The week of December 14, 2014

Capturing the horror of the Holocaust for the selfie generation

By Allen Weiner

No matter your religion, nothing prepares you for your first visit to Auschwitz.

I had walked the steps at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and driven by Dachau, the German concentration camp outside of Munich. I even had a personal walking tour of the Warsaw Ghetto. Those experiences pale in comparison to a trip to Auschwitz.

It was a chilly, drizzly Sunday in September when my wife and I left our hotel in Warsaw for the 230-mile car ride southwest to Auschwitz, the most notorious of all concentration camps where, in World War II, a million Jews, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, and others were exterminated. A horrific icon of man’s inhumanity, Auschwitz has been the subject of books, documentaries, and Oscar-winning films: The Pianist, Schindler’s List, and Playing for Time.

The drizzle turned to a steadier rain when we reached our destination. Off to the left of a large cluster of buildings was a gravel parking lot overflowing with cars and buses. We walked with a mix of older adults, students, and young children. We joined a tour group with an English-speaking guide and exited the visitors’ center with a dozen others. Sunday was a busy day.

We made our way toward the barbed-wire gates. Here, one of the world’s most bone-chilling icons stares at you, just as it stared at those frightened souls forcibly rounded up from their homes and put on trains more than a half-century ago: a large black iron sign that reads Arbeit Macht Frei—“work makes (you) free.” From that point on, for the rest of the day, a black cloud of historical misery hung over our heads.

Nothing prepares you for your first visit to Auschwitz.

There are two sets of barracks running parallel about 30 feet apart. The complete tour is made by going through the individual buildings, each a representation of the lives of those held prisoner. As you enter the first few buildings, the mood of general sadness sets in, but for me, as I entered the second building, a wooden structure no more than a few hundred square feet in size, my dam burst and an uncontrollable flood of tears came flowing from my heart. There, in front of me, were giant glass-protected cases with beautifully preserved prayer shawls and prayer books piled in heap. In the next few minutes, my knees buckled as I saw large displays of suitcases, clothing, shoes, combs and brushes, all taken from the unsuspecting as they were driven from their homes.

The nightmare continues as you tour the squalid barracks where prisoners were forced to live like mistreated animals. The bathrooms were little more than open pits where individuals were timed with stopwatches to hurriedly deal with their bodily functions. And lest I forget, one building contained a huge glass-enclosed display case that was filled with hair that was removed from prisoners as they entered the camp.

The rest of that day is a blur. Our tour of Auschwitz ended with a visit to the crematorium that was used by the Nazis to kill their prisoners and the elaborate system of cars and tracks used to move bodies around. It is as ghoulish as it sounds. It is a memory that will not fade from my consciousness.

As we drove an hour from Auschwitz to Krakow to round out the day, it was difficult to look out the car window and not imagine the scenes a half-century ago when frightened prisoners, dragged from their home often in the darkness of night, attempted escapes by running through the woods that dotted the right side of our route.

Not a day goes back where, for me, some part of that day does not come back to life. It has been my mission, wherever I go, to talk about that trip in great detail and encourage others to visit this shrine to immorality.

Holocaust selfies

Not everyone processes the horror of Auschwitz the same. Much has been made of so-called Holocaust selfies, the growing trend of teens and adults posting photos of questionable taste at historic sites like the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin on the social Web.

For the purpose of educating future generations, I believe it’s important to put rhetoric aside and look instead at the value such acts have on keeping the discussion related to genocide and acts of injustice relevant. Each generation has its own way to capture a zeitgeist, and millennials use smartphone images as a means to create memories and share what’s important to them. No textbook or testimonial will have the power and relevance for future examination more than living scrapbooks taken on site at many of the world’s iconic places. A selfie with an appropriate, respectful caption could be a powerful tribute and a valuable educational asset.

Holocaust selfies illustrate the larger generational shift that’s taking place right now, and the struggle to keep that history relevant and impactful.

