Those of you who read my book POMORSKA STREET may recall the part I wrote then about the Holocaust Remembrance project in Belgium that Clara Hellman was trying to start. It's good to know that such an effort is being actually made. I think you'll find this article worth reading.
Simon Gronowski was a child when he
jumped off a train heading to Auschwitz, after being held in Belgium. Cédric
Gerbehaye for The Wall Street Journal
Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this
small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz
and hiding from the Nazis for three years.
The students lobbed close to 50
questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated—"Did you meet Hitler
?"—to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister
who stayed on the train.
But the talk exhausted Mr.
Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn't hear that well, and it isn't clear
how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop.
"My children and my grandchildren will talk about it," he said.
"I can't do any more than I'm doing."
Barracks in Belgium where Simon
Gronowski was held. Kazerne Dossin
Mr. Gronowski's plight underlines an
increasingly urgent problem facing those seeking to memorialize the Holocaust:
Nearly seven decades after World War II ended, the final survivors are aging
and dying off, making it immensely harder to convey the tragedy's reality,
which has become only more engraved in public sentiment since a large trove of
Nazi-confiscated artworks was recently disclosed.
A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz
was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults
during the war. "Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real
life," said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child.
"But we have no choice. We can't live forever."
Mr. Gronowski's mother and sister
didn't survive. Cédric Gerbehaye for The Wall Street Journal
The Claims Conference, which
negotiates with Germany on payments to survivors, says roughly 160,000 people
remain world-wide who lived in Nazi camps or ghettos, or who hid during the
war. But that is a broad category, and many are frail or isolated, so the
number of active witnesses is a fraction of that, especially in some specific
cases. Of the 850,000 people slated for extermination at the Treblinka death
camp in Poland, for example, 67 survived the war. Of those, two remain,
according to the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom in Treblinka.
Figures for camps that focused on
forced labor rather than killing are more complex, because more inmates
survived and moved among camps. Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, had roughly 50,000
inmates at liberation, though about 10,000 died within weeks. Today, the
Bergen-Belsen Memorial and Museum knows of about 2,000 survivors.
The world's Holocaust memorials are
scrambling to react. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel's Yad Vashem
are accelerating their collection of personal artifacts like dolls and diaries.
Almost all Holocaust museums now feature eyewitness recordings. The Shoah
Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, is developing holograms of survivors
that can interact with visitors.
But these are responses, not
replacements. After the war, Holocaust survivors were initially slow to speak,
partly because a world focused on healing didn't seem that interested. But a
desire to scrutinize the Holocaust has grown sharply over the decades, and a
few years ago survivors began telling their stories, driven by a need to rebut
Holocaust deniers and a recognition that they wouldn't be around forever.
Now talks by survivors are a central
way the story is told, and the looming loss is evident each time they speak.
Chil Elberg, 89, who was held in a dozen camps, addressed about 180 teenagers
recently in Brussels, at one point rolling up his sleeve to show his Auschwitz
tattoo, number B-10785. "There are people who say it never existed. This
way, you know," he said.
Mr. Elberg recounted arriving in
Auschwitz, seeing the giant flame from the crematoria and thinking, "This
is the end." His family was immediately killed, but he was assigned the
task of transferring bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria. He
ultimately survived the war by adopting the identity of a political prisoner
who had recently died.
The students were transfixed, their
hands occasionally flying to their mouths as Mr. Elberg spoke. "It's
shocking to know we are [among] the last to hear him," Jessica Kraaijer,
17, said afterward. "In 10 years it will only be teachers and people like
us who know the stories."
Of the roughly 1,800 Jews on Mr.
Elberg's train from Belgium to the camps, 18 survived the war, and Mr. Elberg
said he believes he is the only one still alive.
The survivors' moral credibility
lets them speak to power in a way others can't. When President Barack Obama visited Yad Vashem in March, he appeared moved by
a private conversation with its chairman, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was
liberated from Buchenwald at 7 while hiding under a pile of corpses. Mr. Lau,
one of the camp's youngest survivors, is now 76.
Auschwitz inmate Paul Halter, a leader
of the Belgian resistance, created the Auschwitz Foundation for research and
education and personally spoke to about 1,000 groups. He told stories only a
survivor would know—like how guards killed a prisoner one frigid day by dousing
him with water, then forcing other inmates to watch him freeze to death.
Mr. Halter can no longer tell his
stories, having died in March at age 92.
The survivors' passing is a
world-wide phenomenon, but in a sense it is more dramatic in Europe because
this is where the Holocaust happened. Survivors often returned to their old
neighborhoods after the war, and some are living there still.
In Belgium, the Nazis deported
25,482 Jews, and about 1,250 survived the war. Of those, at most 20 to 30
remain, said Henri Goldberg, a friend of Mr. Halter's who now heads the
Mr. Halter is among those featured
in "The Irreversible," a new book on the final survivors by Polish
photographer Maciek Nabrdalik. Mr. Nabrdalik started the project after a 2009
trip to Auschwitz, when he noticed inmates' obituaries posted by the gate
At least 10 of the 42 survivors he
photographed for the book have since died. "I think this was the last
moment to start it," Mr. Nabrdalik said.
Libraries and other institutions are
trying to help by recording survivors, while museums are hustling to gather
wartime belongings, which can tell moving stories in themselves. Yale
University's Fortunoff Video Archive has recorded more than 4,400 testimonies;
the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California has
close to 52,000.
