Educators Work to Preserve the Irreplaceable Testimony of Holocaust Survivors

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Rena Quint, who survived the Holocaust as a child, spent much of this week leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) speaking to groups about her traumatic early years and the rewarding life she has led since.

“This week alone I’ve been to Yad Vashem four times,” Quint said, referring to Israel’s national Holocaust center. “I spoke to a group of Catholic bishops, an American group, a Birthright group from Chile and an educators group from New Zealand. I told them my personal story, that I believe very strongly in God and the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland.”

In the continuing fight to educate the world about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and to honor the millions who were slaughtered, survivors like the 82-year-old Quint are a vanishing resource. As the youngest remaining witnesses reach their 80s, their inevitable disappearance weighs heavily on Holocaust educators, who believe there is nothing more effective and moving than face-to-face testimonies.

“I don’t like to speak of the day when there won’t be any more survivors,” said Shulamit Imber, pedagogical director of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. “My parents are survivors and I hope they will live many more years.”

Even so, Imber said, “we ask ourselves what we will do when the survivors are no longer here. To answer that, first we must identify what survivors offer us and what we learn from them.”

Rena Quint, who survived the Holocaust as a young child, often speaks to groups about her experiences during and after the Holocaust. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Quint was 3 1/2 years old in 1939, when the Nazis herded her family into a ghetto in central Poland.

Later, her mother and brothers were murdered at the Treblinka extermination camp. Someone managed to reunite Quint with her father in a slave-labor camp and he kept her alive by disguising her as a boy until he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was killed. By the time the Allies liberated her at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, when she was 9, she was the only surviving member of her family.

“To hear that 6 million Jews were murdered is overwhelming. To hear one story from someone who lived through the Holocaust makes a very strong impression,” she said.

While Yad Vashem has thousands of survivor testimonies in its archives, the importance of in-person survivor testimonies goes beyond anecdotal evidence, Imber said. In surveys, teachers who have participated in Yad Vashem’s multiday Holocaust education seminars listed face-to-face encounters with survivors as the most effective part of the program.

“You watch the survivors’ body language, see their eyes. They answer your questions and share their lives. They are moral authorities. They lived through the experience. You want to embrace their commitment to the memory of the Holocaust. There is nothing comparable to having them in the same room with you.”

The race against time has prompted Yad Vashem to create a contextual kind of filmed testimony, in recent years, in which survivors travel to their hometowns in Europe and to the places where they experienced the Holocaust most acutely.

“These are very powerful films,” Imber said. The survivors “go through a kind of journey. They are seeing and touching the homes they once lived in, a world that was lost. Something happens there, beyond the testimony.”

Yad Vashem is also actively encouraging teachers to use its extensive archive of diaries by Holocaust victims, many of whom did not survive the war.

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Source: Religion News Service