, November 1st: “America as Haven,”  A program of The Wilma Theatre and the National Museum of American Jewish History.  This program will examine the idea and reality of this country as a place where immigrants can find a new life.  Director Blank Zizka, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, will discuss her own experience alongside others with expertise of 20th Century immigration.  Actor Michael Rubenfeld from the production of Our Class, will read letters from the Museum’s collection written across continents between immigrants and their families.  Complimentary reception follows the discussion..   Held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East.

Our Class: October 21 – November 13, 2011
Where: The Wilma Theatre   265 South Broad Street   Philadelphia, PA 19107
Tickets: range from $39 to $66, available at the Wilma Box office 215 546 7824, visiting or at the theater.


The Future of Holocaust Memorialization: Altruism in Extremes

— Arthur Shostak

As before since an Act of the Knesset in 1951 we will again on the 27th day of Nisan (May 1, Sunday) mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day). A large crowd will gather on the Parkway in front of the first public monument erected in America to memorialize the 6 million Jews whose lives were taken between 1938 and 1945. With speeches, songs, and solemn ceremony we will honor a rapidly dwindling group of grey-hair direct survivors.

More after the jump.
All of this warranted homage not notwithstanding, the subject can actually be likened to a Third Rail of modern Jewish thought: we have learned since giving it a name in the 1960s that it is “charged” with power (in this case, negative emotional power). Given our druthers, we prefer to have as little to do with it as possible. Indeed, its connotations are so dark and foreboding that many parents shield their children as long as possible from any mention of it.

In November 2010, I used the Internet to reach 134 Jewish-Americans who, at my request, provided me with the 5 words they associated with then Holocaust in general, and concentration camps in particular. Most often mentioned among the 670 words – and arranged here in alphabetical order – were these five: death, horrifying, inhuman, pain, and sad. Cited three or more times were such words as Atrocity, barbaric, brutality, death, degrading, evil, family, fear, gas, genocide, Hitler, horrifying, inhuman, loss, Nazis, pain, sad, starvation, suffering, terrifying, torture, tragedy, tragic, unbelievable, unforgivable, and unthinkable.

American Jewish men and women, to judge very cautiously from this small and non-scientific sample, think of the Destruction (also known as the Shoah) as something “uniquely horrific and horrifyingly unique.” (Markle, 26) The subject “evokes perceptions of fear and despair, persecution and suffering.” Indeed, we derive much of our contemporary language of catastrophe ” from the Nazi destruction of the Jews.” (Doneson, 3)

To be sure, among the word associations there were a few positive terms; e.g., courage, educational, endurance, faith, family, heroism, hope, love, real, resilience, resistance, sacrifice, and survival. However, these made up only two percent of the total. All the more surprising, therefore, is the use made of many such words in nearly all of the 115 memoirs and scores of oral histories I consulted in my on-going study of the matter.

Breaking with Convention. My own list departs considerably, as it includes five brow-arching words (listed alphabetically) not included in it – the words Caring, Cooperation, Pathological, Unforgivable, and Vindication – three of which obviously warrant clarification.

Caring? Yes, as some Jewish prisoners in German occupied territories, in the ghettos, and in Annihilation Centers and slave labor concentration camps dared to try to help care for one another – even though this was strictly forbidden, at pain of punishment unto death. I call this stealth altruism, the secret and forbidden sharing of care in the Lager, and explore it in depth hereafter.

Cooperation? Yes, as some such prisoners bonded in informal care sharing groups (as by language, locale, nationality, politics, or religion); despite extraordinary pressure on them to go it alone, and even sell out

Vindication? Yes, as many such prisoners set out to prove they would and could resist dehumanization forced on them by the Nazis, and this helped vindicate their pre-camp faith in themselves and in others.

Holocaust/Concentration Camp word association lists (perhaps yours) commonly focus only on horrendous things done to the “Other”, what I hereafter join colleagues and commentators in calling the Horror. My list takes this into account, but goes on to also recognize what I call the Help, namely, ways in which some victims tried to share care and scarce resources (done for one another) at personal sacrifice and high risk of torture and death. My focus is on stealth altruism, a scarce, though nonetheless consequential behavior in which all of Jewry (and our Gentile friends) can take pride, a type of empathetic outreach we would do well to emulate.

Done to … done for … very different terms, each focusing on a different actor (the first, the Nazis; the second, their Jewish prisoners). They emphasize different behavior (the first, Nazi cruelty and punishment; the second, Jewish prisoner support of one another, even at personal cost and peril). Conventional lists and 60-plus years of Holocaust memorialization focus on ” done to the Other,” what I call the Nazi Story, one of unforgettable and unforgivable murder. My list goes beyond it to also include what I call the Jewish Story, or the provision by some Jewish prisoners of forbidden help (done for one another), as guided often by Judaism’s emphasis on mutual responsibility (we are our brother/sister’s “keeper” ).

