Preserving Shoah memory

How to remember the Holocaust after all the witnesses have gone.

The Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The youngest Holocaust survivors are today in their mid-seventies and cannot be expected to remember much about the Holocaust. Their stories are based on hearsay. Those who actually remember anything had to be at least seven years old at some stage during the war years.
Most adult survivors, especially those who were able to keep diaries, are no longer alive. The world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, in accordance with a UN resolution passed in 2005 to commemorate the date in 1945 on which Auschwitz and Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camps, were liberated.
Different countries, organizations and individuals have come up with numerous ideas of how to preserve Holocaust memory, a challenge that takes on greater significance this year, as September 1 will mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland which signaled the outbreak of the Second World War and the darkest chapter in the history of the persecution of the Jewish people.
The World Jewish Congress in 2018 introduced its #WeRemember campaign to raise awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust around the globe.
Several countries have their own anniversaries related to events that took place during the war. Some have established Holocaust museums to make future generations aware of this shameful period in the annals of humankind and its repercussions. Truth be told, the blame for atrocities does not rest solely with the Germans and their collaborators. Every country that turned away Jews who were fleeing the Nazi atrocities had an indirect share in the massacre of Jews.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had the grace to apologize last November for his country’s turning away of a steam liner carrying 900 German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939.
Speaking in Parliament, Trudeau said: “We apologize to the mothers and fathers whose children we did not save, to the daughters and sons whose parents we did not help.”
Other countries that refused the desperate pleas of the ship’s captain included the United States, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama.
Worse still, Jan Karski, a non-Jewish Polish resistance fighter and underground courier for the Polish government in exile had been captured by the Gestapo and tortured to the extent that he had to be hospitalized. Friends engineered his escape. He was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and was therefore in a position to know what was happening on more than one front. He met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to whom he conveyed personal testimony of what was happening to the Jews of Europe, particularly those of Poland, but Roosevelt listened with a deaf ear and did nothing.
Since the fall of the Communist regime which held sway over much of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, several of the countries that were part of the Soviet bloc have engaged in Holocaust education, enacted legislation outlawing antisemitism and all forms of racism and incitement, erected monuments to Jewish suffering and heroism and restored synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish community property in places that today are completely bereft of Jews.
In addition to such acts, Poland established the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which tells the story of the almost 1,000-year symbiosis between Jews and other citizens of Poland.
To further generate Holocaust awareness among Poles and visitors to Poland, the Council of Ministers, headed by deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski in November 2017, adopted a decision to create a Warsaw Ghetto Museum, which is currently under construction in what used to be the Beresohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital. The project, which was registered in February 2018, is scheduled for completion in 2023 and will be opened on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The key to the property was given by a government official to the museum’s director, Polish Jewish historian Albert Stankowski, on October 19, 2018.
The chief historian overseeing the content of the project is Hebrew University Holocaust historian Daniel Blatman, who wants to go beyond what was envisaged by the Polish government, which thought to dedicate the museum to Jews who were confined to the ghetto then tortured and murdered by German forces.
There was life in the ghetto not only death, and Blatman is keen to show as broad a perspective as possible of both during the period that Poland was under Nazi occupation. Films and photographs that support his concept can be seen in The Ghetto Fighters Museum at Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot in Northern Israel, which was founded by Holocaust survivors. But there is a lot of controversy over Blatman’s appointment. Fellow Israeli and other Jewish historians specializing in Holocaust history are critical of his acceptance of the role, charging that he will be the pawn of the Polish government that wants to rewrite history in order to expunge any vestige of collusion with the Germans.
While various high-ranking Polish officials admit that individual Poles and even groups of Poles collaborated with the Germans or engaged in pogroms, Poland was definitely anti-Nazi. Millions of ethnic Poles were also murdered and there were Jews in Polish resistance organizations throughout the country.
More recently, a Treblinka Museum agreement was signed in December 2018. The establishment of the museum was the dream of Samuel Willenberg, one of the architects and one of the last survivors of the Treblinka Revolt. Willenberg died in 2016, but his widow, Ada, and daughter, Orit Willenberg Giladi, continued to advocate for the realization of his dream. Willenberg was a sculptor, who memorialized some of the people murdered in Treblinka by sculpting their likenesses in bronze. One of these statues is in the garden of the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. His daughter, an architect with international credentials, has offered to design the museum in memory of her father and all who perished there.
