Americans, the Holocaust is not about you

Marta Winter (2nd from left) with her Aunt Lunja Szternszus, Lunja’s son Gadi, and Marta’s grandfather, Izaak Szternszus, in Israel, ca 1951. (Source: Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews)
Marta Winter (2nd from left) with her Aunt Lunja Szternszus, Lunja’s son Gadi, and Marta’s grandfather, Izaak Szternszus, in Israel, ca 1951. (Source: Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews)

How do we tell the story of the Holocaust?

Here in America, the Holocaust is taught from a distinctly American point of view. The story of the Holocaust typically begins in 1938, with a sudden explosion of hatred that penetrates the American isolationism. The story ends in 1945, when brave American soldiers throw open the gates of the concentration camps. “You are free,” they cry, and, the story implies, everyone goes home again.

In this story, the Jews are pawns in a global chess game between the Allies and the Axis. We use the Jews to prove the evil of the Nazis and, in so doing, demonstrate the heroic righteousness of the American actions. They are faceless props to our story. We mourn for them. We pity them. But we do not truly understand them or what happened to them.

If we want to learn from the Holocaust, we need to see it from the point of view of those who experienced it, not from our distant American perspective. From this point of view, we can see that the horror lies not only in the murders but also in the “choiceless choices”[1] as people struggled to preserve their families and their culture. We can see that the antisemitism was not a sudden explosion that only arose with Hitler, nor was it erased by the Allied troops. We can see the many small ways that love stood against the darkness.

But I can make this point more clearly with a story, the story of Marta Winter.[2]

An ordinary little girl

Marta was born in the city of Czortkow in Eastern Poland. The Jewish community of Czortkow was hundreds of years old and as varied as any population of any modern city. Marta’s father was a lawyer and one of the founders of the local high school. Her mother was a pharmacist. Marta’s memories of her early life are remarkably normal: the smell of her grandmother’s cooking, sledding with her aunt, hide and seek with friends at her birthday party, walks in the forest with her father.

When we start the story of the Holocaust in the 1930s, with the changing laws and violence in Germany, we miss all that was being lost. Well, yes, we say, the laws were changing, but antisemitism had always been rampant in Europe, right? We fail to recognize how normal life had been and how great a change the new laws really were.

A mother’s love

Germany conquered Eastern Poland a month after Marta’s sixth birthday. Her birthday party was her last happy memory. Not long after the occupation began, Marta’s father left the house to say no to the Germans because “they want me to do something for them which I cannot agree to.” [3] He never returned.

Marta was soon moved to the ghetto with her mother, her grandparents, and her aunt. Marta’s mother, Netty, continued to work in the pharmacy, outside the ghetto, thanks to the pharmacy owner’s insistence that he could not manage without her. When Marta was seven, as the ghetto was slowly being cleared of Jews, Netty snuck Marta out of the ghetto to hide in the basement of the pharmacy.

“If there wasn’t a war now and the Germans hadn’t occupied Poland, you would be in second grade,” Netty announced the first night in the basement. “It is very important for me to prepare you for life after the war and therefore at this moment, I announce the festive opening of the school year in Marta’s school.”[4] Hiding in the basement of the pharmacy, Marta learned reading, writing, and multiplication tables. Like many Jewish parents in the difficult times of the war, Netty did her best to give Marta whatever she could, from an education to whatever safety she could muster.

When we see the Jews in the Holocaust as pawns in the great global conflict between good and evil, we miss the difficult choices and the many small ways that love stood strong against the darkness. As the ghetto emptied, Netty made the heartbreaking decision to send Marta away, to live with Christian family friends, hopefully to be safe until the end of the war. Marta never saw her again.

One of many ways to experience the Holocaust

One of the unexpected consequences of hearing the story of the Holocaust from an American point of view is that we only learned about one way people experienced the Holocaust. Those brave American soldiers opened the gates to the concentration camps. They never saw the children come out of hiding. They never understood how difficult it was to pretend to be someone you weren’t.

From the ages of eight to ten, Marta Winter became Krysha Gryniewicz, a little Catholic girl from a village in eastern Poland. Krysha pretended to have come to Warsaw to live with her aunt because her mother was sick and could not take care of her. Krysha went to school and prayed in church. She played with the local children and was silent when they said, “It is good that there are no more Jews left.”[5]

Marta so erased her own identity that when the war ended and her grandfather returned to collect her, she screamed at him, “No. Krystyna Gryniewicz does not have a grandfather.”[6] When asked what her name was, she did not know whether she wanted to be Krysha Gryniewicz or Marta Winter.

Reclaiming your life and your identity

In the American experience, the Holocaust ended in 1945 and everyone went home. However, while the American soldiers were able to return to their homes and their lives, the Jews of Europe found this more difficult. Many tried to go home, only to discover that their homes no longer existed and the violence of antisemitism was still rampant. Some spent more than a decade in displaced persons camps, sitting on the very sites of the concentration camps from which they had just been freed. After the war, the Jews of Europe had three choices: home if you dared; America if you could get in; Israel if you dreamed.

Marta went to Israel. She was eleven when she arrived at the agricultural children’s village of Magdiel near Tel Aviv. Slowly over time, she remembered what it meant to be Jewish. She decided that she once again wanted to be Marta Winter. She found people to love her and people she could love. She grew, married, and is a great-grandmother now.

Marta’s story shows us just how complex this history really is, and how much we miss when we view it only through the narrow vision of the American experience. As an American, I am proud of how we fought to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. My grandfather-in-law was part of that liberation. Our involvement is a worthy story and from that story, we can learn the importance of intervention and the humanity of caring for refugees. But the American story of the Holocaust is insufficient if we truly want to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. For that, we need to hear the story of the Holocaust from the inside, through the eyes and voices of people like Marta Winter.

[1] “This expression was coined by Lawrence Langer, a foremost scholar of Holocaust literature, to describe a situation where every action had a consequence that was often life and death; where decisions had to be made between one abnormal result and another in the crushing reality of life in the Holocaust.” The Pedagogical Approach to Teaching the Holocaust, Shulamit Imber, Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies. http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/international_projects/australian_educators/pdf/index1.pdf

[2] The Daughter We Had Always Wanted, by Naomi Morgenstern, 2007, Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies. Translation by Felice Kahn Zisken. This is a good story for teaching the Holocaust in grades 5 to 8. We use it in grade 8 for the wonderful discussion of Jewish identity. You can find this book at http://secure.yadvashem.org/store/product.asp?productid=407.

[3] The Daughter We Had Always Wanted, p14.

[4] The Daughter We Had Always Wanted, p27.

[5] The Daughter We Had Always Wanted, p50.

[6] The Daughter We Had Always Wanted, p70.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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