Drawing Wisdom from Those who Survived

In this article from our archives, writer Rahel Musleah delves into the complex legacy of meaning survivors leave as they pass from the scene. Photos by Lisa Shifren.

Sometime after she was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1943, Regina Eisenstein was assigned to work temporarily in a storeroom, sorting possessions confiscated from victims. One day, she was so cold that she asked the guard if she could take a coat she found in one of the piles and wear it for the duration of that day’s work duty. He nodded his assent. Inside the lining, she found a wedding ring and hid it in her shoe. It was the ring she gave to her husband, Ben, also a survivor, when they married shortly after Liberation.

Following Ben’s death in 1991, Regina presented the ring to her daughter Bernice, a Toronto-based author and illustrator. Inscribed with the initials of a man who had been married in 1914 and perished in Auschwitz, the ring “holds all that I have come from,” writes Bernice in her illustrated memoir, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (Riverhead). She wears the ring as a "bittersweet inheritance."

That apt description captures the complex legacy survivors leave as they pass from the scene. “We are going to lose the first person singular, the voice of people who said, ‘I was there; I saw it happen,’” says Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies and director of Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta. “With their passing, this event which struck so many personally becomes more a matter of history.” Lipstadt’s memoir of the court case instigated by Holocaust denier David Irving, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, won a National Jewish Book Award.

Historians, families of survivors, and those who wrestle with memory and meaning stress that we can all draw insight and wisdom from the experience of the Holocaust—whether it is from an individual story of courage and resilience, the importance of family and community, the historical context, or the obligation to continue battling hatred and evil in our contemporary world. The Holocaust provides a prism through which we can choose to shape our own perspectives and refract our responses to global events, says Lipstadt, although she cautions that it should not be the only prism. “There is a danger in letting the negative shape our view instead of saying, ‘Look how we Jews have recovered and rebuilt.’”

Eisenstein praises that spirit of recovery, the “strong life force” with which her parents and their group of survivor-friends moved forward. “They were never far away from losses, but they found love and warmth. They were always getting together as a community, almost as a replacement for what they had lost.”

Lisa Shifren, an artist and adult life activity coordinator at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, says working with the members of the 80-strong Survivors Social Club that meets monthly at the JCC has motivated her to prize values she might ordinarily take for granted: family and freedom. “It makes me appreciate the time I’ve been born into as a Jew. I’ve never struggled, been hungry or oppressed,” says Shifren, who likens the survivors to grandparents.

Miriam Fromberg, photo by Lisa Shifren

Miriam Fromberg, photo by Lisa Shifren

Bluma Shapiro, photo by Lisa Shifren

Bluma Shapiro, photo by Lisa Shifren

Leo Bretholz, photo by Lisa Shifren

Leo Bretholz, photo by Lisa Shifren

Shifren adds that of the hundreds of seniors with whom she works, she can pick out the survivors just by talking to them. “Their stories are all different, but the common thread they share is a sense of gentleness.” Grace. Dignity. Humility. Compassion, the title of Shifren’s exhibition of photographic portraits of survivors, captures what they have imparted to her. “I’m inspired by their faith in God and in humanity,” she says. “They don’t forget what happened, but many are forgiving and non-judgmental.” Time is running out, she explains. “I wanted people to see what I saw in them…they are full of life.”

In Sala’s Gift (Simon & Schuster), Ann Kirschner explores her mother Sala’s capacity for courage and joyous self-renewal despite her internment in five Nazi slave labor camps. A diary and a trove of 350 letters her mother wrote and received from family and friends during that time reveal that even in the camps, she “found a way to be her own person. She risked her life to preserve the letters because they were an outward sign that she could assert her identity,” says Kirschner, university dean at Macaulay Honors College of The City University of New York.

Sala kept the letters—and her past—a secret for 50 years, until she was scheduled for open-heart surgery in 1991. The letters have since guided her daughter—and countless readers—back to “eternal emotions. They gave me a vocabulary for the values I’d been brought up with…Trite though it may sound, there is a new day and if you can reach inward to find the strength, you’ve succeeded. Know what makes you happy and make sure it’s internally generated and not based on fleeting things and feelings that can be gone in a flash.”

The project occupied Kirschner’s attention for 15 years and ends with her brother’s death from a brain tumor. “It never would have occurred to me when I began that I would have to face such a loss in my own life, but I learned that loss never ends,” says Kirschner. “Life isn’t about unalloyed happiness. The need for strength never ends.” 