PERCENTAGE-WISE, there were other European countries whose losses of their Jewish populations were possibly equal to Poland’s, but numerically, Poland had by far the largest Jewish population in Europe, including the Soviet Union, and numerically the largest number of Jews who did not survive. This accounted for more than two-thirds of Polish Jewry. It also stands to reason that the largest number of people recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations were Polish citizens.
One such person, a nun known as Sister Cecylia, but whose given name was Maria Roszak, died last November at age 110 at her convent in Krakow. As a young nun, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, she and a group of other nuns were sent to Vilna to set up a small convent, which during the war years harbored Jews, including partisan leader Abba Kovner.
Nathan Rapoport’s iconic monument to the resistance of the Jews of Warsaw and their annihilation by the Nazis was unveiled in April 1948, despite the fact that Poland was under Soviet rule. Although the Soviets tended to clamp down on things Jewish, they permitted the construction of the monument. Even before that was the creation in 1947 of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for Culture and National Heritage. A Janusz Korczak Association was also established in memory of the Warsaw-born pedagogue and writer (whose real name was Henryk Goldszmit), who even though he could have saved himself, chose to accompany the children in his orphanage to Treblinka, where they all met their deaths. Today there are Janusz Korczak associations in many parts of the world.
 Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski says that notwithstanding disputes over religious and historical issues, no country outside of Israel does more to preserve Holocaust memory than Poland.
While Poland is building museums and reconstructing synagogues that are used as cultural centers, Lithuania has reconstructed an entire village where the majority of residents were Jews. The Seduva Shtetl project in the center of Lithuania includes the reconstruction of the nearby ancient cemetery. On the eve of the 20th century, Jews accounted for 61 percent of Seduva’s population. The restoration of the cemetery in the lost shtetl is symbolic. It began in 2013 with the clearing of moss and thistles. Most of the tombstones were in ruins, and it was difficult to put the fragments together. All in all, the remains of 1,300 tombstones were discovered and of these, 800 were restored and 400 identified.
Lithuania has become deeply involved in heritage history, and like Poland, acknowledges the Jewish contribution to culture, politics, medicine, et al.
Most of the many projects throughout the country are run by non-Jews, with some Jewish involvement, primarily by Faina Kukliansky, the Vilnius-based chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community who is both a very proud Jewess and a very proud Lithuanian. All of her surviving relatives moved to Israel. She opted to remain in Lithuania, a country that she insists is better for Jews than any other country in Europe. “I feel very comfortable here,” she says.
She gives visitors a copy of the Diary of Yitskhok Rudashevski, who was a teenager in the Vilna Ghetto, and like Anne Frank, wrote a diary describing day to day events. The diary was originally published in Israel in 1973 in Hebrew and English, but Kukliansky thought that it should be published in the original Yiddish and in Lithuanian so that readers in Rudashevski’s native country could get a better understanding of what war-time Vilnius was like. The diary was published in both languages in the one volume in 2018 by the Lithuanian Jewish community. It also contains photographs. Kukliansky regards it as an authentic historical document. It tells not only the story of Rudashevski and his family, but of the Nazi actions that caused the population to drastically shrink in numbers. The diary covers the period from June 1941 to April 1943. Rudashevski was murdered in one of the massacres in the Ponar forest, which today has monuments to murdered Jews, Poles and Lithuanians. Roma were also murdered there. There is a very small museum that has documents, photos of some of the victims and a few personal objects. Children who visit are encouraged to write the names of victims on small stones as a means of involvement in memory, and also in the absence of tombstones, because the Nazis ensured that the bodies of those who were massacred were burned.
Zigmas Vitkus, who is charge of the memorial museum, believes that it would be more appropriate to have a much larger museum in order to convey the gruesome story of what happened in this place in greater detail than is presently possible.
Lithuania’s Jews have their own March of the Living and for the past 11 years have marched from the Ponar train station to the Ponar Memorial complex, with Kukliansky always at the forefront. Lithuanian government officials and Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania also participate.
