In 2005, BBC produced a six-part mini-series about the Holocaust called Auschwitz: Inside The Nazi State. It details the beginnings of Nazi leadership and how it progressed to the point of mass murders. Informative and yet heartbreaking interviews with survivors and shocking details are revealed about the era. Although the series focuses on the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, a great deal of historical information about the Nazi regime is covered as well. Even in a mini-series, however, one can only tell part of the story. There are so many stories to tell. So many stories that will never be told of the Holocaust.
I’ve always been fascinated by what could drive human beings to such evil. The sheer enormity of the Holocaust is nearly impossible to fathom. However, when I went to Washington D.C. recently, several people told me to skip the Holocaust Museum-saying it was “depressing.” It’s the Holocaust, what do you expect? It’s certainly not going to be fun and games; that’s really not the point. (I went anyway.)
Far too many people avoid things that make them feel uncomfortable. The Holocaust is certainly not a pleasant part of our history, but history it is. Visiting the Holocaust Museum was by far the most moving experience I had during my time in D.C. It’s a gigantic facility-three floors worth of historical documents, photographs, archival footage and even an old rail car like the one used to transport Jews to concentration camps.
Museums and films are great, but it’s the personal connections to history that are the most meaningful. I come from German stock with a smattering of nationalities mixed in. When I was little, my mother would often take me to a little bakery in town. Friedman’s Bakery was located in Countryside Village, a quaint shopping plaza in midtown Omaha, Nebraska. I remember going to Friedman’s, peering into the glass case, and smelling the wonderful aroma of fresh pastries.
Mania and Zalman Friedman, an older Jewish couple, owned the bakery. They were survivors of the Holocaust, but at the time I was far too young to understand what that meant. I had no idea what it was like to be Jewish for the Friedmans.’ However, I do remember seeing Mr. Friedman’s tattoo. It was a series of numbers in purple ink on his left forearm. This identified him as a Jewish work prisoner-an indelible mark he’d have for life. (Note: Auschwitz was the only concentration camp that identified prisoners in this way.) I’d never seen anyone with one of these and it sort of fascinated me. It wasn’t until I was older that I fully realized what that tattoo meant. Zalman and Mania, his wife, spent time in several concentrations camps during the war. Both of them eventually were transported to Auschwitz. By some miracle, they survived. Not only that, but Mania was the eldest of three sisters and by several strokes of luck, all three sisters survived as well. (For more information about the sisters survivor story, go to: http://ihene.org/nebraska-survivor-stories/2010/10/12/sisters-of-the-shoah-three-survivor-tales-golden-fates-and-i.html )
My mother also had other Jewish friends-musicians from Austria. Bob and Bertie Hellman, a married couple, toured and performed across Europe. From all accounts, they led what appeared to be a glamorous lifestyle until World War II hit. During the war, family members split up and scattered across the globe to escape Nazi persecution. They settled in places like the United States, Australia, South America, and other areas in Europe. When the black cloud of danger lifted at the close of the war, many of them stayed where they were. They had displaced themselves, all in the name of survival. Lives forever changed…
One of Bertie’s silk robes now hangs in my closet. It’s navy blue and emblazoned with an exquisitely embroidered, golden dragon. She got it in Shanghai during one of her many travels during her lifetime. For me, it now serves as both a memory of her as well as a testament to those glamorous times she shared with her husband before the war.
When I was twelve, my dad took me to a traveling Anne Frank exhibit. Seeing photos of kids not unlike myself during wartime affected me greatly. The thought of kids being separated from their parents and sent to concentration camps-I couldn’t imagine the horror. In college, I read Night and I’ve heard Elie Wiesel speak in person. The Friedmans’ and Bob and Bertie Hellman, however, provided me with a human link to history. They put a face on human tragedy. I’m very glad they were part of my life. Knowing them has given me a connection to part of our history that happened long before I was born.
As years go by and fewer and fewer survivors are around to chronicle their experiences, it’s even more important for future generations to find their own connections to history. Go to places like the Holocaust Museum. Inform your children about the darker periods in history when you feel they are ready for it. Say a silent prayer for lost souls who can no longer speak for themselves. It is only by facing evil that we can ever hope to understand it.