By Dave Schechter / firstname.lastname@example.org
The most nervous I have been doing an interview was with Esther, who served me a cup of hot tea and sat on a sofa several feet away. I could not help looking at the number tattooed on her forearm. I was afraid of asking a question or saying anything that would trigger a painful memory.
I recalled that interview, done when I was a young newspaper reporter in the Midwest, as I wrote an article for this week’s Atlanta Jewish Times about a world without Holocaust survivors.
One Sunday last month, I spent part of my morning on the phone with a teacher, the daughter of a survivor, about the trip she made with fifth-graders to the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.
That afternoon, when the weather outside was unseasonably nice, I was inside the Breman as three sisters told a packed auditorium stories of how their parents survived and came to make a home in Atlanta.
Two hours later I was across the street, at the Center for Puppetry Arts, to see a presentation on the life of Anne Frank.
That night I was back on my laptop, writing.
I spent at least a few hours daily for several weeks focused on the Holocaust. Beforehand, I considered myself relatively knowledgeable, but researching the article exposed me to much more than I knew. I am grateful to the people who shared their personal stories. I check my notes to keep straight which family suffered what ordeal, whose father survived which camp, and whose mother faced the Nazi “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz and lived to tell about it.
My parents lost no immediate relatives in the Holocaust, though there likely were branches on the family tree that did not escape that storm.
Technology already provides a wealth of recorded testimonies by survivors, film shot by troops who liberated the camps and exhibits created by experts (ranging from the architecture of crematoria to intimate histories of particular communities).
The same Internet that makes available so much corroborating evidence is also used by those who deny, doubt or diminish the Holocaust. A study measuring Holocaust awareness, released last year by the Anti-Defamation League, suggests that large numbers of people around the world are susceptible to such claims.
The 2013 Pew survey of American Jews asked for the essential elements of being Jewish. “Remembering the Holocaust” was the most frequent (73 percent) response, ahead of “leading an ethical life” (69 percent), “caring about Israel” (43 percent) and “observing Jewish law” (19 percent). Is remembering the Holocaust the most essential element of your individual Jewish identity? Going forward, should the American Jewish community develop a less Holocaust-centric identity?
Immersing myself in the Holocaust felt like time spent in a dark place. I confess to a few tears along the way. The shafts of light that entered came from survivors who talked of compassion, not hate; from the tales of parents who, even as they faced death, saved the lives of their children; from the selfless acts of Jews helping one another, knowing the potential consequences; and from the children of survivors, who proudly embrace an obligation to make sure that their parents’ stories are told, that their legacies are honored, so that when the survivors are gone, no one can say that they were not told, that they did not know.
As Yankl says in the play “Yankl on the Moon”: “As long as you can talk about someone, they are not dead.”
Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and the Middle East.