Ingrida Vilkiene, deputy director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, is also the coordinator of educational programs, and takes Lithuanian teachers to Jerusalem for Holocaust history seminars conducted by Yad Vashem, the most comprehensive Holocaust Remembrance Center in the World, with videos of testimonies by survivors, tens of thousands of written documents and books in many languages, photographs, artifacts and more.
Armed with a map of Lithuania in which villages, towns and cities all over the country are circled and shaded in yellow and lilac, Vilkiene conducts informal education seminars to make teachers aware of the Jewish communities that once existed in these places and are no more. In some of them, more than half the population was Jewish, and yet until several years after Lithuania regained its independence, most Lithuanians had never met a Jew, including Vilkiene herself.
Many had also never heard of the Holocaust. The first time that Vilkiene heard about it was in 1992, when her history professor at university began to talk about it. She also discovered at age 20 that she had a few drops of Jewish blood in her veins. There was nothing about her father’s appearance which could be characterized as typically Lithuanian. After he died, a family secret was revealed to her: her great-great grandmother had been involved in a love affair with a Jew and a child had been born out of the romance. But it was not until 1998 that Vilkiene began to realize the importance of preserving Holocaust memory and she started to tell people what happened in Lithuania during the years of the Nazi occupation.
Today’s 20-year-olds are much more open to hearing about the years of oppression and persecution, she says. “They have neither a Soviet nor a Nazi past. They grew up in an independent country and they are not taught fake history.”
It’s important to her to talk to young people and tell them about Nazi atrocities, but it’s equally important to talk to teachers of ethics, history, biology, and math, who can integrate the Jewish history of their towns and villages into the subjects that they teach. “You don’t need to be a teacher of history in order to relate to the Holocaust,” she says. “Education is the strongest weapon in the world.”
The teachers are encouraged to initiate student projects, such as cleaning Jewish cemeteries, finding out about Jews who lived in their towns and cities and choosing some on whom to do biographical research, learning about Jewish customs, learning about the professions in which Jews engaged, etc. But they also discuss the Holocaust in detail and look at antisemitic literature and try to analyze it. She adds that all minorities are victims of xenophobia, not just Jews.
It should be noted that Lithuania’s confrontation with its past began in earnest only after it regained its independence in 1990. Jewish cultural heritage comes within the framework of Lithuanian cultural heritage and Jewish restoration projects are featured on the public television channel Kultura.
Other European countries are involved in the funding of such projects. For instance, the restoration of the Pakroujis wooden synagogue that was built in 1801 and is the oldest surviving wooden synagogue in Europe was funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
It sits in a township that on the eve of the Second World War was home to 120 Jewish families, but after the war was and remains totally empty of Jews. Its restoration was at the initiative of the mayor, Saulius Gegieckas. Although much has been done, the funding did not go far enough to allow for the restoration of the Ark. Minoaugas Veliulis, who was in charge of the restoration project, is proud of the fact that despite damage done to the building over the years, including the eruption of a fire in 2009, during the restoration process, part of the original, blue-patterned wallpaper was discovered under layers of other coating, and was reproduced to add to the authenticity of the building. The restoration was aided by pre-war photographs. In fact, in place of the Ark, there is a huge enlarged photograph of the original Ark.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the building was converted into a movie theater, and later into a gym, and finally into a warehouse. Many people were initially skeptical when Gegieckas first proposed the restoration. They couldn’t understand why it was necessary, but after learning more about Holocaust history and the Jewish community that lived there, the general feeling is now one of pride in this tribute to a Jewish community that is no more. The building, which currently serves as a cultural center, also houses an exhibition area in which visitors can learn of the Jewish history of Pakroujis and the whole region, and can also view Jewish ritual objects.
In Joniskis, two synagogues adjacent to each other, one of which is the majestic White Synagogue and the other the Red Synagogue, are located in the heart of the city square. They have also been restored and turned into cultural centers to which Jewish speakers and entertainers come to enlighten the local population about Jewish history and tradition. Such people have included Shmuel Yatom, the cantor of the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius, the only synagogue in the city that survived the war. Yatom not only lectures but introduces his audiences to Jewish liturgy.
As impressive as all the restoration is, none of it can really compare with the Vilna Gaon State Museum, divided into different sections that are not all under one roof. The museum was established in 1989 by Lithuania’s Ministry of Culture to showcase Jewish history, culture and tradition.
