There’s so much bad reporting about religion and religion-related stories these days — the continual surprise evidenced by The New York Times that the leaders of Roman Catholic institutions may choose to act, well, in a Catholic manner, for example — that it’s not a bad thing, I believe to highlight instances where a given reporter (and publication) get it right.
Such a refreshing, if deeply sobering, example comes from reporter Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. A Congressional correspondent for the paper, he ventured somewhat far afield to extensively report on “A Race to Preserve the Voices of Holocaust’s Last Survivors.” The opening sets the tone, of course:
JEMEPPE-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium – Simon Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz and hiding from the Nazis for three years.
The students lobbed close to 50 questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated — “Did you meet Hitler?” — to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister who stayed on the train.
But the talk exhausted Mr. Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn’t hear that well, and it isn’t clear how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop. “My children and my grandchildren will talk about it,” he said. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”
Although there are believed to be 160,000 survivors of the Shoah, or “destruction,” as Jews often refer to the Holocaust, still alive, their numbers are dwindling. As each one passes, a voice, a recollection and even the physical evidence of having survived — the numbered tattoo on a forearm — is lost:
A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults during the war. “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. “But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.”
The need for living witness, ironically, grows as generations are more and more removed from the actual events of World War II.
I was born during Eisenhower’s second presidential term, and as a child and teen there were plenty of documentaries, interviews, films and mini-series focusing on the National Socialists and their reign of terror. Now, such documentaries are fewer and farther between, it seems, even if some notable ones are still appearing.
Examined in closer detail, the numbers are even more dire:
Figures for camps that focused on forced labor rather than killing are more complex, because more inmates survived and moved among camps. Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, had roughly 50,000 inmates at liberation, though about 10,000 died within weeks. Today, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial and Museum knows of about 2,000 survivors.
The world’s Holocaust memorials are scrambling to react. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem are accelerating their collection of personal artifacts like dolls and diaries. Almost all Holocaust museums now feature eyewitness recordings. The Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, is developing holograms of survivors that can interact with visitors.
But these are responses, not replacements. After the war, Holocaust survivors were initially slow to speak, partly because a world focused on healing didn’t seem that interested. But a desire to scrutinize the Holocaust has grown sharply over the decades, and a few years ago survivors began telling their stories, driven by a need to rebut Holocaust deniers and a recognition that they wouldn’t be around forever.
There are, of course, difficulties when trying to summarize as complex an issue as the preservation of the stories of the Holocaust, and the Journal rightly examines a key issue facing today’s museums dedicated to the subject:
The questions raised by the survivors’ aging go deeper than educational techniques. With their fading, the Holocaust is transforming from memory to history, and it is now being fitted into its long-term place in the Western narrative.
The question is where that place is. Some museums are trying to keep the Holocaust relevant, as survivors age, by putting it in the context of more recent atrocities. Belgium recently opened a “Museum on the Holocaust and Human Rights,” and it seeks to tie the tragedy to recognizable daily problems.
A film near the entrance shows episodes of playground bullying and workplace harassment, then moves to apartheid and lynching before arriving at the Nazis. On another floor, a wall features a photo of a delirious crowd at a music festival, to illustrate mob behavior.
The museum focuses primarily on the Holocaust, and its displays are affecting, but some Belgian Jews are unhappy with its broad lens—”There is not enough feeling from the Jewish deportation,” said survivor Denis Baumerder. It is an expression of a broader dispute between those who see the Holocaust as unique, almost outside history, and those who want to place it firmly in the flow of historical events.
This is a sensitively written story, exquisitely told, and which should be of concern to all who value human rights, religious freedom and the accurate telling of history.