The most eye-catching effort is the
Shoah Foundation's project to create lifelike holograms of survivors, which
aims for completion within five years. Visitors will be able to ask the
"survivors" questions and, if it works, receive natural-seeming
Some find such re-creations
inappropriate, even vulgar. "It ends up being like a fictionalization
technique," said James Young, professor of English and Judaic studies at
the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "It's like creating a survivor.
There is something robotic about it."
Stephen D. Smith, executive director
of the Shoah Foundation, said that the project in fact honors survivors, done
in high-definition that helps create a beautiful image. "We're not trying
to trick the students—it's not a Disneyland ride or haunted image," he
Mr. Smith also said the holograms
won't be unveiled until the technology has matured "to the point that it
does justice to the subject." Another consideration is the survivors
themselves. While they are alive, he said, "we don't want to pre-empt them
and say, 'Thanks very much, we'll now replace you with a true lifelike version
of you.' "
The questions raised by the
survivors' aging go deeper than educational techniques. With their fading, the
Holocaust is transforming from memory to history, and it is now being fitted
into its long-term place in the Western narrative.
The question is where that place is.
Some museums are trying to keep the Holocaust relevant, as survivors age, by
putting it in the context of more recent atrocities. Belgium recently opened a
"Museum on the Holocaust and Human Rights," and it seeks to tie the
tragedy to recognizable daily problems.
A film near the entrance shows
episodes of playground bullying and workplace harassment, then moves to
apartheid and lynching before arriving at the Nazis. On another floor, a wall
features a photo of a delirious crowd at a music festival, to illustrate mob
The museum focuses primarily on the
Holocaust, and its displays are affecting, but some Belgian Jews are unhappy
with its broad lens—"There is not enough feeling from the Jewish
deportation," said survivor Denis Baumerder. It is an expression of a
broader dispute between those who see the Holocaust as unique, almost outside
history, and those who want to place it firmly in the flow of historical
Steven Katz, director of the Elie
Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, criticized the idea of
including harassment in a Holocaust museum. "Not that bullying is not a
terrible thing; it's a very serious issue," Mr. Katz said. "But it
trivializes what happened at Auschwitz and Treblinka."
Museum director Herman Van Goethem
said the point isn't to compare the bullying with the Holocaust, but to explore
the origins of mass violence in a way that is relevant to ordinary people.
"If you start with the Holocaust, you can't understand it," Mr. Van
Goethem said. "You have to start at the beginning of the chain of
Such disputes will likely become
more pointed as the tragedy moves beyond memory and educators search for ways
to tell the story. For now, people like Mr. Gronowski are doing their best to
simply pass on their experiences.
Mr. Gronowski, who favors jeans and
sweaters, is a small, sturdy figure, resembling an aging Picasso. An amateur
pianist, his dream is to play with Woody Allen, the comedian-clarinetist—an
improbable vision, perhaps, for an 82-year-old French-speaking Belgian.
In March 1943, when Mr. Gronowski
was 11, Gestapo officers burst into the home where his family was hiding and
arrested him, along with his mother and sister. A month later, the three were
crammed onto a train carrying about 1,500 Jews to Auschwitz.
By chance, this was the only train
of Jews to be successfully raided during the war, stopped by three young
resistance fighters. As the train slowed, prisoners in young Simon's train
forced the car door open, and as it sped back up, his mother held him outside
Simon ran all night through the
woods, finally locating sympathetic Belgians who returned him to his father,
who had escaped the roundup because he was in the hospital. Simon spent the
next 17 months hidden by various Catholic families.
But his mother and sister died at
Auschwitz, and his father died shortly after the war.
After he told this story at the
elementary school, a boy in a gray sweatshirt asked about the last words his
mother spoke to him. The answer: "The train is going too fast."
I was shocked when I saw this video about the unbelievable lack of knowledge our school graduates have about the Holocaust. The generation that lived it is fast disappearing and apparently the history isn't being taught. You must see this
From Venturing Into Our Past, June 2012 Issue
(The newsletter of the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County)
"...Sara Applebaum talked of her four-day visit to Poland. Her father was born in Warsaw and the family lived in nearby towns. She started her part of the program by reminding the audience of how her family escaped from Poland and went to Siberia and then Kyrgyztan, where she was born, and lived briefly in Poland after World War II-then Belgium and finally immigrated to the U.S.
On her trip to Warsaw, they found the house where her family lived before the war in 1939. It is now an apartment house .
In visiting where her mother's family came from, Lodz, they found the house her great grandfather lived in until 1892. ...The current occupant refused them entry.
80 Pomorska Street and its rose garden
She noted the importance of going to Auschwitz to ...bear witness...that we did not all perish.
Sara Talked to JGSCV previously about her life story when she talked about her book Lost and Found, A Family Memoir, and her second book, a novel ... Pomorska Street.
A You tube must see: MADEMOISELLE-KEREN HADAR-English
For those of you who have read and enjoyed POMORSKA STREET, you know there is an important theme in it of honoring the Virtuous Among the Nations and an important character named Lisette. This You Tube video is a touching tribute to one such true case. It brought tears to my eyes.
Take a look at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QR6PC74--Is&feature=youtu.be
Then let me know what you think.