The Holocaust has left Kirschner with the perspective that uncertainty is an ineluctable fact of life for which there is no possible preparation. “The reality that the stable ground you walk on is suddenly a yawning pit at your feet is…in my DNA somewhere. If there’s a plot twist in the future I can’t anticipate, when I am not fully in control of the story, how do I write the narrative of my life? My mother showed me her skills in improvising, in thinking on her feet, in reading people so she always found someone to help her.” Kirschner stresses that we shouldn’t be afraid to say the Holocaust will “forever inform our sense of being Jews—yet we can’t expect that it will be the only way future generations will define themselves.”

Kirschner calls her responsibility to share her mother’s story a gift. During her book tours, for example, high school and college students who may feel their “worlds have gone upside down” connect deeply with the young Sala. Other readers have been inspired to revisit the stories of their own parents and grandparents, looking at their own histories with new eyes.

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen and founder of the Jewish outreach organization Hineni, finds purpose in suffering. In her book, Life is a Test: How to Meet Life’s Challenges Successfully (Mesorah), she writes, “Before…treasure is discovered, dirt and muddy sediment must be unearthed…This same principle holds true for treasures buried in the crevices of our souls.” Challenges and pain, she stresses, act as “wakeup calls which prompt us to look within our hearts and souls, to learn, mature and realize our full potential.”  

After the war, Jungreis, with her parents and siblings, immigrated to America where they became “builders instead of the hunted.” Her parents always opened their home to others, and Jungreis followed that example when she married (her father was formerly chief rabbi of Szeged, Hungary). “We were committed to building a better, kinder world…We built synagogues, schools and communities, and most important, we built lives. The struggle was no longer for mere survival but rather, for more meaning and more purpose.” Jungreis experienced loss again when her husband died suddenly, but she has continued her outreach work on her own.

“Even if the Holocaust would not have occurred, we as Jews have a collective responsibility to tikkun olam. The Holocaust is not that which impelled me to reach out to people,” Jungreis says. “From the moment God gave us the Torah, we understood that we have to live our lives not just selfishly but to give back. Like a nursing mother, the more we give, the more we have. The moment we stop giving, we become sterile.” The key for contemporary Jews is to become intelligent, knowledgeable Jews, she says. “God sends us messages all the time so we can find our mission in the world, Holocaust or no Holocaust.”

“We have to draw on the wisdom we’ve always had: to be a decent person,” says Bernice Eisenstein. “Be compassionate to all those who suffer. That’s not an easy thing.” To face the despair the Holocaust can engender, Eisenstein views it with black humor. “If I’m going to look into the abyss, I still want to shake it up and see what’s absurd and ironic. The Holocaust is the biggest banana peel the 20th century ever slipped on. That’s not a shtick, but a way to raise questions from a different angle. How did the banana peel get there? Who put it there? How do we avoid it next time?” Her children now have her book to help them understand.

To those who view the Holocaust as just one more example of human cruelty, Kirschner says: “The Holocaust must not simply be another in a series of tragedies…That implies a terrifying inevitability. I don’t want that level of acceptance. I want to say, ‘Let’s be vigilant,’ not just on our behalf but on everyone’s behalf. We can’t say nobody helped the Jews during the Holocaust and then say we can’t help other people if they are not Jewish.”

The Holocaust has bequeathed a powerful longing for justice to Eva Hoffman, a child of survivors and author of After Such Knowledge: Memory, History and the Legacy of the Holocaust (Public Affairs), a New York Times notable book. The most immediate and palpable level at which we can affect others is by “relearning the old art of empathy and sympathy,” she says. But on a broader level, the Holocaust demands that we learn more about how horrific events unfold and that we create ways of intervening in their early stages.

“The Holocaust should be studied in a comparative context, alongside Cambodia and Rwanda…as well as a template for understanding how groups can live side by side and suddenly erupt in terrible violence,” Hoffman says, delineating some of the questions that cry out for study: understanding the minds of perpetrators, learning about patterns of rescue and survival, exploring how majority and minority populations interact, establishing principles against atrocity. “To learn from history is not the same as to cure or prevent it,” she writes. “Nevertheless, we must keep trying.”

Hoffman distinguishes between the memory of the Holocaust—which only survivors can claim directly—and its aftermath. We don’t inherit the memories automatically because we are Jewish, says Hoffman. “To understand the Holocaust is a strenuous task.”

