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RESISTANCE

SURVIVORS



When I was asked to write about love during the Holocaust, I was excited to dive into USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive to look for testimony to showcase this uplifting sentiment from a tragic period in history. Before I even started my research, I knew that I wanted to write about the many types of love that shined through the darkness of the Holocaust. Through stories of family, significant others, and friendships, the following testimonies highlight that love was truly a powerful force in keeping the human spirit alive during and after the Holocaust.

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Family

  • Eric Richmond: Parents in Nazi-occupied Europe were faced with the unimaginable choice of keeping their families together or sending their children to unoccupied countries. Later on, parents were also faced with the choice of having their children smuggled out of ghettos and being hidden with non-Jewish families. Both of these circumstances present an inconceivable choice with no right or wrong answers. But hearing survivors talk about being separated from their parents – their parents who told them they would be reunited, their parents who tried to make this seem like a big, exciting adventure – is heartbreaking. Eric Richmond, who was sent on a Kindertransport from Vienna, Austria to England, begins talking about his experience looking directly at the interviewer. The more he remembers, the less he looks at her. He’s recounting the lifesaving decision his parents made, but he’s reliving the trauma of being separated from them. No matter how many times I watch his testimony, it always affects me. Knowing what his parents did out of love, and seeing his reaction fifty years later, is a reminder of the unconditional bond between parent and child.
  • Fritzie Fritzhall: When Fritzie Fritzshall was forced to do slave labor in a factory—after her mother and brothers had been murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, after she had been separated from her aunt—she was the youngest in a group of 600 women, and now considered the other women her mothers. In her testimony, Fritzie remembers a promise she made the women to preserve their legacy, and discusses when she realized she had to tell her story to fulfill her promise. I’ve been working with Holocaust survivors for over fifteen years, and I know how hard it can be for them to tell and retell their story. I’m grateful that Fritzie was able to keep her promise, and that her story, and the story of her 599 mothers, can continue to survive.

Significant Others

  • Kurt & Sonia Messerschmidt: Throughout the archive, there are beautiful stories that describe the moment survivors are reunited with their partners. Kurt and Sonja Messerschmidt were engaged before they were deported to Theresienstadt, where they were wed. However, in 1944, they were separated, and after the war, Kurt wasn’t sure if Sonja survived. In this clip, he describes the moment he realized she survived, and he discusses the significance of the date they were reunited.  I am inspired by how overcome with emotion Kurt becomes when describing what happened as it exemplifies the deep devotion he carried for Sonja.
  • Gerta Weissman & Kurt Klein: Unlike Kurt and Sonja, Gerda Weissman did not know Kurt Klein before the war. However, neither she nor Kurt would forget meeting one another. Here, Gerda describes being liberated by Kurt, wondering what happened to the nice man who liberated her, and being reunited with him. The couple eventually married and immigrated to the United States. Their love is evident in both their testimonies (Kurt is also in the archive; you can hear his version of events here).
  • Gad Beck & Manfred: Gad Beck had two strikes against him in Nazi Germany. He was Jewish, and he was gay. One night, when he went to pick up his boyfriend Manfred for a date, Gad learned that Manfred and some of his family members had been taken to a transit camp. Gad tells the story of what happened next in this clip. Gad’s love for Manfred was so great that he helped Manfred escape from the camp; Manfred’s love for his family led him to return to be with them. The first time I watched that clip, I didn’t expect the story to end the way it did. But I absolutely respect Manfred’s decision, even if it broke Gad’s heart. It shows the devastating complexities of the choiceless choices many Holocaust victims faced, having at times decide between one love over the other.

Friendships

  • Herman Shine & Max Drimmer: Herman Shine and Max Drimmer were friends in pre-war Germany. During the Holocaust, they were reunited at Auschwitz, and the friends decided to escape. They were inseparable for the next sixty years – they had a double wedding with their wives, they immigrated with one another, and they lived close to each other in California. I am absolutely convinced that their friendship and love for one another is what got them through their hardest times.
  • Bertram Schaffner & his Army Unit: After being drafted in October 1940, Bertram Schaffner worked as a psychiatrist in the U.S. Army. During World War II, when gay men were dishonorably discharged from the armed forces just because of their sexuality, Bertram – who himself was gay – helped enlisted men who he suspected were also gay by either keeping their records clean of anything that could be incriminating or honorably discharging those men who realized they did not want to serve under such discriminatory conditions. His empathy, decency and humanity shine through his entire testimony, and I’m grateful that he loved his fellow draftees to support them in extremely inequitable times.
  • Roman Kent & Lala: Even pets played a strong role in offering love and devotion during the Holocaust. When Roman Kent and his family were sent to the Łódź ghetto, they had an unexpected visitor: their dog Lala. After the war, when Roman had children of his own, he used to tell them the story. In his testimony, Roman recalls Lala visiting the family every night, and reflects that “Love is stronger than hate.”