It was given its present name in 1997 on the 200th anniversary of the death of the Vilna Gaon. The museum has permanent and temporary exhibitions and regular educational activities. Plans are now afoot for the celebration in April 2020 of the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon.
Until recently, prior to the advent of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, Vilna Gaon museum director Markas Zingeris could boast that he was the only Jewish director of a Jewish- themed state museum in Europe. It’s true that many of the staff in state-run Jewish museums throughout Europe are not Jewish, and though many are expert curators and historians, they lack the emotional ethos which is part of the Jewish DNA.
Perhaps the most impressive section of the museum is the Tolerance Center and Samuel Bak Museum headed by Ieva Sadzeviciene, an art historian who is extremely impressed by the prize-winning Bak, a highly talented artist who is a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto. Just as Rudashevski documented the Holocaust period in writing, Bak did so in drawings and paintings. He was not yet a teenager when he had his first exhibition in the Vilna Ghetto. His mother somehow managed to find sanctuary for him and herself in a convent where they stayed in hiding for the remainder of the war. They were the only survivors of their large family.
Bak had been born in Vilna when it was still part of Poland, so after the liberation of the city by the Soviets, they were permitted as Polish citizens to return to Poland. They went to Lodz and then to Germany, where they lived in a DP camp for three years before migrating to the newly born State of Israel.
Bak studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, served in the Israel Defense Forces, continued his studies in Paris and spent various periods in Rome, Paris, Switzerland and Israel before moving permanently to the United States in 1993. He returned to Vilnius for the first time in 2001 and has been back several times since. Many reminders of the Holocaust are visible in his art. He has donated more than 50 of his works to the museum, which opened in November, 2017.
On the day of the opening, Bak was awarded honorary citizenship of Lithuania. In his speech he said that despite all the accolades that have come his way, he always felt alone – but not at the opening of the museum. “I have a keen feeling that a whole crowd surrounds me – my father, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and a huge crowd of faceless Jews of old, old Vilnius, a multitude of people, a third of the city’s population whose lives came to a most tragic end. And all are proud of their boy. All are delighted with the exceptionality of this event. It is for their sake that I have donated to the Lithuanian state a large collection of my artistic output. It is to their memory that I dedicate the Bak Museum.”
Sadzeviciene, who is not Jewish, gets quite passionate about Bak’s art, but her tone is far more even when showing visitors the works of other great Litvak artists or the specific Holocaust exhibition.
 Future generations of both Jews and non-Jews will need both visual and audio reminders of the Holocaust because once there are no living people who were either victims or perpetrators, curiosity not only fades, but fails to exist.
As a preventive measure, the Association of European Jewish Museums was founded in 1989 for the purpose of preserving Jewish heritage in Europe. There are more than 60 museums among its members. There’s also an Association of American Jewish Museums, and of course there are Jewish museums in other parts of the world as well. Not all of them deal with the Holocaust, but nearly all of them at least touch on it. It’s difficult not to when the rich heritage comes to a sudden stop in 1939 or 1940 or is put on hold until after the war.
In addition, there’s the Jewish Heritage Europe web portal, which was established by the Rothschild Foundation (Yad Hanadiv) Europe following a major conference on the Future of Jewish Heritage Sites in Europe that was held in Prague in 2004.
Among the more recent efforts to maintain awareness of Holocaust history is a yet to be produced album of Holocaust songs written in the ghettoes and the death camps. The project initiated by media consultant Moshe Klughaft, is led by popular singer and mentor of young talent Aviv Geffen, and includes more than a dozen leading Israeli singers whose fans will obviously learn the songs and will pass them on to family and friends.
Meanwhile, the Polish government together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, have decided to mark the 75th anniversary in January 2020 of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau with a special event at the site in which various Jewish organizations including the World Jewish Congress will participate.
WJC President Ronald Lauder is also chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation. Of the 1,100,000 men, women and children who were murdered in Auschwitz, 960,000 were Jews, 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War, and between 10,000 to 15,000 non-Jews of varied nationalities.
Given all this infrastructure for the perpetuation of Holocaust memory, survivors can rest easy: the Holocaust will not be forgotten, at least not for another century.