Lipstadt speaks out strongly against the genocide. “Will I make a difference? I doubt it. Maybe a little. But my protests will make a difference in my ability to live with myself.” When she teaches the Holocaust, however, Lipstadt says she does not impart moral lessons. “My job is to teach history in a sophisticated, nuanced way and let the students do with it what they want. I don’t preach to them. The information stands on its own and if the students can’t figure out the lessons, something’s wrong.”

She steers clear of generalizations about the survivors as a group. “They went in as separate people and they came out separate people. Some were kind and loving people before they went in; some were not. Some were believers; some were not. After the war, some succeeded; some had trouble putting their lives back together. Some talked about it; some never did. Some came out religious; some didn’t.” On a historical level, she also strives for balance. “When people say they want to do harm to you—take it seriously... but to compare what is going on now to Europe or Germany [in] 1939 is to allow a sense of hysteria to pervade the community.”

Linking the Holocaust to Jewish identity, Lipstadt says, is intellectually and educationally dangerous. “I love my Judaism. It’s one of the primary factors in shaping who I am…If I make the Holocaust the primary factor in my identity, then my identity is dependent on the Nazis. I have a strong Jewish identity not because of the Holocaust, but despite the efforts of the world to try to destroy us.”

Lipstadt is a member of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum’s Committee on Conscience, which is mandated by Congress to raise the alarm on contemporary genocide. Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director, says the museum fosters understanding and debate about what went wrong and how we can prevent it from happening in the future. The main exhibition puts emphasis on the period in which the Holocaust could have been prevented, she says.

“People have the impression that the Nazis came to power and began to kill Jews right away. That didn’t happen for eight years. We show step-by-step how all segments of German society became increasingly complicit, allowing the Nazis to gain and solidify power.” The exhibit also demonstrates the points at which the U.S. had a chance to respond and failed to do so, as well as responses from resistance and rescuers.

Bloomfield, who does not come from a family of survivors, says the premise of the museum is that understanding the Holocaust is a way to understand our world. She quotes Elie Wiesel, one of the museum’s founders, who said that a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past. “The Holocaust can shed light on the entire spectrum of human behavior, from extreme evil to extreme goodness and everything in the middle—where most of us reside. It’s a cautionary tale about our species,” notes Bloomfield, adding that the global nature of the world today, where information and misinformation are so easily available, compounds the dangers. 

What can we do to protect us against our worst selves? “There’s no list of the top five things to do,” Bloomfield answers. “It depends on how people view their own roles in society. For some it remains a personal matter. For others it is professional.” One of the museum’s educational objectives is to train police officers, new FBI agents, clergy, diplomats and military personnel to examine the contemporary issues they face by examining the failures of institutions in Nazi Germany.

Bloomfield points out that the word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Rafael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who lost his family in the Holocaust. He hoped that legalizing the term would hold people accountable and deter them. Although the United Nations General Assembly declared genocide an international crime in 1948, some people wonder how much it has helped, says Bloomfield: “Look at Darfur.”

“If we don’t study history,” Bloomfield says, quoting historian Daniel Boorstin, “it’s like trying to grow flowers with cut leaves. We have a lot of documentation, photographs, archives and artifacts. We do all this education, but the most powerful memorial to the victims is that out of memory, we will make it different the next time. That, to me, is the ultimate memorial.”

Seven decades after the Holocaust, its looming presence has inevitably receded, says Hoffman. “It’s necessary to separate the past from the present and judge the present on its own terms. The moment of that separation, of letting go, is a poignant one, because it is akin to the giving up of mourning. There is pain in the very diminution of pain, the danger that time will dilute morality as it dilutes passion.” Though it may even feel like a kind of betrayal, it’s necessary, she adds. “Jewish tradition that says we must grieve for the dead fully and deeply, but that mourning must also come to its end.”

Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author, singer, educator and speaker.

Lisa Shifren, the photographer whose work appears with this article, has taken 31 portraits of Holocaust survivors. Her portraits are being exhibited in the spring of 2016 at The Pennsylvania State University Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies in Middletown, Penn. She hopes to compile them in a book, if she can obtain funding.

Shifren is passionate about her endeavor and has collected biographies and photos of the survivors’ early lives which she displays with the portraits. Her exhibit has become a resource for Holocaust education.