The Importance of Visiting Survivors

TRTN Fellows Goretty Chavez and Laurel Stickney, who both are students at Wellesley College, attended a concert with a Boston-area survivor in the fall.
TRTN Fellows Goretty Chavez and Laurel Stickney, who both are students at Wellesley College, attended a concert with a Boston-area survivor in the fall.

In his profound book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl encourages readers to apply his lessons from the Holocaust to their own lives. At one point in the narrative, Frankl shared an inspiring lesson from his time in Auschwitz: “we who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” he wrote. “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In today’s hyper competitive world, college students are bombarded with positive and negative opportunities to dictate the path for the rest of their lives. In these formative years, their experiences shape their personas for years to come. Some chose to focus on grades, some on passions, and others chose to focus on social lives. While balancing this, a unique group of students is choosing to focus some of their time on meeting and learning from Holocaust survivors.

In Boston, the Together, Restoring their Names Student Fellowship connects undergraduate students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds with Holocaust education. During their Fellowship, students lead education programs on their campuses, travel to Europe to see the painful sites of the Holocaust, and do other Holocaust related volunteer work. With all of these incredible experiences, most fellows explain that the most important part of their time on the Fellowship is meeting Holocaust survivors. Students visit survivors in their homes, assist them with projects, take them to concerts, and volunteer to help survivors get to community events, such as the Boston Holocaust Memorial Rededication.

Some fellows have built close bonds with survivors. For example, Wellesley College student Amy Li traveled 25 miles weekly to visit a Holocaust survivor in the Boston area. “This year, I volunteered with Bert Katz to help edit his family memoirs,” she explains. “It is important for me to engage in communities that are not my own, since it fosters understanding and compassion. By working with Bert, I saw the personal side of the histories I’ve learned in school. Reading and discussing his memoirs gave me a deeper appreciation for the strength and resilience of his family.”

Understanding and compassion, a beautiful sentiment. Would the world not be better if everyone shared Amy’s experience?

Mr. Katz agreed, and explained that his relationship with Amy was equally rewarding for him as well. He told me, “Amy’s help in editing my family’s memoirs will have a tremendous impact in the final copy of my book… thank you to your organization for assigning Amy to help me in my project to put into writing the the problems and plight my parents and my family had to endure in order to survive the Holocaust.” Clearly, Amy and her peers have made an incredible impact, both on themselves and on the survivors whom they visit.

Together, Restoring their Names fellows have also been instrumental in sharing survivors histories on their own campuses. This past Yom Hashoah, hundreds of students of diverse walks of life had the opportunity to meet and hear from survivors at events supported by Together, Restoring their Names on half a dozen Boston area campuses. After sitting among 150 other students at a Yom Hashoah “Survivors Speak” event at Brandeis University, one student told me, “we must never forget the lessons they imparted, the stories they told, and all of the stories that can never be told. Never forget.”

About the Author
Elan Kawesch is the director of Together, Restoring their Names, a Holocaust memory service-learning initiative for students in the Boston area, and a student at Brandeis University.
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