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As survivors age, Holocaust educators rush to preserve their irreplaceable testimony

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

JERUSALEM (RNS) — Rena Quint, who survived the Holocaust as a child, spent much of this week leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) speaking to groups about her traumatic early years and the rewarding life she has led since.

“This week alone I’ve been to Yad Vashem four times,” Quint said, referring to Israel’s national Holocaust center. “I spoke to a group of Catholic bishops, an American group, a Birthright group from Chile and an educators group from New Zealand. I told them my personal story, that I believe very strongly in God and the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland.”

In the continuing fight to educate the world about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and to honor the millions who were slaughtered, survivors like the 82-year-old Quint are a vanishing resource. As the youngest remaining witnesses reach their 80s, their inevitable disappearance weighs heavily on Holocaust educators, who believe there is nothing more effective and moving than face-to-face testimonies.

“I don’t like to speak of the day when there won’t be any more survivors,” said Shulamit Imber, pedagogical director of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. “My parents are survivors and I hope they will live many more years.”

Even so, Imber said, “we ask ourselves what we will do when the survivors are no longer here. To answer that, first we must identify what survivors offer us and what we learn from them.”

Rena Quint, who survived the Holocaust as a young child, often speaks to groups about her experiences during and after the Holocaust. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Quint was 3 1/2 years old in 1939, when the Nazis herded her family into a ghetto in central Poland.

Later, her mother and brothers were murdered at the Treblinka extermination camp. Someone managed to reunite Quint with her father in a slave-labor camp and he kept her alive by disguising her as a boy until he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was killed. By the time the Allies liberated her at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, when she was 9, she was the only surviving member of her family.

“To hear that 6 million Jews were murdered is overwhelming. To hear one story from someone who lived through the Holocaust makes a very strong impression,” she said.

While Yad Vashem has thousands of survivor testimonies in its archives, the importance of in-person survivor testimonies goes beyond anecdotal evidence, Imber said. In surveys, teachers who have participated in Yad Vashem’s multiday Holocaust education seminars listed face-to-face encounters with survivors as the most effective part of the program.

“You watch the survivors’ body language, see their eyes. They answer your questions and share their lives. They are moral authorities. They lived through the experience. You want to embrace their commitment to the memory of the Holocaust. There is nothing comparable to having them in the same room with you.”

The race against time has prompted Yad Vashem to create a contextual kind of filmed testimony, in recent years, in which survivors travel to their hometowns in Europe and to the places where they experienced the Holocaust most acutely.

“These are very powerful films,” Imber said. The survivors “go through a kind of journey. They are seeing and touching the homes they once lived in, a world that was lost. Something happens there, beyond the testimony.”

Yad Vashem is also actively encouraging teachers to use its extensive archive of diaries by Holocaust victims, many of whom did not survive the war.

“Everyone knows about Anne Frank’s diary but there are thousands more, translated into many languages,” she said.

In one such diary, Moshe Flinker, a young refugee in Belgium, dreams of becoming “a Jewish statesman in the Land of Israel” years before Israel’s establishment in 1948. But he sadly acknowledges that it would “take a miracle” to free the Jewish people from the grips of the Holocaust.

Sol Nayman, who was imprisoned in a Soviet slave labor camp during the Holocaust, fears the day there will be no  survivors left to tell their stories. Photo courtesy of Sol Nayman

Flinker and his parents perished in Auschwitz.

Sol Nayman, who was imprisoned in a Soviet slave labor camp when he was a child, fears the day there will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories.

“There are fewer and fewer of us every day,” he said. “Our responsibility as witnesses is to educate young people about the Holocaust who can bear witness.”

Nayman, 83 and a longtime resident of Toronto, believes survivors also have a lot to teach about resilience.

“We went from death to life. We created families, we created homes, institutions, schools, great thinkers, great artists. We helped to create Israel. That is the strength of the Jewish people.”

Quint, who has nearly 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, said much of her resilience is rooted in her faith.

“The people I speak to want to know how I can have such a positive attitude. They ask me how I can be so normal. I believe very strongly in God,” she said.

Quint believes the value of relating her experience can go beyond understanding the Holocaust. Her listeners, she said, are often able to internalize the lessons she tries to convey by applying them to their own lives.

“Once, in South Africa, the warden of a woman’s prison asked me to speak to the prisoners. He told me that the women lose hope in prison. They wonder how, after being released, they can ever create a home, find a job, have a family.

