As my winter break came to a close, I decided to spend a day on a tour of the United Nations. After a lovely afternoon in which I appreciated intricate paintings, learned about the UN’s program goals, and took a picture in a seat at the General Assembly, I came across one of the strangest, and in my mind, disrespectful Holocaust exhibits I have ever seen.
I have a very personal connection with the Holocaust. My grandmother, Ann Greenberg, was a Holocaust survivor. She spent a few years in a Nazi work camp in a thread factory, in which she tied the thread at the end of the spools in an indestructible knot. She then was forced on a death march to Bergen Belsen, from which she was liberated on April 15, 1945. When she was transferred to Sweden, she was suffering from typhus, and scratched the address of her one uncle in America on the door of a closet so she would be able to send him a telegram to let him know that someone in the family had survived.
Until the day she passed, my grandmother often shared aspects of her story with us (albeit the same stories, since she was starting to repeat herself often at the time of her passing) in order for us to remember what she went through, and to emphasize the fact that Hitler did not win. She told us about life before the war, in which her parents owned a large general store in Sosnowiec, Poland. She told us about how she was the top of her class, and was rewarded by marching in front of her school assembly. She told us stories from the work camp, about how she learned how to make a knot that simply could not be untied (something she used to show off from time to time). She told us that she used to comb her hair every day with a small comb she smuggled with her in order to prevent lice. She told us about her mother’s ring that she hid in a bar of soap in order to keep a piece of her family alive. My grandmother was a survivor, and I know from firsthand experience that others like her had plenty to say.
The reason I am writing this article, is to bring attention to the exhibit I came across at the UN last week, at which zero Jewish testimonies were featured. The exhibit was constructed in a path of structures that were meant to look like houses, with the outsides decorated with photographs of outdoor scenes like farms, barns, and open skies. The displays had very small and narrow openings, where if one really leaned in and squinted, one could see photographs depicting tragic scenes from the Holocaust such as Jews undressing before they were shot in mass graves, like Babi Yar. The insides of the displays were the only places Jews could be seen, since the outsides of the displays featured testimonies from witnesses, including many participatory testimonies from inhabitants of the former Soviet Union during WWII. Quotes like “I picked up the shovel and helped dig.”, “Many children in my class were wearing clothes from the Jews” and “When the Jews came to our town, we looted their belongings.” were strewn all throughout the exhibit. Other more passive testimonies were along the lines of “They (ie the Nazis) came to our village, rounded up the Jews in the center, and shot them all”, and “Women and children were crying”.
As I went through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but feel confused and angry. Aesthetically, I can understand the exhibit; the artists were trying to portray the notion that the “innocent” bystanders did not see what was really happening to Jews in far fetched corners of the Soviet Union and other parts of Europe, because they were living their mundane lives while Jews were being systematically executed. However, given what the sane world currently knows about the Holocaust, and given the unfortunate reality that the numbers of Holocaust survivors are diminishing as the years go on, how could it be that a Holocaust exhibit did not find it relevant and pertinent to feature the testimony of at least one living Jew?
My grandmother often reminded us that she survived this horrific ordeal because of the help of a few good Germans along the way. She was helped by her supervisor at the thread factory, who called all the girls “mein kinder” and smuggled potatoes in to the factory for them almost every day. She was helped by a German family that allowed her to hide in their barn for a few hours one night. She was spared by an SS officer in Bergen Belsen when he spotted her stealing potatoes but he did not shoot. There are many stories of righteous or at the very least, good non Jews who helped Jews in small ways and in big ways throughout the Holocaust. If one would like to do a feature of European non Jews during the Holocaust, why not focus on the people that tried to bring some light in to the darkness and madness, instead of those who stood completely idly by, and even participated?
After my visit to the Holocaust exhibit at the UN, I realize why International Holocaust Day (the day of remembrance observed at the UN and in the European Union) is so incredibly important. I, as a Jew, will always have a personal and communal relationship to the Holocaust. It is in my DNA, for it is my grandmother’s story. However, for those that do not have this tragedy ingrained in their consciousness, the understanding of history is becoming warped. This exhibit has shown me that the connection of the UN (and of those who funded and created the exhibit) to the Holocaust is becoming distant, and lost. If they could not preserve and display but one Jewish survivor’s memory, are any of us alive in their eyes? Are the memories of the people who helped dig the graves, loot the belongings, and allow the Nazis to systematically kill 6 million more valuable than my grandmother’s and many others who by miracle made it through, and lived?
Although 6 million people perished in the Holocaust, the survivors overcame the impossible, and left a legacy. My grandmother left a legacy of triumph and perseverance. My mother, a’h, was named Vickie, which was short for Victory, because she was born on April 15, the same day that my grandmother was lifted from the ashes and liberated from the Hell on earth called Bergen Belsen. Her and her friends that came to Brooklyn, NY after the Holocaust all had children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, to prove that the Jewish people could not be erased from the face of this earth. On this International Holocaust day, I hope that this legacy is what is remembered by Jews and non Jews alike. I hope the tragedies are understood, the triumphs are celebrated, and the saying “Never Forget” does not fade away in the distance, for the Jews have survived,and Hitler did not win.