In the concentration camps, stealth altruism ranged across a diverse and large continuum. At one end it involved such actions as outlawed hidden gestures (nods and smiles), which risked crippling beatings. At the other end, prisoners took forbidden in-the-open risks to try to save lives; e.g., Labor Camp, Winter, 1945: “We [ women] had to constantly keep a watchful eye on everyone [in the work crew] , especially the very young and old … Many had reached a point of lost hope … They simply stopped working [at digging anti-tank ditches in the frozen soil], sat down on the ground, and froze to death …We continuously attempted to provide [forbidden] encouragement and strengthen spirits … ….” (Farkas, 55) This sort of “done for one another” caring mixed commitment, compassion, and courage – in full knowledge of vulnerability to death from unpredictable SS actions.

Asked why such experiences in the camps had not embittered him, a survivor explained – “I learned about friendship in Auschwitz. When I was cold, strangers shielded me with their bodies from the blowing winds, for they had nothing else to offer but themselves.” (Lustig, in Eliach, 107). That shield, and 101 “done for … “counterparts, helped secure still another day, and thereby physically and spiritually aided otherwise unbearable lives.

The Nazi Story – our long-standing preoccupation – does not help us frame the kind of questions that allow us to ” make the human connections … [questions] which lie at the root of all purposeful inquiry. [It leaves] the repetitive cruelties, the blank anguish of pain and despair, indecipherable.” (Clendinnen, 3) We can and must move beyond it.

With like-minded others I worry that a Judaism ” preoccupied with death and destruction [the Nazi Story] is in danger of substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah’ s insistence on Life.” (Freedman, 344) Life-promoting done for material warrants more attention than ever in a new Holocaust Narrative. For much as in the case of our relationship as Jews to the Bible, so also as regards the Destruction – “… every generation is
expected to bring forth new understanding and new realization.” (Heschel, In the very near future the last of the direct survivors (and perpetrators) of the 1933-1946 Holocaust will pass away. In the aftermath we will inherit responsibility for shaping a fresh telling of the greatest crime of the 20th century, a persuasive re-telling that should lend a special meaning to 21st century life. We could break with memorialization tradition and adopt a new approach, one that emphasizes not the Horror of Nazi insanity, but instead the Help that victims shared with one another. Were we to do so Jews here and elsewhere would finally understand how very much we have to be proud of in the record of our co-religionists in extremis.

Background. As a pre-teen in the early 1950s I began a lifelong practice of seeking out autobiographies of survivors and novels that could help me understand what had happened in an abattoir almost beyond belief.

Unimaginable atrocities shook me to my roots, but I dwelled instead on rare accounts, as of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, of efforts made to stay human under conditions in extremes.

Likewise, years later, on my second visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I found myself drawn more to a temporary exhibit in the lobby (“Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race”) than to permanent museum material (such as the Tower of Photos, the empty railroad car, the audio-visuals desks, etc.). It emphasized ways to help improve medical ethics, while also noting horrendous related Nazi crimes. A judicious balance of reform ideas along with a scathing condemnation of unforgivable acts, the exhibit gave me hope progress might soon be made in this medical matter.

In the summers of 2005, 2006, and 2010 my lifelong interest here had my wife, Lynn Seng, and I visit six European concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen, Plaszow, Ravensbruck, and Theresienstadt (Terezen) – the “model” Nazi concentration camp to which we went twice. Over the years we have also gone to several new and old Holocaust Museums here (including the newest such museum in Skokie, Illiniois)and abroad (Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany), to the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem (which I have visited seven times since 1971), and numerous war memorials in nearly a dozen European Out of Balance. I was left troubled by something I found everywhere over-represented. This crystallized when during a two-week East European tour in the summer of 2006 we became increasingly uneasy with the narrative shared by an American-born senior Professor of Holocaust Studies.

His tour, which included remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto, Schindler’s factory, the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, and two concentration camps, featured graphic stories galore of Nazi atrocities. No examples were ever shared of victims nevertheless trying to care for one another.

Nowadays, when I remember a Holocaust Museum or concentration camp exhibit hall, I recall five educational themes of very different weight: 60 percent or so of the material graphically documents unspeakable, gruesome crimes (executions, murder, torture, etc.). We gasp, recoil, and even avert our eyes. Fifteen percent or so explores slightly less horrific material, such as vandalized shops, schools, or synagogues. Ten percent or so explores the post-liberation lives of survivors (reunited families, newborn children, etc.), and another ten percent or so looks back on a pre-Holocaust bucolic scene of (false) security in pre-Hitler Europe. Perhaps five percent or less allows for the possibility that some of the victims may have struggled to keep in touch with their humanity. The covert creation of networks of mutual support under German occupation, in the ghettos, and in the camps, gets short shrift, if it gets any attention at all.

