“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Holocaust educators racing to keep survivors’ stories alive

January 24, 2016 12:00 AM

Elizabeth Brown gazes woefully at an old photograph as she clutches it in her hands, standing in her Squirrel Hill apartment on a recent afternoon.

The picture of Ms. Brown with her sister and niece has worn over the years, but their faces still glow as they did in real life in the early 1930s.

That was before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and the Axis powers invaded the Browns’ home country of Hungary. It was before her family was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before she watched as her sister, niece and mother were hand-selected by infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at the extermination camp for his depraved human experiments.

“I talk to her sometimes,” she said, looking at her sister in the photo.

Ms. Brown says she still gets “goosebumps” recalling her experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz and on a monthslong death march, but she is part of the last living generation that can speak to the seemingly unspeakable happenings with first-hand knowledge.

Wednesday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops. But Holocaust educators are grappling with how to keep these stories — difficult as they can be to tell and to hear — from fading away with this last generation.

“That’s the most pressing question before us, and I’ve been working in this field for a couple of decades at this point and it was the question 20 years ago, too,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “Anyone who’s working in Holocaust remembrance, Holocaust education, is asking the question of what you do when you can’t bring a survivor in.”

Ms. Bairnsfather said 54 confirmed survivors live in the Pittsburgh region, although she said there may actually be more than 60 as more continue to come forward.

The Holocaust Center’s first exhibition in its new Squirrel Hill location is called “In Celebration of Life: Living Legacy Project.” The center moved from Oakland over the summer.

By the conclusion of the exhibition, which is ongoing, 29 survivors will give their accounts in written and video form.

The Holocaust Center also is preparing to release its second volume of “Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust,” which relates the true stories of survivors, resistance fighters and liberators in comic book form.

While organizations reach out to the survivors in hopes that they will be willing to document their stories, some survivors do so on their own.

Abe Salem, 96, a Polish Jew from a town about 50 miles from Warsaw who now lives in Squirrel Hill, wrote a book about his own life experiences about 10 years ago, “Just A Few Questions: Barbaric Stories from an Ordinary Life.”

Mr. Salem would tell anecdotes from his life to anyone willing to listen — often culminating in questions rather than answers — and his friend Cindy Harris helped him put them into his book in a cohesive order.

Mr. Salem escaped to Russia before the rest of his family was killed and the entire Jewish population of his hometown was “liquidated.”

“Abe was always asking questions,” Ms. Harris said. “He would say for example, ‘Why is it that I survived the Holocaust and so many other people died?’

“Did he get an answer or did he come to an answer? I think I would say he’s still asking the same questions. He still doesn’t know the answers.”

Oakland resident Yolanda Avram Willis, 81, a Greek Jew who was taken in by a Christian family while Greece was under German occupation, has begun working on her own book that focuses more on the heroes of the Holocaust rather than the unanswered questions.

Mrs. Avram Willis and her family left their hometown of Larissa near the east coast of Greece for the Greek island of Crete when the occupation began. The family eventually would return to Larissa, only to flee once again to Athens.

Both times they were taken in by Greek Christian families who put their own lives in danger by harboring Jews.

In Mrs. Avram Willis’ book, “A Hidden Child in Greece,” she writes about Greece’s Christian citizens, members of the clergy and government officials who helped conceal Jews during the occupation.

Their stories, she says, must not be forgotten.

“This is not just a book about a hidden child,” she said. “It is your ‘thank you’ … to those who put their lives on the line to save you. It’s the only thank you I can give to their great-grandchildren or their grandchildren.”

Another local survivor, Moshe Baran, 95, remains active by telling his own story to the public, whether he’s speaking to schoolchildren or writing entries for his blog “Language Can Kill: Messages of Genocide.”

Mr. Baran said he is, as was his late wife, a proponent of what he calls “clean language.”

“Language can heal, and language can kill,” he said, noting that Germany recently began republishing Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” “The idea is that if you’re present and something is said or something is done, you should react, because if you don’t, nobody else will.”

Mr. Baran’s idea of “clean language” rolls into a larger theme of Holocaust education that aims to prevent humanity from ever committing another atrocity comparable to the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews and millions of other minorities. As survivors continue to age, educators are in a race against time to document the stories that play into those themes.

When this last generation is gone, “it’s going to be a terrible loss, there’s no way around that,” says Ms. Bairnsfather.

But for Ms. Brown, who was rescued by American troops after Nazi SS officers had abandoned her and more than 100 other women in near-death conditions following a death march that lasted from December 1944 to May 1945, the lessons of the Holocaust are as real today as they were 71 years ago.

Her message may serve as an inspiration for those now rushing to make sure those lessons are never forgotten.

“Never give up. Never give up. Never give up,” she says emphatically in her Hungarian accent. “We have to go on. We can’t let them destroy us. We have to go on.”

Andrew Goldstein: agoldstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1352.

Pittsburg Post-Gazette

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