“He wanted me to tell them that if I could make a good life after what I experienced, they can, too.”

About the author

Michele Chabin

19 Comments

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  • I met a man about 25 years ago who said he was a Holocaust survivor (and I assume he was). He had a shoe repair shop in America and I was there with him alone getting my shoes resoled. Although he spoke in generalities about it all and did not describe specific horrific incidents in the camps to me, it was quite a humbling experience for me to spend some time with him.

  • The Holocaust narrative does not stand the test of logic or reason. Since the Nuremberg trials some of the more outrageous claims have been dropped (Lampshades made of human skin, soap made out of human fat, pillows stuffed with human hair), which in and by themselves proves sections are false. In addition the official number has been dropped by officials in Poland (1988 Auschwitz official # of 4 million dropped to 1 million). That again changes the original narrative after the Nuremberg trials.

  • How did I know that our new Neo-Nazi poster would chime in with garbage here.

    Lying sack of crap is trying to revive long debunked garbage pretending the Holocaust did not happen. It should be noted that there has been nothing published by Holocaust Deniers ever since 2001. When David Irving self-immolated the entire position to the public in his attempt to silence a critic using legal process.

    For details and why nobody ever has to pretend Holocaust deniers need to be taken seriously or are simply excusably ignorant see:
    http://WWW.Hdot.org

    Oh BTW recent research has shown the Holocaust was FAR WORSE than previously reported throughout the decades
    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/has-holocaust-history-just-been-rewritten-astonishing-new-research-shows-nazi-camp-network-targeting-8518407.html

  • The reason we had a film like “Shoah” in the late 70’s and Steven Spielberg’s “Shoah Project” today is to preserve the oral history of the Holocaust from its survivors before they pass on. To commit it to film/video for posterity as a testament to those who survived and a warning to the future.

  • None of those claims were ever taken seriously by serious historians to begin with, so they being ‘proved false’ doesn’t throw anything about the wider event into doubt. Just like popular misconceptions about science in the media do not prove the validity of science has been misconstrued.

  • Yes they were taken seriously enough in Nuremberg and published in books and the media. The ugliness is that such accusations were made on such a serious subject. that means there were enough of people willing to say the most ugliest things against the Germans and a publishing houses too eager to accept that as truth. Once lies are told that puts suspicion on everything else.
    then in 1988
    The numbers were officially lowered in Auschwitz from 4 million killed or died to 1 million killed or died. that is a massive drop. To remove 3 million brings the number to 3 million instead of the standard 6 million held up at Nuremberg.

  • More systematic falsifications. None of those claims were even mentioned at Nuremberg during the judgements. The 4 million figure for Auschwitz was never taken seriously and thus never factored into the calculations for Holocaust victims. Even scholars in Communist Poland revised the figure downward.

  • Adina
    the 4 million Jews in Auschwitz made up the 6 million Jews claimed to have been killed or have died of various reasons. That is how you get your 6 million.

  • Complete fabrication. The 6 million figure comes from Lucy Dawidowicz’s studies who doesn’t claim 4 million died at Auschwitz. Other credible estimates are Hilberg (5.1 million) and Guttman (5.9million). Not one of these historians used 4 million dead at Auschwitz as a basis for their figures.

  • Adina
    Since neither one of us validates the Holocaust story of the other we have rely on logic and reason.

  • You are not relying on logic and reason. You’re driven by your irrational hatred of Jews and seek out false information that supports your view. Based on your recent posts you are more and more open about it. Thank Trump for making it possible to come out from under your rock. Be grateful that here in America you can freely push your ideas.

  • BS Jim, don’t try to judge me with your own racism. Logic and reason is always used in any occasion. People like you who shun logic and side with blind faith are the ones who hide lies. History is constantly revised because the information is sketchy. The Holocaust has already been revised. Read the comments above.

  • You are a liar who is giving stuff which has been examined and completely debunked in a public manner for quite some time. Holocaust deniers have nothing to do with the actual study of history.

  • I have been a student of history,
    especially WWII Germany for many. The facts contradict you and your theories. Simple as that.

  • Jim,
    Me too. I am an avid student of History and all students of history are open to debate on any aspect of history. That is part of studying history. I will be glad to debate some of those issues on the Holocaust you and I feel so strongly but stand on opposing sides.

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