Holocaust: Told in the first person

Regardless of how many books and articles one reads, or how many Holocaust dramas one sees on television or in the movies, nothing compares to meeting a real, live survivor.

IFCJ Global Vice President Yael Eckstein with a Holocaust survivor (photo credit: IFCJ)
IFCJ Global Vice President Yael Eckstein with a Holocaust survivor
(photo credit: IFCJ)
In most countries of the world today, there will be lectures, seminars and religious services in relation to International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date, which coincides with the January 27, 1945, anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was declared by a resolution of the United Nations in November, 2005.
Despite the mammoth body of literature about the Holocaust that has been written in scores of languages; the feature films about the Holocaust that star world famous actors; the number of museums that memorialize the victims of the Holocaust; and the ongoing educational programs related to Holocaust history that are conducted not only in Israel but in many parts of the world, there are tens of millions of people who have never heard of the Holocaust, and even more who have never met a Holocaust survivor.
Rena Quint, a Polish-born Jerusalemite, was raised in America but has been living in Israel for more than thirty years. She is a child Holocaust survivor and an articulate speaker who frequently talks to groups that visit Yad Vashem, hosts Jewish and non-Jewish groups in her home and is invited to speak to organizations in Israel and abroad.
Quint never fails to be amazed at the fact that more than half the non-Jewish people who she meets, only heard about the Holocaust because Yad Vashem was on their itinerary; the majority had never previously come face to face with a Holocaust survivor.
They are always fascinated by her story, and want to know more.
The same goes for other Holocaust survivors who are willing to tell their stories.
Regardless of how many books and articles one reads, or how many Holocaust dramas one sees on television or in the movies, nothing compares to meeting a real, live survivor and hearing firsthand what he or she experienced.
■ THE KNOWLEDGE of how important this is inspired the creation of Zikaron BaSalon, or Memory in the Living Room. Essentially the program consists of bringing survivors into someone’s home to speak to a group of 10-40 people.
The idea is to create a sense of intimacy around the survivor.
Such events have been held in regular homes, in the President’s Residence, and in the residences of diplomats.
Last week, the Diplomatic Spouses of Israel (DSI), an association of spouses and partners of foreign diplomats serving in Israel, met at the residence of Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons to listen to Holocaust survivor Sylvain Brachfeld, who told them “Even in a concentration camp, it’s important to have the courage to continue to practice Judaism and remember who you are.”
There are countless stories of secret prayers and observance of Jewish festivals in the camps, including the fact that many Orthodox Jews denied themselves their meager portions of bread during Passover.
After Brachfeld’s testimony, which pervaded the atmosphere in the room, some of the tension was lifted by Tamami Awaji, from Japan, who performed three short classical pieces on the piano: Ravel’s Kaddish. Mendelsohn’s Venetian Gondola and Chopin’s Nocturne (Op. posthumous.) This was followed by an open discussion on the evils of the Holocaust.
“It’s important for our diplomatic community to remember the Holocaust, to learn and to stand together to ensure that this never happens again,” said DSI President Aldo Henriquez the partner of British Ambassador David Quarrey.
“There is no substitute for learning directly from a survivor – and it’s remarkable how easy it is to organize [that] in your own home with the help of Zikaron BaSalon” he added.
“The Zikaron BaSalon at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador was unique and incredible, not only because of the thrilling testimony of dear Sylvain or the generous hospitality of the ambassador, but also the presence of over 40 diplomatic spouses and partners that came together in one place to listen, talk, share, discuss and experience an event that encourages people in Israel and across the world to own responsibility for the memory of the Holocaust in a way that will never be forgotten,” said Elad Shoshan, the Executive Director Zikaron BaSalon.
“More than half a million people from 41 countries took part in Zikaron BaSalon last year, and I strongly believe that today we noticed the start of a global expansion with the willingness of many diplomats to host an event in their own living rooms in Israel and later in their respective countries that will continue to cherish the stories of amazing Holocaust survivors such as Sylvain Brachfeld, “he added.
■ PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin was in France last Thursday opening an exhibition titled ‘Beyond Duty – Saving Jewish lives and showing the Way’ – a tribute to diplomats who helped rescue Jews from the Nazis. Child Holocaust survivor D’voeah Kieffer, a resident of the Nofei Yerushalayim sheltered living facility which is managed by its residents, recalled a particular American diplomat in France to whom she and hundreds of others owe their lives.
The diplomat was Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV, the deputy US Consul in Marseilles, who worked closely with Varian Fry, known as the “American Oscar Schindler” and the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), as well as other rescue and relief organizations.
Ignoring the instructions of the State Department, Bingham supplied numerous visas and identity papers to Jewish and non-Jewish refugees, enabling them to successfully escape to Southern France - and from there, in many cases, to America.
After fleeing from Germany to Belgium and then to France, Kieffer’s family was among the last to sail to the United States from war-torn France – hiding in cellars, sleeping on sandbags, enduring harrowing experiences and living in constant fear.
Her father had preceded the family to Belgium and had somehow obtained false identity papers and visas, but the visas needed to be stamped.
When he went to the US Consulate in Belgium, he was told to return the following morning and everything would be organized for him.
On that night, however, the Nazis bombed the city, as a result of which the consulate was closed the next day. The family moved on to France, where Kieffer’s father somehow located Bingham, who readily stamped the visas and provided additional identity papers.
The family maintained contact with Bingham, who was subsequently transferred to Portugal and Argentina and later forced out of the American Foreign Service because of his so-called insubordination.
The family continued to maintain contact with Bingham’s son Robert, who for many years battled for his father to be recognized for the risks he took to save people who might otherwise have been deported to death camps.
Bingham is credited with saving more than 2,000 people, sometimes sheltering them in his own home.
Among them were famous personalities such as Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst and Leon Feuchtwanger.
With the help of documents supplied by Kiepper and others, Bingham was recognized by the UN in the year 2000 as a Righteous Diplomat, and in 2006 was memorialized by the US Postal Service in its set of commemorative stamps honoring distinguished American diplomats. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, she and her family light a memorial candle for him.
■ READERS OF The Jerusalem Report, and veteran readers of The Jerusalem Post will remember Matt Nesvisky, who was the literary critic and a contributing editor for the Report and who died last August.
Many years earlier, he was for 16 years a senior editor, chief of copy desk, cultural reporter and feature writer at the Post, before returning to America in 1990, where he served as Professor of Journalism at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.
He not only taught journalism, he lived and breathed it – and though his students found his standards to be very high and tough to live up to, those who cared enough about journalism to stay in the course, considered him to be the best of the best.
In addition to being a professor, Nesvisky was also a freelance writer, whose by-line appeared in many national and international publications, among them The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Economist, the New York Daily News and the World Journalism Review. He reported from many parts of the world including Egypt, Lebanon, Britain, South Africa, Japan, China, Eastern Europe and Russia. His articles were reprinted in Latin America and Japan.
He also wrote for television, and authored several books, the most recent of which was The Holocaust Lover, which is at once a love story, a horror story, a history and a mystery – woven from his many contacts with Holocaust survivors and their families, and perhaps gleaned in part from his extensive collection of Holocaust literature.
Although several publishing houses were interested in his book, the consensus was that it was too long, and they wanted him to cut it by several hundred pages.
This was something he would not and could not do.
The Holocaust was just too important a subject.
The only publisher that didn’t ask him to cut was Amazon, which informed him that based on their experience, readers preferred longer stories. Their solution to the problem of length was to publish the book in two volumes.
Nesvisky agreed, and was in the process of proofing the material when he died.
It was left to his wife, Linda, an artist, to complete the proof reading. Fortunately, Nesvisky had been such a meticulous writer and editor that there was very little for her to do.
The corrections were mostly computer generated, such as spacing between words and sentences.
Amazon went ahead and published, and the two volumes went on sale towards the end of last year. The set can be ordered on the Amazon website.