A new book discusses the lives of 30 men and women who managed to survive a different circle of the Holocaust from what is usually portrayed.
The new book, Generation to Generation: Witnesses to History, will soon go on sale for $18. Or as Victoria Faykin, vice-president of KleinLife puts it, “One chai.”
Except these aren’t ordinary “chaim” we’re talking about. These are the lives of 30 men and women who managed to survive a different circle of the Holocaust from what is usually portrayed. The book recounts their stories, delivered in vivid, painful detail, not so much of what it was like at Auschwitz or Dachau, but in work camps in the former Soviet Union or the Ukraine.
What makes this work stand out is that it functions as a generational oral history: their stories as told to their grandchildren, great-grandchildren or others not much older than they were when their lives were turned upside down in a way none of us can imagine.
Just as we’ve become duty-bound every year to tell the story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, this is their modern day pass-over. Those who survived it can only hope and pray through their accounts we’ll never forget and pass it on, too.
“These are people who had to leave the Ukraine, Belarus and other Republics and relocated to other countries in the former Soviet Union to survive the war,” said Andre Krug, Kleinlife
president, before an Oct. 18 presentation, where many of the survivors in the book and the children who chronicled their revelations were in attendance. “Who would be better to tell their stories than our children who don’t know much about the Holocaust?
“We know the stories of people in concentrations camps. But people in the former Soviet Union who lived through this, they often kept it under wraps — including my own family. They didn’t talk about it. “So we wanted to tell their stories of what people had to do to survive. Like my own grandmother, who had to relocate to Kazakhstan with two little kids. For years, she refused to say anything until right before she died. She’d say, ‘I did what I needed to do.’ “Apparently, what she needed to do was work 12-hour shifts and then walk five miles each way to get milk for her newborn. She did that for five years.”
The project originated with a call from the White House, which had been directed to KleinLife by a local division of the Corporation for National Community Service in Washington. After the White House expressed interest in a program to promote Holocaust awareness and committing $50,000 in federal funding, a joint effort between Kleinlife and the Philadelphia Holocaust Awareness Museum — located in the KleinLife building — came up with the idea for a book. When the call went out for survivors to come forward, it got confusing. Many people who endured hardships like Krug’s grandmother don’t consider themselves “survivors” on the level of those with numbers tattooed on their arms.
Maya Perlin, on the other hand, certainly does. “I am a survivor of eight concentration camps,” said the woman from Radom, Poland, who was separated from her family at 6 and originally sent to Treblinka, eventually spending three years in a hospital recovering from her ordeal. “I suffered humiliation, torture, starvation — just because I was born a Jew. I still have nightmares every night. I can see myself sitting on the bunk in the barracks at Auschwitz and watching so many die. “I hope my life will be an example for others not to take life for granted. I managed to get married and have children and grandchildren. They promise to take over my task and carry my legacy from generation to generation.”
It’s a responsibility probably none of the young chroniclers fully appreciated when the project began. “He told me about his life in detail,” said 15-year-old Council Rock South student Alyssa Shargarodsky, of Mikhail Tzipis, whom she had to interview in Russian over the phone rather than in person. “It was a lot more than I ever read about. I knew how harsh things were, but the way he was describing the death of his family and how hard it was to move from one place to another and feel safe, that kind of overwhelmed me.
“I didn’t expect that.”
Nor did her classmate Steven Vishnevetsky expect quite the outpouring of emotion from Morris Shenberger, who died just before the book was published.
“He emphasized the fact he was so stressed by war and was desperately longing for peace,” said Vishnevetsky, who also — like most of those involved in the project — conducted his interview in Russian. “I had relatives who were in concentration camps.
“But to get a firsthand account helped me understand what it was like being in a camp and being Jewish. It was a lot more in-depth. It’s fair to say what I’ve read before in textbooks does not do it justice. “I feel we are carrying information from one generation to another and it feels important. I guess you could say it’s an obligation.’
By the same token, the survivors, whose ranks dwindle daily — considering it’s now 70 years since end of the Holocaust — feel their own sense of obligation. “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this project,” said Inna Shvets, editor of the Philadelphia Russian-language newspaper, Jewish Life, who was in Moscow when the Germans invaded in 1941.
“When kids learn about war — not from media, but from relatives or close friends — the information goes directly to their hearts, their minds and their souls. “When I was talking to my granddaughter about this, I try to emphasize three aspects. First is all the physical suffering—the cold, the hunger. Second is spiritual suffering—the separation from your loved ones. And the third aspect of war is not to have hatred and want revenge, but to think how to get peace. “War is a disaster for everyone.”
Like her, they all have stories to tell. And now that they’ve been able to tell them, people will know what horrors they endured. It’s one thing for Jews to listen. But by sending them out into the non-Jewish world, hopefully others can learn.
“I think the Holocaust was touched upon but it was sort of just mentioned,” said Philadelphia City Council member Kevin Boyle, who’s played an active part — along with his brother, Congressman Brendan Boyle — in trying to make teaching about the Holocaust mandatory in Pennsylvania schools.
“It certainly wasn’t a major topic in world history. That’s what I think is wrong.”
Change won’t comeovernight, even though Holocaust Awareness Museum president Chuck Feldman says they’re constantly reaching out to the non-Jewish world. He hopes if they can hear from people like Sara Weingram, it will sink in.
“I was only a teenager in Poland when they marched in and told us to leave,” she revealed. “We were in bed. It was not even morning.
“Suddenly, no more home. No food. No clothes. Nothing. But somehow, we made it through.
“You go on to raise children and put them through school and build a home for them. But you don’t want your children
to know these things. You don’t forget it, though. You live with it every day of your life.”
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