For Esther Finder it was a big project – one born out of emotion and deep faith.
Esther has been interviewing residents of Las Vegas who are survivors of the Holocaust.
She can’t say how many Las Vegas or Nevada survivors there are in total except to say that time is of the essence. Their numbers are rapidly diminishing.
“With this population,” she told KNPR, “you don’t mess around.”
These oral history interviews are now available for viewing and listening on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Who is a Holocaust survivor? They are not just people who survived a concentration camp?
“The general definition is if you spent any time at all, even as little as one day, under Nazi rule and you were alive at the end of the war, you’re a survivor. So, that includes people who were in hiding, people who got out, the refugees, and people who were in the camps.”
How is oral history different than just a conversation?
“For each of the interviews that I did, I did my homework. I did a pre-interview with the survivors. I got the general idea and I tried really hard not to ask too many specific questions during the pre-interview because I didn’t want them to say during the interview, ‘oh, didn’t I tell you that already.”
“What we did here was a post-Holocaust series. So we started with the end of the war and we went to how the came to Las Vegas.”
How do you get people to open up about their experiences?
“Often times refugees did not feel that they were entitled to speak because they were not in the camps… and I had this problem with many refugees over the years. They don’t feel that they’re real survivors, because they were not in Europe during the war. They were not in the camps during the war. And I keep telling them that it’s like trying to put together a great big jigsaw puzzle. And we have some pieces that are larger pieces of the puzzle and some pieces maybe smaller pieces of the puzzle but we have six million pieces missing. I wanted to get as many stories recorded as I could.”
Did you encounter re-occurring themes?
“One of the things that comes up with survivor testimony, especially survivors who were in the camps, the role of luck. You can be as resourceful as you can. You can be as smart as you can, but you had to have luck. If you happened to be on a transport where everyone on the train was killed, it didn’t matter how smart you were. It didn’t matter how resourceful, how talented. So, all of the survivors of the camps will reference in some way or another the role of luck.”
Did you find any common themes when you discussed what it was like to be an American?
That was one of my favorite questions in this series of interviews. All of them, all of the survivors I’ve spoken to over the years, have all expressed an appreciation for being in this country. For being full citizens in these United States, where they have a right, not just to religious freedom, but they can open their mouths and they can express their thoughts. And there are very few American citizens who are as appreciative of being here as Holocaust survivors.
What do you think of the rhetoric going on now about refugees coming from the Middle East?
“A lot of people will reference the Holocaust incorrectly and it’s offensive. It’s demeaning. It’s insulting. It shows that they really don’t understand. That’s the short answer. When it comes to the refugee question that is very complicated. Nobody wants to bring terrorists in. Nobody wants the innocents to suffer. So where do you find the balance. Certainly, back those many decades ago, there were questions being asked about taking in Jewish refugees because there could be Nazis hidden among them, not the same thing.”
Why are some survivors hesitant to tell their stories? Or request that the interview they give is hidden from family until after their death?
“I can’t answer that for all people. But I did have one woman who sit me down before she agreed to do an interview and interview me first and after she interview me, she said ‘okay, I’ll talk to you, but I didn’t want to talk to my kids, it’s not for my children to be burdened. It is for everyone else to carry this burden.’ Often times survivors are very protective of their children. Often times survivors have found it easier to talk to their grandchildren maybe because of the passage of time and they feel more secure. Maybe because there is a little bit of emotional distance. I’m not sure”
Do you think these interviews help ease the burden of surviving when others didn’t?
“A lot of people, not so much this Las Vegas series of interviews when I did the entire series not just post-Holocaust but the entire package, several of them said that they slept better. They got it out. It is now recorded for posterity and they slept better.
Esther Finder, president of Generations of the Shoah Nevada and a member of the Coordinating Council at Generations of the Shoah International.