Rachel Korazim, director of Education at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum, puts the matter quite well – “We’ve managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images.

This is not Jewish history, this is Nazi history.” (Silverman) Is the current preoccupation with evil the only, or even the best approach – given the challenge we have to help keep the narrative consequential? Is a Holocaust memorialization strong in evil-focused motifs still our wisest course? Might a new balance of Horror and Help favor greater appreciation of the narrative?

In the Camps. Testimony to our will to stay human is available from Terezin, a “model” concentration camp that was actually a transport center to the death camps. Doomed teenagers there nevertheless created a literary magazine despite knowing any day they might see their registration number posted for transport east to the gas chambers. Their essays dealt with a wide range of subjects, from A to Z, except for the immediate plight of both writers and readers: Emphasis was put instead on matters that might help lift the spirit, rather than bruise it all the more.

Likewise, adult prisoners created a remarkable “university.” Over three years, the “school” had 520 lecturers (of whom only 173 survived) offer over 2,400 courses for hundreds of starving ghetto dwellers who might be transported at any time to their death. (Makarova, et. al.)

Emanuel Hermann, an adult student (who did not survive), wrote: “Cultural life in the ghetto was the only phenomenon that transformed us back into human beings. If after a hard day I could listen to Bach, I at once became human.” (Makarova, et. al.)

My Gentile guide at Terezin had a friend who had been there: “She tells me she got up at 5am to attend lectures. They were very secret and were held all over the village. She thinks the Gestapo knew and didn’t care [as all were under death sentence anyway], though all such activities were forbidden, and people could be hurt at any time.”

Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Emeritus Professor of Holocaust Studies, notes that “even in these [horrific] conditions, literature, music, theater, and art flourished. And, still today, the musical pieces, poetry, and plays made at Terezin continue to be heard around the world. … We must not only remember them, which is a cheap and superficial cliché – we must learn from them.” (Makarova, et. al.).

Felix Posen, a philanthropist who sponsored a book-length account of the “university over the abyss,” thinks it “beyond comprehension and language to explain how, in the face of starvation, disease, and death there continued to be the desire to lecture on the great issues of mankind; create artistic, literary, philosophical, musical, and other gems for the benefit of those still barely alive and those who might possibly survive their living hell … [This] is a proud, perhaps unique legacy … [one] which will continue to live long after mankind will barely remember hundreds of years from now at what terrible cost it was created.” (Makarova, et. al.)

Remarkable movies of actual camp experiences also help illuminate what Good can mean in the face of Evil. (Insdorf) A film version of Imre Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, has a young camp-savvy prisoner selflessly chose to mentor a 14-year old newcomer in life-saving skills. The boy and other non-observant Jews later look on admiringly from their bunker beds as four old men risk all by clandestinely marking the Sabbath. Likewise, characters in Stephen Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List (especially “Isaac Stern,” the accountant) risk their lives to help keep 1,100 other prisoners alive. (Romano 2006).

Especially revealing is a Cable TV film, Out of the Ashes, the true story of Dr. Giselle Perl, a Jewish female doctor forced in Auschwitz to work for Dr. Josef Mengele. She helped infirmary patients recover, even knowing they might be killed later that same day. Risking her own life, she secretly moved about the camp at night to perform abortions on about 1,000 otherwise-doomed prisoners (pregnancy was against Nazi rules), and, in some few cases, smother their newborns – an act of mutual aid en extremis.

The film’s depiction of her efforts to stay human remains with a viewer long after it has ended, for as Dr. Perl explains to confounded American immigration authorities weighing her admission in 1946 to the USA – “Auschwitz was another country.”

The maintenance of moral values … the matter of dignity and humanity … the possibility of an uplifting journey … these are the sort of topics whose neglect has left me troubled. These are what seemed under-valued and under-represented. I agree here with Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, who fled Europe as a child in the late 1930s. She doubts the soundness of building an identity alone or even primarily on victimization: “A community otherwise so ignorant of its sources that it becomes preoccupied with death and destruction is in danger of substituting a cult of martyrdom for the Torah’s insistence on life.” (Freedman)

One Survivor’s Tale. I learned more about all of this from a recent writing project I never expected to have as part of my life. In 2005 I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance near my Narberth, Pennsylvania, home of an elderly East European survivor, Henry Skorr. Over the next several months I tape-recorded 60 hours of his life history in Kalisz, Poland, and later, in Siberia. (During that time the Spielberg camera crew filmed two sessions with him.) With help from Ivan Sokolov, a graduate student who recorded and transcribed far more hours than I, and Ann Weiss, another Holocaust writer, we saw the project through to its 2006 publication as a remarkable 384-page autobiography, Through Blood and Tears: Surviving Hitler and Stalin.

