A World Without Survivors

I truly admire Holocaust survivors. Merely being in their presence is awe-inspiring. Holocaust survivors not only survived, but lived as well. For this reason and for many other reasons, survivors deserve our utmost respect. Holocaust survivors give a face and a name to each of the six million Jews murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. The personal stories of Holocaust survivors are inspiring beyond measure. Listening to survivors’ stories firsthand is an experience not to be missed. There will one day come a time, though, when we will live in a world without witnesses, in a world devoid of survivors. Personally, the concept of living in a world without survivors hit home for me when I was 14 and my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, passed away. Less than two months before she passed away, I started interviewing her in depth about her prewar life and her Holocaust experiences. My greatest regret in life is that I did not start interviewing her earlier. She passed away before I could ask her most of the questions that I wanted to cover, let alone the many more questions I have accumulated since her death, seven years ago. This isn’t about me, though, nor is it about my grandmother. The real issue at stake is this; who will tell the survivors’ stories when they are gone? Who will bear the torch? In the future, it will be increasingly more difficult to teach younger generations, especially those with no exposure to survivors, about the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivors are not getting any younger. Even the youngest possible survivors, those born in 1945, are already over 70 years old. When these survivors reach 120 years of age, it will be the year 2065. That is only 48 years from now, which is not a long time at all! In my lifetime, a world without survivors will exist. Just this past year alone the world has lost many survivors, some of them, quite famous. For starters, within less than two months of each other, in the summer of 2016, both Professor Elie Wiesel and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis passed way. Elie Wiesel is most famous for Night, his autobiographical account of his Holocaust experiences, but he also authored dozens of other books. He and his wife, Marion, established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. As its website states, the foundation’s aims are “rooted in the memory of the Holocaust” and its goal is to “combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality.”[i]

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, was one of the youngest individuals to survive the concentration camps. When the war ended, she was merely nine years old. Rebbetzin Jungreis made it her mission to combat assimilation and thus founded Hineni, a Jewish outreach organization. She also authored numerous books. I was privileged to hear Rebbetzin Jungreis give two lectures. Both times I was captivated and was practically speechless when they ended.

In November 2016, Professor Yaffa Eliach, another well-known survivor, passed away. Eliach was a historian and a Holocaust scholar. She was behind the first Holocaust Centre in the U.S. and it is due to her efforts that Holocaust Studies was brought to campuses in the States. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there is a touching three story high display of over a thousand prewar pictures. This display is titled The Tower of Faces and the pictures are of the shtetl of Eishyshok, Lithuania, where Professor Eliach was from. Eliach created this magnificent display which emphasizes how Jews lived, not how they died. She authored a book of short Holocaust stories titled Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, as well as the book There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl in Eishyshok.[ii]

One does not need to be world famous to make a difference in the world and this, of course, holds true for survivors as well. My great-uncle, Natan Weiss, passed away recently. Natan was heavily involved in educating people, especially young people, about the Holocaust. He travelled back to Poland numerous times with family members, high school students, and Israeli soldiers. He wrote his autobiography, The Delayed Diary, and even spoke at Yad Vashem. Natan and his wife, Dreizel (Shoshana) are responsible for the installation of a memorial at the site of the mass grave of Natan’s family and the Jews of Brzozow, Poland. Natan passed away less than two weeks after his final mission to Poland. A few days before he passed away, a family member posted a video online of Natan reciting Kel Maleh Rachamim and Kaddish at the mass grave. Natan raised a family in Israel and lived to see great-grandchildren.

Another survivor who lived in Israel was Yisrael Kristal. Originally, when I started writing this article, Yisrael Kristal, at the age of 113, was the oldest man currently living. Before finishing the article in August 2017, though, Mr. Kristal, who credited his survival to G-d, passed away. If Yisrael Kristal’s passing just as I was writing this article is not a case in point, then I don’t know what is. All the survivors that I have mentioned set out to do everything in their power to make the world a better place. I have no doubt in my mind that they succeeded.

With the thought of the recent passings of numerous survivors in our minds, we must wake up and listen to survivors speak. The time is now. There is no later. If one does not have the opportunity available to listen to a survivor speak live, there are also numerous personal testimonies available online. The USC Shoah Foundation has many survivor testimonies posted on their Visual History Archive website. A simple YouTube search for survivors’ testimony will yield many worthwhile results, as well. While hearing survivors’ testimonies is the most meaningful and inspirational form of learning about the Holocaust, other methods to learn about the Holocaust are also important and useful. Reading Holocaust memoirs is a great method to learn about the Holocaust in a more personal manner. Visiting a Holocaust centre or museum is also a powerful experience.

We must equip ourselves to bear the torch when there are no survivors left. It is up to us, the generations born after the Holocaust, Jew and Gentile alike, to bear witness. To quote Elie Wiesel, “anyone who listens to a witness, becomes a witness.”[iii] I know that we are all busy with work, school, and life in general, but if we do not bear witness, no one will, and that would not only be shameful, but a victory for the Nazis. Recently, a certain survivor who I wanted to interview for a few years, passed away. I simply waited too long to pursue speaking to him. Do not make the same mistake that I did. Do not regret it like I did when I waited too long to start interviewing my grandmother in depth. Start now!

As the generation of survivors passes away, we are faced with the stark reality that we will soon be living in a world without survivors. We can learn from my grandparents, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Professor Elie Wiesel, Professor Yaffa Eliach, Natan Weiss, Yisrael Kristal, as well as all other survivors, that despite what horrible experience one may go through, one can make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others. We must strive to emulate survivors by continuing in their footsteps to combat indifference, hatred, and assimilation. When we have nothing physical of the survivors left, all we will have left is the impact that they made on the world and their stories. These stories will live on in the hearts and minds of those who care. We must seek out opportunities to hear survivors speak for if not now, when? In the future, in a world without survivors, who will remember the Holocaust? I will remember. I will bear witness and pass on the torch of remembrance. Will you?

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and in honour of the survivors, both those who have passed away and those who are still with us, may they live to 120!

[i] “About Us,” The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/aboutus.aspx

[ii] “Holocaust Historian Yaffa Eliach Dead at 79,” The Jewish Press, http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/holocaust-historian-yaffa-eliach-dead-at-79/2016/11/09/)

[iii] “Eyewitness Testimony: Elie Wiesel,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxaQM09LPNI

About the Author
Ricki Birnbaum holds a BA in Jewish Studies from York University in Toronto. She is currently a student in the University of Haifa's Weiss-Livnat International Masters Program in Holocaust Studies. She loves Judaism and is very passionate about Holocaust Studies.
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