Keeping Holocaust memories alive as survivors die

Two gatherings in recent weeks, marking milestones for those who fought in or were Holocaust victims during the Second World War, caused me to marvel at the dwindling number of both today.

My father, Robert Wallace, who just turned 86 years old last week, served in the Navy and recently returned from his USS North Carolina Battleship crew reunion. The father of my good friend, Father James Dabrowski, Benjamin Dabrowski, 93, served in the Army during the North Africa Campaign. They are part of the greatest generation who served so bravely during WWII and they are heroes to our families.

It’s hard to believe that more than 16 million men and women served in the U.S. Military during WWII and that only 1.4 million survive today. The median age of military survivors from WWII is 92.

Another anniversary that commemorated what happened during WWII last week was the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The anniversary gathered together elderly survivors of the Holocaust and the veterans who helped liberate them.

The majority of the adult survivors of the Holocaust are mostly gone now and those who walked out of the camps as children survivors are now mostly in their 70s and 80s.

Tom A. Bernstein, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said, “An estimated 6 million Jews in the 1930s and 1940s died in the Nazi campaign in which Adolf Hitler ordered European Jews to concentration camps where they were systematically killed in gas chambers, poison showers or under the stress of disease and fatigue.”

The anniversary drew together more than 750 survivors. Museum officials believe that this may be the last large gathering of survivors of the murderous actions of Hitler and the Nazis.

President Bill Clinton, who dedicated the museum 20 years ago, joined with museum founding chairman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel in giving moving speeches at the gathering. At the tribute dinner the museum awarded its highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award, to all WWII veterans, accepted on their behalf by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and to Wladyslaw Bartoszewski of Poland, as a representative of all rescuers. “What the museum stands for and what many of you know firsthand is the fragility of freedom and the courage and sacrifice necessary to preserve it,” said Director Bernstein to the survivors. President Clinton said, “The Holocaust Museum will be here as our conscience.”

One of the survivors in attendance, Steen Metz, 77,  said that he was only 8 years old when he was forced into a cattle car and taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.

“Like many survivors, I didn’t talk about it or not much. I didn’t know what was going on. We were different, but we were not different. We were different in Hitler’s eyes,” he said that night.

Edith Hendel, 83, another survivor, said, “It’s very emotional and everything is coming back,” as she remembered her time at Auschwitz concentration camp. She added that “there are very little survivors. We’re all dying out.”

Vera Greenwood, 84, a native of Germany who escaped to Palestine and whose husband Fred survived the Holocaust in Holland hidden in a house, said that “in 10 years, most of us will be gone.”

Soon we will be living in a world that will have no more living Holocaust survivors. This fact alarms those involved in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. Here in New Jersey, thanks to such good people as Dr. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, teachers in both public and Catholic schools are educated in Holocaust studies for the classroom.

Dr. Winkler recently said that over the past decade the number of survivors living in New Jersey has decreased from 5,000 to 2,000. He is helping with a three-pronged approach: ensuring that as many New Jersey students as possible meet a survivor; training second-, third- and even fourth-generation groups to know their parents’ stories and how to share them; and giving teacher workshops on how to teach about the Holocaust without the presence of a survivor and how to respond to questions influenced by people who question the veracity of the Holocaust.

Dr. Winkler has been to many of our Catholic schools here in the Diocese of Camden.



Categories: That All May Be One

About Author