The Stories of the Holocaust
GFH Featured in an article in the New York Times
The Stories of the Holocaust
By ROBIN POGREBIN
INGE OPPENHEIMER is accustomed to telling her story. How she watched her synagogue burn on Kristallnacht, survived the Nazi labor camps and immigrated to the United States, where she became a school librarian.
She has told her story to her students and to her grandchildren. But at 83 years old, she knows she will not be around to tell it forever. So Ms. Oppenheimer was happy to join 12 other survivors in contributing her testimony to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which has collected them for a Web site to teach young people about the Holocaust.
“I’m happy that it’s an educational tool,” Ms. Oppenheimer said in a recent telephone interview. “Most of the survivors are dying out. We try as long as we can to transmit some of what we went through.”
The Web site, “Coming of Age Now, Coming of Age in the Holocaust,” aims to educate middle school and high school students and their teachers through personal narratives. Each story is composed of five brief chapters that illustrate how real people’s lives were affected by historical events.
“The way we present history here is always, if we can, in the first person,” said David G. Marwell, the director of the museum, in Battery Park City in Manhattan. “ ‘This is what happened to my community, to my family, to my people.’ ”
The museum collaborated on the Web site with the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel. Since being created about a year ago, the site has had more than 7,300 visitors from 87 countries, and more than 700 teachers have registered to use it at schools around the world.
Students hear directly from survivors through video testimony and read in accessible language about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust.
The Web site also provides historical context for each story through geography questions (“Identify Kassel, the town where Inge was born”), online discussions, primary documents (like the book “Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom”) and artifacts and timelines of the survivors’ lives (“Sept. 15, 1935, Nuremberg laws enacted”).
Ms. Oppenheimer said her participation was motivated in part by the desire to reinforce a common refrain: never again. “I’m worried not so much about people forgetting as about trying not to repeat,” she said. Watching the fighting in Syria and other places, she said, “I’m not quite as hopeful as I used to be.”
To be sure, these are stories of heartbreak and often difficult to read. But they are also accounts filled with human resilience, resourcefulness and promise. Some even had happy endings. “I did not lose my parents or my brother,” Ms. Oppenheimer said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
A Web site can bring Holocaust history into people’s homes, particularly in areas that may not have a significant concentration of Jews or direct access to survivors. The museum hopes that the stories resonate with young people on a personal level, challenging them to reflect on larger themes of intolerance, bullying and injustice.
“It allows young people not only to hear from individuals,” Dr. Marwell said, “but also to relate to them as contemporaries.”
The survivors are identified on the Web site by their first names. They include:
¶ Pawel, who celebrated his bar mitzvah in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland and was the only member of his family to survive the labor camps.
¶ Anna, whose Italian family hid in a mountain village where no one knew they were Jewish after the Nazis invaded Rome, and who finally got a bat mitzvah ceremony in the United States at age 60.
¶ Moshe, who had a secret bar mitzvah ceremony in the Brzeziny Ghetto in Poland before the entire family was deported to Auschwitz, where he was separated from his mother and sister.
¶ Rachel, who with two of her sisters was taken to Siberia during the war, then wandered from orphanage to orphanage after their father died. They were on the famous Exodus ship that was making its way to the British Mandate of Palestine when it was captured and sent back to Germany in 1947. Later, Rachel and her sisters reached Israel and were among the founders of the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz.
¶ Yvonne, who with her younger sister, Renée, was hidden in a convent in Toulouse, France, where they had to be baptized to blend in.
Yvonne is Yvonne Campbell, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla. “The important thing at the time was to hide the children,” Ms. Campbell said in a telephone interview. “Jewish parents, they couldn’t disappear, but they could hide the children.”
“We went underground,” she continued, adding of her Judaism, “We weren’t allowed to talk about it.”
Well into her early adulthood, Ms. Campbell said she considered herself Catholic and went to Mass regularly. But after marrying a Jewish man and moving to New York, she began to reconnect to her roots, raising her children in a Jewish home. “I’m totally identified with my birth religion,” she said. “I can go to church also, and I feel very comfortable. I always tell people, I have all my bases covered.”
In New York, Ms. Campbell studied at Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in teaching at Bank Street College of Education.
“It was Toulouse that saved me, but it was New York that gave me a life,” she said. “People say you should kiss the ground when you come to America. I think you should kiss the ground every day.”