I am part of the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Its lessons stood before me in living color, and the nightmarish details were an essential part of the curriculum in both religious and public schools.

As a child, long before I had a say in my style of haircuts, I frequented Rudy’s barbershop on the corner of southeast corner of Roosevelt Boulevard and Tyson Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia in the early ’60s. Aside from lopsided locks, I remember two things: As a reward for sitting, the man with a strange accent and razor in one hand gave me two pieces of Double Bubble gum. I also recalled noticing a faded set of blue numbers on the inside of Rudy’s left arm. When my father explained what those numbers meant, a cold shiver went down my spine.

The two key factors behind the possible future lessening of interest in the Holocaust are the dwindling number of survivors and the attitudes Jewish millennials have about their faith.

Those fading numbers were a symbol of having survived the Holocaust of World War II. The marking were one of many means the Nazis employed to keep meticulous records on those imprisoned at places such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. Those who were fortunate enough to survive and disperse to the U.S., Israel, South America, or other parts of Europe carried an eternal, faded-but-ominous reminder of that hell on Earth. Holocaust survivors were commonplace in my neighborhood, an overwhelmingly Jewish area, and on Yom Kippur they stood in line outside my synagogue waiting to attend Yizkor (memorial service), which was free of charge.

To the vast majority of Jews in America, remembering the Holocaust is an important part of their identity. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that 73 percent of those surveyed said that remembering the Holocaust was essential of what it means to be Jewish. While that might represent the current attitude of Baby Boomers and Gen X, the future for holding that part of history close is likely to fade over time.

The two key factors behind the possible future lessening of interest in the Holocaust are the dwindling number of survivors and the attitudes Jewish millennials have about their faith. In the Pew Research study, when asked how important being Jewish is to your life, only 33 percent of those ages 18-29 viewed it as very important. That figure represents the lowest total in any age group surveyed. In this same age group, when asked to identify the essentials of Jewish identity, 68 percent said the Holocaust, again the lowest among all demographics.

While the majority of today’s millennials have a bond between their Judaism and the Holocaust, observers wonder what will happen as the number of survivors greatly diminishes. A January Senate hearing on the state of Holocaust survivors revealed that the rate at which survivors are dying is exacerbated by the fact that one-quarter of the estimated 190,000-140,000 are living below the poverty level.

“Holocaust survivors are growing older and frailer,” Elihu Kover of Nazi Victim Services for Selfhelp Community Services told the committee at the hearing. “The twenty-year-old who survived Auschwitz is now eighty-eight. She may be coping with the loss of her spouse and have no family to speak of. In addition to the myriad problems associated with so-called ‘normal aging,’ many survivors have numerous physical and psychological problems directly attributable to their experiences during the Holocaust. Prolonged periods of starvation, exposure to severe weather conditions with inadequate clothing, and experiencing and witnessing unspeakable atrocities take a severe toll on body and mind. And many of these problems only surface in old age, having been hidden during their working years when the survivors struggled and made a new life for themselves as productive citizens of this country.”

As a youngster, growing up in a time that was less than a generation removed from the Holocaust, it was the voice of survivors that my religious school classes met that provided a living history impossible to capture in any text or image. Understanding the need to provide a visual testimony of this vital part of his religion, director Steven Spielberg founded the Survivors of Shoah Visual History Foundation (now called the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education), which collected, via video, the stories of more than 50,000 survivors living around the world.

In a June 2014 interview with USA Today, Spielberg—who directed the 1993 film Schindler’s List, one of the inspirations for his work chronicling the survivors of the Holocaust—looked back over the 20 years since he started the Shoah Foundation. He spoke to the impact his project has had not only on preserving history but also its role as an educational tool.

“It’s given me an entirely new respect for the power of the moving image,” he said. “One of the greatest mitzvahs (good deeds) has been that survivors unwilling to speak to their children and grandchildren about what happened to them allowed not just their loved ones but the entire world to know their story through Shoah. Video testimony is a tremendous tool of healing and understanding.”