Whether through family, significant others, or friendship, it is clear that love endured and prevailed throughout the Holocaust. Let these testimonies be a reminder that love is a potent force that can inspire actions today that will build a better tomorrow.

About the author: Rachel Herman is the Content Management Specialist at USC Shoah Foundation and helps curate content for IWitness and other educational programs.  Rachel received her M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Stockton University.



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CURRENT EVENTS

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION



As we know, a Tennessee school board voted recently to ban use of the graphic novel Maus in its 8th grade classrooms. Sadly, the losers in this fight are – as always – the students, for whom a great work of literature is erased. Interestingly, the winner by a landslide is Maus – sales of which have skyrocketed on Amazon since the ban, and free copies of which are set to be provided to students. All this proves that banning books can be quite the boomerang.

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Books can open new worlds. They can spark imagination. They can transport readers to different places, show them different perspectives, and introduce them to different ideas. But not when they are banned.

Those of us who teach the Holocaust know the value of books. Readers can literally explore the unknown and transcend physical boundaries: this is why so many ghettos during the Holocaust had libraries and so many imprisoned and persecuted people – especially children – read books. In December, 1942 in Vilna, even after tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered and death was all around, the ghetto library held a ceremony marking the loan of the 100,000th book. In the Warsaw ghetto, children continued to borrow books during the Great Deportation in the summer of 1942 during which almost 300,000 Jews were murdered. Often the books they borrowed were never returned; they were packed into the bundles the children took with them to the Treblinka death camp. "The ghetto child, robbed of the world—the river, the green trees, freedom of movement—could win all this back through the magic of the printed word."[1]

For these reasons, books hold a special reverence for us.

The Supreme Court has agreed, holding in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982) that the First Amendment limits the power of officials to remove books[2] from school libraries.[3]

It turns out that book banning goes back at least as far as Plato in 360 B.C.[4]  For as long as books have been written, there have been those who have pushed to ban them. Even classic literature such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and classic authors such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, have been challenged. In 2001 student access to the "Harry Potter" book series was challenged (because of references to witchcraft and the occult). Those who support book bans generally fear that the books in question present ideas, raise issues or provoke critical inquiry that they find inappropriate. Yet, isn't that the function of education? Don't we want to support freedom of thought, of expression, of speech? Don't we want students to explore new issues and to think for themselves? Often, challenged books are entry points into difficult subjects that need to be discussed.

This is why it's so sad for the students of McMinn County to lose a book like Maus over eight curse words and one ostensibly objectionable picture.

Maus is a brave and unflinching work. It is the author's father's first-person, eyewitness account of the Holocaust. As such, it functions as Holocaust history through a personal story (something Echoes & Reflections firmly advocates). But it is also the author, Art Spiegelman’s, account of his relationship with his aging survivor father, and how he experienced writing about the experience of being a survivor's son. On this level it depicts the process of transmitting and recording memory and trauma, and how the present is continuously shaped by the past.

Maus is both an authentic Holocaust story and a story of the "second generation" – its honesty without sentimentality is what makes it so memorable and powerful. In its pages are discrimination, persecution and hate, as well as resilience, resistance and perseverance: all very human, very real, very gritty. Nothing is sugar-coated; this is part of its appeal.

What distinguishes Maus still more is that it is written as a graphic novel, where mice are used to represent Jews, Germans are represented by cats, and other ethnic groups are represented by other animals. It is an allegory: the Germans viewed Jews not as people, but as vermin, which is why the book begins with a quote by Adolf Hitler, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Spiegelman has said that his anthropomorphic characters call attention to the absurdity of dividing people up into different animal groups, and take Hitler’s rhetoric to turn the notion of the subhuman back on itself by letting the mice “stand on their hind legs and insist on their humanity.” Using animal characters allowed Spiegelman to say otherwise unsayable things and show events too disturbing to show.

For all of these reasons, Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and is read today in many high schools as well as in college courses. It brings new insights to the study of the Holocaust. And for all of these reasons, the ban in Tennessee has boomeranged – the school board may believe it is protecting the county's students from eight curse words and an objectionable picture, but the students will be deprived of these insights and of a great work of literature.

To learn how to teach with Maus, join Echoes & Reflections webinar “Bringing Maus to the Classroom” on 2/23 at 3 PM ET. Register here.

About the author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Director of Echoes & Reflections for Yad Vashem.

[1] Rachel Auerbach, "The Librarians", PaknTreger, Summer 2017, https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literature-culture/pakn-treger/2017-pakn-treger-translation-issue/librarians.

[2] The list of books at issue included such classics as The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud; Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; and Black Boy, by Richard Wright, called by the Board of Ed, "anti-American…and just plain filthy."

[3] The opinion’s scope was narrow because the case did not involve textbooks or required reading, but the Court sang the praises of books, libraries and broadening students’ worlds through reading.

[4] For an interesting summary of censorship of books and ideas through the centuries, see Claire Mullally and Andrew Gargano, “Banned Books”, Freedom Forum Institute, 2017, https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/libraries-first-amendment-overview/banned-books/.

 



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