Who will write our history?: Holocaust Remembrance Day grapples with survivor deaths

Metal boxes and milk cans used by Oneg Shabbat team (led by Emanuel Ringelblum) to hide first and second part of Warsaw Ghetto archive. Photo Credit:(Czytelnik Publishing House/Wikimedia Commons)

Hannah Edelman
BU News Service

BOSTON – “I cannot thank you enough.” “Your story tore my heart.” “The way you carry on is a lesson.” “We greatly appreciate you coming.” “I truly have learned a lot from your lessons.”

These are just a few snippets of the cards that Holocaust survivor Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter received from middle and high school students after telling his story at St. Bernard Central Catholic High School in Fitchburg last month. Arbeiter brought a stack of these handwritten cards – “only a small pile,” he claimed – to read aloud to the audience at the 2019 International Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration at Boston University, at which he was a panelist. The event marked the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland – a liberation that freed Arbeiter and over 1 million others.

However, the 93-year-old Arbeiter’s appearance on Sunday brought with it a harsh reality: Soon, there will be no living Holocaust survivors. This points to an “increasing necessity of other forms of remembrance,” said Nancy Harrowitz, director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies minor at Boston University.

“How do we keep audiences interested in hearing the story of the Holocaust and thinking about the effects of dehumanization, especially today in this age of increased anti-semitism, bigotry and prejudice?” Harrowitz asked the crowd.

Photo Credit: (Warsaw Ghetto Uprising /pixabay.com)

One way, she posited, is through films, such as Roberta Grossman’s “Who Will Write Our History,” based on Samuel Kassow’s book of the same title. Unlike more recognizable Holocaust film such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Who Will Write Our History” is a documentary. Its use of reenactment, Harrowitz said, is what sets it apart from the rest of the genre.

“Who Will Write Our History,” which screened worldwide on Sunday, examines and reconstructs the efforts of the Oyneg Shabes, a secret group of Jewish writers who chronicled life in the Warsaw ghetto. Before the ghetto’s destruction, over 35,000 pages of diaries, newspapers and photographs were collected and hidden in metal tins beneath the rubble. These archival materials serve as the basis for the film’s reenactments, which were accompanied by interviews, Nazi propaganda videos and photographs.

As the credits rolled at the sold-out commemoration at Boston University, the crowd of scholars, Jewish community members, Holocaust survivors and consulate generals – earlier chatting loudly over bagels and coffee – was silent. Then, slowly, they began to clap as the panelists took the stage.

Arbeiter, president emeritus of the American Association of Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston, was joined by Irving Kempner, chair of March of the Living New England, and Boston University professor Jennifer Cazenave, who has conducted extensive research on the Holocaust. The panelists were asked by moderator Robert Leikind, director of the American Jewish Committee of New England, to address this “period of profound transition” as Holocaust survivors die.

Moderator Robert Leikind asks panelists to discuss the impact of Holocaust films like “Who Will Write Our History” at the 2019 International Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration on Sunday. Panelists, from left: Jennifer Cazenave, Irving Kempner and Israel Arbeiter. (Hannah Edelman/BU News Service)

“The anxiety of historical transmission has always been there,” Cazenave explained.

She stressed the importance of archives in counteracting revisionist history. However, even with the increased digitization of materials, “archives are just archives, and you need to find a way to make them come to life.”

Beyond survivor testimony and technology, Kempner suggested that programs like March of the Living allow people to better “understand the depth of what we [Jews] lost and go beyond the academics.” March of the Living brings participants of all ages from around the world to Poland and Israel to better understand the Holocaust. For example, he said, the program visits the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery while in Poland, where there are more dead Jews than those alive in all of Massachusetts.

Kempner recalled the death of his grandparents at Treblinka extermination camp in Poland. Now a grandfather himself, Kempner said that his 11 grandchildren represent a “replacement to what we [Jews] lost” during the Holocaust. As part of the next generation of the Jewish community, they will be part of the effort to continue to tell their history.

It is this younger generation, Arbeiter said, that is more interested in hearing from survivors. When he first arrived in the U.S. in 1949, his attempts to tell his story to “anybody who would listen” were met with little attention. Now, like many other survivors, he speaks in schools worldwide.

His experiences at Auschwitz after the death of his family at Treblinka, he said, was “much, much more difficult” than life in the Warsaw ghetto. Many students have asked how he survived the concentration camp, while others admitted that they had never even heard of Auschwitz or the number of people killed in gas chambers before hearing Arbeiter speak.

During the Q&A portion of the panel, one audience member, a former middle school teacher, recalled students saying they didn’t know about the Holocaust and, unaware of her religion, had never met a Jew.

“The sad thing is,” Arbeiter said, “the number of Holocaust survivors that used to go to schools and speak there are getting less and less and less. And the question is, who is going to tell the story after us?”

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