For what Spielberg dubbed its third act, the Shoah Foundation has launched IWitness, an interactive educational website, that makes those testimonies available to high school students, with the goal of getting them used in schools around the world. More than 55 countries are already on board.

Spielberg is not alone in his quest for historical sustainability. Two institutions, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, count continuing education among their goals. Christina Chavarria, a coordinator for the National Outreach at the Holocaust Memorial Museum who works directly with educators, says a key for teaching young students about the Holocaust is to make it relevant for today’s world.

I am part of the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Its lessons stood before me in living color.

“It’s important for teachers to build connection to the world today,” Chavarria told the Kernel. “We want to encourage teachers to personalize it and to teach along the theme of what choices we make in l and how those choices impact other people.”

On one of the educational themes Chavarria recommends to teachers is “collaboration and complicity.” “We think teachers can help students look at people like themselves and wonder what they were doing at the time (of the Holocaust). We want students to wonder what they would have done if they were living at that time.”

Chavarria acknowledges that the challenge of teaching the Holocaust will increase over time as the number of survivors drops. The answer, she hopes, will be in digital aids such as the museum’s rich website.

“Ten years from today, the challenges will be even greater,” she said, “but at the same time technology can be our best friend.”

The museum’s website has some compelling content that allows students of all ages in any location to investigate some of the details that help give a complete picture of that tragic time.

In a section labeled Learn About the Holocaust, the website includes a series of features, including one profiling the days that led to the liberation of Auschwitz and another on how Nazi propaganda became a vital force used to spread lies about Jews in Germany, Poland, and neighboring nations.

Replicating a feature that remains today at Auschwitz, the museum’s website includes a series of ID cards that identifies individuals who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

One such card read:

Henoch Kornfeld was born in 1938 in Kolbuszowa, Poland. Shortly after his first birthday, the Germans invaded his town and took over, killing many of the town’s Jewish population. In a chilling manner, Henoch and his friends re-enacted some of the brutal killings as if they were surrealistic cartoons. In July 1942, months before his fourth birthday, Henoch and his family were sent to the Belzec extermination camp, where they were murdered.

Keeping the history alive

In Israel, Yad Vashem is the second most-visited spot after the Western Wall. Started in 1953, the memorial museum and research center was established as a means to commemorate those who made personal sacrifices to save or protect Jews from Nazi capture during World War II. The current 44-acre complex now includes a remembrance museum that contains artifacts from the Holocaust, art from that era, and various exhibits that explain and educate visitors.

Dr. Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, told the Kernel that his organization’s mission goes far beyond a causal tribute or a simple tourist destination.

“The Holocaust has become part of the memory of human civilization,” Dr. Kaminka explained. “It is a story with meaning not just for the Jewish people, but for all people, of all nations, and as people and societies we have the duty to deal with the past, for the sake of the future.”

“As we reach the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, there are still stories to be told, documents to research, and names to be uncovered.” —Dr. Eyal Kaminka

One of the keys to making the story relevant, the education director said, was developing a program, Gathering the Fragments, that collects personal artifacts related to the Holocaust that do more to educate teachers, students and visitors than any lecture. So far, Dr. Kaminka adds, Yad Vashem has obtained 100,000 items, including photos, artifacts, letters and more, each one of which sheds more light on the story of the Shoah (calamity or another term for the Holocaust).

But as others have noted, teaching future generations about the Holocaust will become a challenge as more time grows between tragic events and current times. Dr. Karminka believes that by continuing to add to the historical context with documentation that provides a rich narrative, society will never forget.

“As we reach the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, there are still stories to be told, documents to research, and names to be uncovered,” Dr. Karminka stated. “The survivors’ voice is always with us, and in our educational and commemorative work and research we tell their stories, talking about the personal aspects to relate to the larger whole.”

Photo via Wikipedia (CC BY SA 2.5) | Remix by Max Fleishman