Let Stories Survive, in All Their Humanity


When we memorialize the Holocaust this year, we can take a new tact. Rachel Korazim, director of education at Yad Vashem, explains: "We've managed to place images like barbed wire and crematoria as central Jewish images. This is not Jewish history; this is Nazi history."

Jewish history, in sharp and proud contrast, honors efforts, as in the case of the Warsaw-ghetto uprising, to stay human under conditions of extraordinary duress.

Testimony to our will to stay human, for example is available from Terezin, a "model" concentration camp that was actually a transport center to the death camps.

Doomed teenagers there nevertheless created a literary magazine, despite knowing any day they might see their registration number posted for transport east to the gas chambers. Their essays dealt with a wide range of subjects, from A to Z, except for the immediate plight of both writers and readers: Emphasis was put instead on matters that might help lift the spirit, rather than bruise it all the more. Likewise, adult prisoners created a remarkable "university."

Over three years, the "school" had 520 lecturers (of whom only 173 survived) offer more than 2,400 courses for hundreds of starving ghetto-dwellers who might be transported at any time to their death.

Emanuel Hermann, an adult student who did not survive, wrote: "Cultural life in the ghetto was the only phenomenon that transformed us back into human beings. If after a hard day I could listen to Bach, I at once became human."

Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli professor of Holocaust studies, notes that "even in these [horrific] conditions, literature, music, theater and art flourished."

Remarkable movies of actual camp experiences also help illuminate what good can mean in the face of evil. A film version of Imre Kertesz's semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, has a young camp-savvy prisoner selflessly chose to mentor a 14-year old newcomer in life-saving skills.

The boy and other non-observant Jews later look on admiringly from their bunker beds as four old men risk all by clandestinely marking the Sabbath.

Especially revealing is a 2003 Showtime TV film, "Out of the Ashes," the true story of Dr. Giselle Perl, a Jewish female doctor forced in Auschwitz to work for Dr. Josef Mengele. She helped infirmary patients recover, even knowing they might be killed later that same day. The film's depiction of her efforts to stay human remains with a viewer long after it has ended.

I learned more about all of this from a recent writing project. In 2005, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance near my Narberth home of an elderly East European survivor, Henry Skorr.

Over the next several months, I tape-recorded about 60 hours of his life history in Kalisz, Poland, and then later in Siberia. During that time, Skorr was also filmed by none other than Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation.

With help from Ivan Sokolov, a graduate student who recorded and transcribed far more hours than I, and Ann Weiss, another Holocaust writer, we saw the project through to its 2006 publication as a remarkable 384-page autobiography, Through Blood and Tears: Surviving Hitler and Stalin.

After barely escaping from a Nazi death squad, Skorr made his to a precarious safety in Russia — only to almost immediately turn around and, to the astonishment of all, retrace his steps back home. Once there, he took charge at age 17, gathered his family and neighbors together, and led them from Poland to (relative) safety in the harsh lumber camps of Soviet Russia.

His story, as assessed by Sir Martin Gilbert, a Holocaust historian, is not only about "courage and survival, but also of the maintenance of moral values in the face of Nazism's perverse determination to humiliate and degrade the Jews and force them to lose all dignity and humanity."

We need to understand and celebrate what enabled besieged men and women to maintain moral values and their humanity. We need to reassess the balance of evil and good in our telling of the Holocaust story.

Arthur B. Shostak is emeritus professor of sociology at Drexel University.


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