Quick to deny singularity, Skorr insists each person in his book, only some of whom “bested the evil that attempted to destroy us, endured equally as horrific, sensational, and sometimes uplifting journeys”. A total stranger, for example, hid him under her large skirt when German soldiers suddenly searched a train station in which they sat.

Later this older Jewish woman shared what little food and money she had to help him make his escape, explaining with a smile he needed it more than she did. A Jewish blacksmith took his little brother under his protection when they were all captives, and, defying a German officer, saved the boy’s life when Skorr could not do so. Over and again Henry details “uplifting” situations of mutual aid given at peril of life.

On November 9, 1939, for example, at considerable risk, Skorr’s father, a popular kosher butcher hastily rushed a gang of local Jewish gangsters to a small town bordering on Germany. There, under his leadership, they rescued German Jews who had arrived earlier that day fleeing from the “Kristallnacht” pogrom, only to find themselves then seriously threatened by Nazi-allied Polish townspeople. Skorr’s mother, in turn, regularly sheltered and fed dazed and distraught Jewish refugees, although her own large family had less and less. Many of their besieged neighbors (though by no means all) warned one another about surprise Nazi sweeps of households, and in other high-risk ways, desperately sought to remain neighborly.

Skorr himself, after barely escaping from a Nazi death squad, made his way in shock and despair to a precarious safety in Russia – only to almost immediately turn around and, to the astonishment of all he encountered, retrace his steps back home. Once there, he took charge at age 17, gathered family and neighbors together, and led them from Poland to (relative) safety in the harsh lumber camps of Soviet Russia. His story, as assessed by his publisher, Sir Martin Gilbert, a Holocaust historian, is not only about “courage and survival, but also of the maintenance of moral values in the face of Nazism’s perverse determination to humiliate and degrade the Jews and force them to lose all dignity and humanity.”

Finding a Balance. It is time the dark and complex puzzle we know as the Holocaust included aspects under-valued in present-day telling, aspects of a narrative that would highlights deeds worth emulation. We need to pay attention to what enabled besieged men and women, like Henry Skorr, Primo Levi. Eli Wiesel, and others, to maintain their moral values, dignity, and humanity? What combination of hope, integrity, morality, and strength enabled some to survive long after others had given up? What enabled some to trump their circumstance and defy a destructive script written for them by their Nazi captors?

An effort to establish a new balance of Good and Evil in recounting the Story will have opposition. For one thing, many concerned parties insist on staying focused on atrocities, the better to keep the flame of outrage burning. They identify the Holocaust exclusively with unmentionable horrors, and their preoccupation with abominations allows no room for any other consideration. Second, soupy homilies and airy platitudes might be advanced in place of confounding complexities. We must avoid characterizations of victims that are overly heroic. Finally, there are those who will always believe the enormity of the Holocaust overshadows any effort we might attempt to reframe it. They contend it should not be used instrumentally even if to promote the admirable cause of mutual care and This opposition notwithstanding, we can and should revise Holocaust educational and exhibit material. More attention should be paid to the efforts victims made to hold onto their humanity despite the depravity inflicted upon them. Scattered, out-of-sight, and often hard to secure evidence of fundamental goodness merits fresh exploration, this time in a creative and nuanced way. (My new book is rich in examples).

In the last analysis, strategies of memorialization are transitory and incomplete. As there is no “copyright” on ways the Holocaust will be remembered, we have room to re-assess where we chose to place our emphasis. To date we have under-valued how some men and women who suffered hardship struggled to overcome adversity. It is time we experimented with a re-balancing of the entire narrative – a re-balancing that might uniquely help meet critical 21st century spiritual needs of Jews and non-Jews alike.

In this way we can demonstrate anew our potential to help shape a finer future for ourselves and our progeny, a refutation of the Nazi insistence that only some (themselves) and not all of us have this awesome power and responsibility. Re-balancing the way we memorialize the Holocaust can help pass along a history that honors its 13 million-plus victims as never before, and promotes a future that honors us all.


  • Romano, Carlin. 2006. “Is the Crematorium Half-Filled or Half Empty?” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 22: B13.
  •  Shostak, Arthur B. 2007. “Humanist Sociology and Holocaust memorialization: On Accenting the Positive.” Humanity & Society, Vol. 31. February. Pp. 43-64.

About the author: Art Shostak, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Drexel University, retired in 2005 after 42 years of enjoying himself sharing ideas in such courses as Futuristics, Social Change and Social Planning, Social Problems, and others. He authored, edited, or co-edited 34 books and over 160 articles. He is currently finishing a book entitled Stealth Altruism: Jewish Care in Nazi Camps. He welcomes ideas and material for it, and can be reached at [email protected].