As The Holocaust's Youngest Survivors Approach 70, What Will Become Of The Oral History?Morgan Shanahan
Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler shows the prisoner number tatoo on her arm to Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eddie D. Harrison Jr. after sharing her experiences with Sailors at Navy Public Affairs Support Element West during the 2011 Holocaust Days of Remembrance. Image courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Imagery on Flickr.
I recently read a story that’s stayed with me in a way I can’t shake. It’s not a particularly new story — Canada’s National Post published it’s portrait on Holocaust Survivor Miriam Rosenthal, a woman who in the 1940’s found herself pregnant and imprisoned at Auschwitz, nearly a year and a half ago, but I somehow stumbled across it in my internet travels just a week or so ago and it’s been haunting me ever since.
Miriam’s story of being separated from her husband and held prisoner by the Nazi regime while trying to hide her pregnancy (fearing for her life) is harrowing. The story of how she was spared the gas chamber due to technical failures, sent instead to a secret barracks with six other pregnant women who would give birth to healthy babies at Dachau before the camp was liberated before ultimately being reunited with her husband, is uplifting to say the least. But that’s not what’s haunting me most about Miriam’s story. What’s haunting me most is that her son Leslie and the other six miracle babies of Dachau, some of the Holocaust’s youngest survivors, all of whom are still alive, but too young to remember the horrific world they were born in to, will turn 69 this year.
As a kid, it was commonplace. Someone’s grandfather would come in to our sunday Hebrew School class, bearing bagels no doubt, and after everyone got acquainted with Poppa, or Bubbie, or Nana, or every once in a while an aunt or an uncle, they would sit in a chair and we would gather on the floor around them.
That’s when Nana would roll up her sleeve and show us the number on her then 60-something arm. That’s when your friend’s warm, friendly Poppa would set the stage of what his life looked like back when he was a teenager in Germany before the Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass — the night when the first 30,000 Jews, mostly young healthy men, were whisked away to concentration camps as their homes, synagogues, and businesses were looted by their neighbors while law enforcement stood by to protect only the non-Jewish establishments. The night he found himself on a train to a work camp and everything changed.
As a Jewish child in the 80s, hearing Holocaust survivors tell their stories and show their scars first hand was a privilege I often took for granted. I didn’t realize that our generation was the first to be gifted the oral history — fresh ears that didn’t need to apologize for sins of omission. I didn’t realize that when my father was growing up in an orthodox section of Brooklyn where everyone from the neighborhood doctor to the butcher to the elementary school teacher had a number on their forearm, no one ever uttered a word of what put them there. And most of all, I didn’t realize that by the time my own children reached their teenage years, their ability to sit and listen to a Holocaust survivor recount their story face-to-face would be increasingly scarce.
It’s a thought I can’t shake. How do we capture the depth that comes with a personal narrative once the people that lived that narrative are gone?
There has been another lesson I learned from the many survivors I’ve met over my lifetime that I want to capture for future generations. The lesson of rising above. The lesson of perseverance. For every lost family member, every recounted memory of a mother ripped screaming from her child never to be seen again, there was a love story, a family reunited, a new family formed. There was always the undercurrent of good in these incredible stories of evil. Love persevered. Children who lived through unimaginable horrors grew up to be well adjusted adults contributing to society and having families of their own.