By Zohar Levy
My commitment to Jewish education and storytelling has led me to 10 Holocaust museums in six countries. It has encouraged me to seek opportunities to learn about this critical historical period. And yet, I, too, fell into the unforgivable trap that Adolf Hitler had planted all so long ago — the erasure of individual Jewish identity.
I grew up immersing myself in opportunities to learn and educate others about the Jewish experience during World War II. I heard about my family’s escape from Vienna. I interviewed survivors who moved to the United States. I interned at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust for a summer in high school. I spent a week in Poland alongside six survivors and two hundred Los Angeles teens, visiting concentration camps, ghettos and memorials. I listened to the wind in the forests where my peoples’ death lingered. Over the years learning about the Shoah — the Hebrew word for the Holocaust (lit. “destruction”) — I thought I had heard about every kind of atrocity humankind could do to a people.
This summer I studied the migration of Jewish refugees from Europe to Mexico during and after the Second World War, as part of a research team led by Professor Yael Siman, an associate professor in the social and political sciences department at the Universidad Iberoamericana Ciudad de México. As much as I knew this research assistantship would be challenging, I believed that I was already familiar with the many of the harsh realities these survivors experienced.
As a research assistant, my primary role was to collect information from some of the 55,000 testimonies available through the Visual History Archive at the USC Shoah Foundation, one of the largest digital collections to document genocide. Professor Siman’s current work utilizes this archive to access about 130 testimonies (mostly in Spanish) of Holocaust survivors who sought refugee in Mexico. I was to take the information from the VHA and combine it with Professor Siman’s database of her prior and current research. The information included the place of birth and residence, age, gender, Holocaust experience and the time of arrival in Mexico.
I spent hours each week making sense of all the seemingly simple data: the hundreds of names, the thousands of dates, the heavy knowledge that this set of information was missing people who may never be named. The process of consolidating information from the many spreadsheets while also transcribing testimonies became almost monotonous. I scrolled through hundreds of names and stories on several Excel tabs, watched interviews and narrowed in on the best way to organize such comprehensive information across several mediums. Within a few weeks, my focus shifted from cataloging data to transcribing survivor testimony. It was these individuals who reminded me of my purpose.
I ultimately completed six typed transcriptions, five of which were in English and one of which was in Spanish. These testimonies totaled 68,173 words and 741 minutes (about 12.5 hours) of video. Given that every 15 minutes of audio took about one hour of transcribing, I listened to over 50 hours of Holocaust testimony for the project, painstakingly writing down every word, every trauma, every heartbreak these people went through.
This time, my focus on preserving Jewish memory was not the same. Contrary to my prior experiences to learn, listen and imbibe, I was now responsible for putting these voices to paper — some for the first time. In this bubble of voices, faces and transcription, these survivors’ stories engulfed me: It was almost as if they sat across from me. In those 10 weeks of learning, I bore witness to six stories of survival. I became a small part of the archive creation of Jewish settlement in Mexico.
I am most proud to have listened to the lives of six survivors so that I can keep telling their stories. I will honor Ruth Brunn, Harry Froehlich, Herbert Dreyfus Gundel, Fini Konstat, Leonard O’Brien and Isaac Kelerstein.
I was particularly moved to tears by Leonard O’Brien. After spending hours listening to him talk about the calamity and agony he faced, I could only think about how hopeless and horrifying this experience was for him. And yet, while asked about his motivation to share his narrative, O’Brien says, “I’m doing it because I love my parents. I miss them. I wanted to have something on record that they existed. Without this, everybody that knew them, sooner or later, will die. And it’s like they were never there.” I had been so caught up in the trauma of his individual story that my brain could not fathom how many others were the protagonists of their stories, such as his parents. He continues with the hope that his interview with the Shoah Foundation “will be immortalizing, or at least may make people know that they were alive … that they were good people.” I ended up sitting there for a while thinking about Jacob Berger and Rachel Rosalaiter Berger.
As members of the Jewish nation, we hear again and again the phrase “never again.” We hear about the six million Jewish deaths at the hands of Nazism. Leonard O’Brien shook me from my numbness. I did not understand that I was no longer comprehending what it means to keep telling these stories.
As human beings, we are incapable of understanding a basic question: What is six million? Or, what do six million people look like? I had become desensitized to the individuality of these people. In my quest to memorialize the Jewish people of Europe and their mass extermination, I had forgotten about the one person. The one family. The one town. All decimated — perhaps even forgotten for the rest of time.
The time I spent with Ruth’s, Harry’s, Herbert’s, Fini’s, Leonard’s and Isaac’s voices and tears and laughter and memories reawakened for me the command to remember. They demanded that I consider the six million and the one — the millions, then and still today, of human beings who were permanently changed because of the Shoah, even if they outlived the war. They breathe life to the innumerable number of stories to preserve and to share. They inspire me to continue my quest to honor all who were murdered for being Jewish, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East or the Americas.
In a moment when I felt spurred to action to meet with these individuals to whom I felt so connected, I remembered that these video testimonies had been filmed in the late 1990s. Now, over 20 years later, these survivors who were born in the early 20th century are most likely no longer alive. My devastation that these testimonies might be the only records of their experiences was slightly lessened by my next realization: My work transcribing, chronicling and dating these experiences was fighting back against the most unforgivable crime against humanity — to make others forget.
While the survivors’ stories are not quantifiable, I am living to commemorate them by their unique memories — not by the tragedies that were forced upon them.
Author’s note: This research was made possible by the Taube Center’s generous grant, the Dr. Bernard Kaufman Undergraduate Research Award in Jewish Studies.
Contact Zohar Levy at zlevy ‘at’ stanford.edu.