Hearing survivor stories: Remembering the Holocaust

    Skokie, IL, USA - August 20, 2014: A view of 92 year-old Jewish Holocaust Survivor, Larry Heimlich of Chicago, one of few to survive Nazi Hungarian Arrow Cross slave battalions, reading a dedication plaque at the Holocaust Monument, public art located downtown on the Village Green between Skokie Village Hall and the Skokie Public Library. With the exception of his sister, Eleanor, all the members of his immediate family were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which included his mother Sari (Sarah), his father Marcus (Meyer), his older brother Herman, sister-in-law Rose, two young nieces and a baby nephew. An annual January 27th International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the closing months of World War II. Special memorial ceremonies around the world are planned for the upcoming 70th anniversary of liberation in 2015.

    On January 27, we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Back in November, I had the privilege of hearing a Holocaust survivor speak at the historic Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, D.C.

    This was now the second time that I’ve had the honor of talking with a Holocaust survivor and I fear that I may not get many more chances. It has been almost 75 years since the last concentration camps were liberated. These survivors are getting older and older and sadly passing away. It’s imperative that we hear and document their stories. We have to carry on their legacy and make sure that people never, ever forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

    My dad’s parents fled the Nazis and made it to the United States. I never got a chance to meet them and hear their stories. Every time I talk or listen to a survivor, I feel like I’m connecting to my family’s past.

    The first time I heard from a Holocaust survivor was when I was in high school. I was a part of a cultural ambassadorship program with a bunch of other high schoolers from the Atlanta area and we were spending some time in Austria. I was the only Jewish kid on the trip. After listening to the man speak to a room full of people, we took a tour of Mauthausen, one of the most well-known concentration camps. More than 95,000 people died inside its gates.

    I was the only Jew on the trip and I was both stunned and moved by the astonishment and emotion that I saw from my peers. I taught Holocaust history at Sunday school and the Torah that I read from at my Bar Mitzvah was saved from Nazis who wanted to burn it. The Holocaust is a part of our history and was a part of my life. For them, it had merely been a paragraph or two in a history textbook. Now, looking at a mountain of shoes that people used to wear, these people were learning it for the first time, and it’s something I hope they’ll never forget.

    I’m so glad they had the opportunity to not only see the camp but listen to a survivor. It somehow becomes much more real when you’re face-to-face with someone that went through one of the most horrible experiences that one could possibly imagine.

    This woman’s memories were so clear and so detailed. While it’s easy to say that the things that happened to her would be impossible to forget, as a woman now in her early 90s, she could obviously be forgiven for misplacing a few things. But she didn’t. She was matter-of-fact and told us her story from start to finish.

    This survivor grew up and lived in Hungary when the Nazis marched them out of town, loaded them onto cattle cars and sent them to Auschwitz. She came face-to-face with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz and then survived both Birkenau, the infamous death march and Bergen-Belsen until it was liberated by the British.

    There are still those who deny the Holocaust ever happened. As Jews, we must stamp out these lies at every opportunity. One of the strongest ways to do that is by listening to and spreading the stories of the survivors.

    It won’t be long now until the last Holocaust survivor passes away. Once that happens, our connection to this atrocity will be severed, but, thanks to them, our collective memory of it will never die. Steven Spielberg founded the Shoah Visual History Foundation and collected more than 50,000 testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

    Make no mistake, rampant anti-Semitism still exists in America and around the world. I experienced it against just last week when my synagogue was vandalized. Hearing and sharing and spreading the stories of Holocaust survivors is more important than ever so that we and our neighbors and our communities can snuff out any hint or ember of hate. We must never forget.