A tribute to those lost this Holocaust Remembrance Day

While oth­er people in my life could not grasp what it was like to do in­ter­views of Holo­caust sur­viv­ors, my daugh­ter Amy did.

Nearly 20 years ago, when she was just out of col­lege and in her first job, and I was a writer used to ask­ing people ques­tions, we took the leap.

We signed on for train­ing that would pre­sum­ably pre­pare us to be in­ter­view­ers for Steven Spiel­berg’s Sur­viv­ors of the Shoah Visu­al His­tory Found­a­tion. Spiel­berg, stunned by what he’d learned in cre­at­ing Schind­ler’s List, felt driv­en to get those sur­viv­or testi­mon­ies while he could. He has said the pro­ject forever changed him.

But how na­ive Amy and I were. While the train­ing was thor­ough and won­der­ful, noth­ing could really have pre­pared us for what was com­ing.

Amy and I set out on each of our first sur­viv­or in­ter­views armed with our course notes and our cer­tainty that we were ready. Little did we know that we would sit fa­cing Holo­caust sur­viv­ors whose re­mem­ber­ing took us back with them to places no one should go.

Be­cause we were work­ing with video­graph­ers, the cam­era would roll on, and we’d listen to tales of hor­rible hu­mi­li­ations or in­hu­man acts.

Some­times, the sur­viv­or would push on. Some­times, he or she would stop, un­able to fin­ish a sen­tence.

Those mo­ments, so dif­fi­cult for Amy, who worked in the New York re­gion, and for me on my Phil­adelphia turf, would leave each of us ex­hausted, de­pressed and need­ing to talk to one an­oth­er.

What a re­mark­able moth­er-daugh­ter ex­per­i­ence. And how much we learned about ourselves — and our pain­ful her­it­age as Jews.

“You will look in­to the belly of the beast,” they told us at that train­ing. “This is heart­break­ing work, and you will be altered by it forever.”

They were right.

But do­ing it to­geth­er, al­though in dif­fer­ent cit­ies, made the bur­den bear­able.

Noth­ing in my years as a work­ing journ­al­ist, or in Amy’s work in tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion, could have pre­pared us for these his­tor­ies, so etched in pain and an­ger and al­ways, al­ways, the yearn­ing to be heard and re­membered.

I in­ter­viewed artists and rab­bis, child sur­viv­ors and eld­erly men and wo­men who des­per­ately needed to leave their stor­ies for pos­ter­ity. Those people and their stor­ies still live with­in me.

For Amy, those memor­ies also live on. Now a moth­er with chil­dren of her own, she still talks about the wo­man with the cap of sil­ver hair she in­ter­viewed in the sur­viv­or’s mod­est little apart­ment on New York’s Lower East Side, where the bridge table was set for lunch with the “good dishes,” and the humble fur­niture was pol­ished to a gleam.

That wo­man told Amy about how her fath­er had taken her hand one day and led her out in­to Pol­ish woods. 

Some­where deep in those woods, he let go of her hand and lit­er­ally pushed her away from him be­cause he knew dis­cov­ery was im­min­ent. “Go!” he had com­manded her. “Nev­er tell any­one you are a Jew.”

And this ter­ri­fied little girl, 10 years old and try­ing to be brave, had listened to her fath­er. She lived. Her par­ents died at Buch­en­wald. Be­cause Amy has a 10-year-old daugh­ter of her own, that story still pierces her heart.

And some­times, as the un­flinch­ing eye of the video cam­era rolled on, the in­ter­view sub­jects — and the in­ter­view­ers — wept.

The stor­ies of teem­ing ghet­tos, of run­ning, of hid­ing, of a maze of camps and a web of un­speak­able ter­ror, would not leave us un­scathed.

All these years later, Amy and I con­tin­ue to be grate­ful that some im­pulse, deep and strong, led us to this work for the Spiel­berg Found­a­tion.

As Yom HaShoah (Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day) ap­proaches on Sunday and Monday, we con­tin­ue to be awed by the people we were priv­ileged to meet.

And for a moth­er and daugh­ter who shared both that priv­ilege — and the pain it brought — the re­mem­ber­ing is a breath­tak­ing bond. ••

You can reach at pinegander@aol.com.

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