Saturday, October 01, 2022

When Michael Berenbaum came to Moriah a few months ago to talk to students enrolled in the Names, Not Numbers® program, I thought it was an interesting project, because remembering the past is all about people telling the stories of their lives. The students involved in the program are divided into groups of 4-6 students, and each group researches a Holocaust survivor and interviews him or her for posterity by producing a digital video they will present to their schoolmates. It’s an awesome project and I filed it in the back of my mind, to call it to the attention of some of my friends and colleagues in the Second Generation and Holocaust educators. And then Tova Rosenberg, the executive director, asked me if I would train students to do the interviews.

I started my professional life as a journalist in 1970, listening to people and telling their stories, and I began to learn about the Holocaust as a child, from what I heard from my parents, their friends and relatives—stories spoken in words that were out of context, stories with no chronologies, stories I am sorry to say, I was too young to understand.

I got lucky when Dr. Yaffa Eliach offered a course on the Holocaust in the brand new Judaic Studies Department at Brooklyn College, and I, as editor of ken, the night school paper and a daughter of survivors, took it so that I could observe a Holocaust education pioneer in action. After all, how does one teach the Holocaust?

We were given but one assignment—to collect our parents’ stories, if we could get them to talk. In 1972, very few people talked about the Holocaust. It was almost like the blind leading the blind. How do you rip open barely healed wounds by asking stupid questions? Is that going to get them to talk? Case in point: The first question I asked my father was, “Why didn’t you fight back?” And he asked me if I’d ever heard of collective responsibility. One man takes out one Nazi, he explained, and it is certain everyone who witnessed that will die. Do nothing and some may have a chance to live. And then he laughed.

I understood. And I knew I needed to learn how to collect the stories, the testimonies, of those who promised to tell what happened “Dorten” (there), to keep the promises they made to those who stayed behind and for the sake of future generations. I discovered that the older they get, the more eager the survivors are to talk before it is too late. Many of them have realized that the world hasn’t changed much. The genocides continue, and the stories must still be told. So they tell their stories, rip open old wounds, for our sakes, in their own attempts to make the world a slightly better place. Each survivor’s story becomes their ethical will, their Tzeva’ah.

I learned how to interview survivors from the best, from Yaffa and Bonnie Gurewitsch when they were at the Center for Holocaust Studies in Brooklyn, a tiny office in Yeshiva Flatbush. It was more complicated, albeit logical, than one might think. But thanks to those two incredibly smart women, I learned how to do it correctly, and found myself doing the oral history training workshop for the Second Generation on the first day of the World Gathering in Jerusalem in 1981.

Fast forward 40 years. As a lay Holocaust educator who has has earned her street creds, and as a professional journalist, I have interviewed hundreds of people including a list that would make me sound like a celebrity name dropper—from Nobel Prize winners to scoundrels, a Supreme Court justice, geniuses, media moguls, rabbis, movie stars, fashion designers and remarkable folks from every walk of life. By now, my husband and I have worked on dozens upon dozens of Holocaust survivors’ stories, published their memoirs, and dealt directly with the survivors and the survivor world since we were kids. When I understood what and how Names, Not Numbers® operates, I realized the concept was an answer to the question that has plagued Holocaust educators and survivors: How are we going to reach kids once we are gone? Who will go on to tell the tale?

Moshe Kinderlehrer, publisher of JLBC, introduced me to Tova Rosenberg, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of a roomful of 55 kids, 53 of them 3Gs, at Moriah in Englewood. They are going to research, interview, film, and present survivors to their schoolmates in a film they produce themselves. It turned out that Dr. Prager, the Moriah principal, was at the same Zachor conference I attended at HUC in November 1979 that led directly to the international movement of Second Generation and the creation of the first Second Generation group in New Jersey. Now his eighth graders were blowing me away, and you could see they had picked up some of Dr. Prager’s passion for the “holy work” of collecting testimony.

Just two weeks later, I was at MTA in Washington Heights, standing next to Rabbi Michael Taubes. We  have known each other a very long time. I was bringing my toddlers to Gan Rina, his mother’s nursery school in Teaneck in 1979 when I discovered the swastikas and curses scrawled on the walls that turned me into a Holocaust education activist—and sent me to the Zachor conference that very same weekend. The coincidences were crazy. As I stood in front of 20 very tall young men, I realized I had come full circle.

Only two or three of the MTA students raised their hands when I asked if there were grandchildren of survivors in the course. When I asked why they volunteered, they said they felt a moral obligation to do the work. That is cause for hope. It means the mission of collecting stories has gone beyond people who carry the familial obligation of becoming what is known as the “memorial candle,” recorder of the family history. These kids have taken upon themselves, as volunteers, the painful obligation of receiving the last of the eyewitness testimonies from those who were in those places, where Jews did not perish—where they were repurposed and murdered by design, wherever they were. They survived in the camps, ghettos and forests, in hiding, in holes, in caves, in tunnels, by passing on the other side. Wherever they were, they survived because they promised to tell their stories for those they left behind, and these students are committed to hearing their stories and transmitting them to future generations.

They give us, the Holocaust educators and activists, hope for the future because they have become the guardians of those painful but vitally important memories.

By Jeanette Friedman

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