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. ••