‘Never forget’: Preserving stories of the Holocaust as fewer survivors remain

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WATCH: As the window closes for Holocaust survivors to tell their own stories, their families, along with other organizations, are doing their best to record these crucial accounts for future generations. Abigail Bimman reports on what's being done to preserve those memories and explains why it's so vital – Jan 27, 2020

On Jan. 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated.

By then, the concentration camp — the largest operated by Nazi Germany — saw the killings of more than 1.1 million people. Those taken to the camp also experienced other dire situations, being starved, forced into harsh labour and used for medical experiments.

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Holocaust survivors reflect on liberation, love – Jan 27, 2020

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Living conditions were harsh. Ten people shared the wooden planks that served as beds. The prisoners never bathed, lice were rampant and many contracted typhus.

Since the liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago, and the end of the Holocaust months later, survivors have told their harrowing tales.

An empty floor of a barrack at the former Nazi-German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz I.
View into a prisoner barrack in the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Getty Images

Among them are Howard and Nancy Kleinberg, two Canadians who met as teenagers in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was liberated in April 1945.

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“It was nothing but a death camp. There was no food, people were dying every second, there was no sanitation. We slept on the floor,” Nancy told Global News of Bergen-Belsen.

Nancy said the eventual liberation was “bittersweet,” because she was left with the daunting task of rebuilding her life.

But she did end up rebuilding her life — with Howard by her side — in Toronto after they reunited. The couple went on to get married, have four children and then grandchildren.

Howard and Nancy Kleinberg on their wedding day.
Howard and Nancy Kleinberg on their wedding day. Supplied

They’re still together.

It’s a remarkable story, and just one of many told by survivors of the Holocaust.

But listening to those stories firsthand is becoming more difficult more than seven decades after the end of the Second World War.

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Bernie Farber, the chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, explained those still alive today were children at the time of the Holocaust.

“[Nazis] mostly targeted women and children. That’s why one-and-a-half million children were murdered,” Farber said.

“A few children did survive, and the ones that are alive today would be well into their 80s and come into 90s.

“There really is a small amount of time left for them to tell us their firsthand personal story.”

Farber said Jewish traditions of storytelling have ensured many families, including his own, have passed on stories of survival.

“My father was a survivor of the Holocaust,” Farber said. “He told us his story over a lengthy period of time before he passed away.

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“And there are many like me — descendants of survivors, daughters, sons, who know their parents and grandparents’ stories.”

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But Farber noted beyond that, there are organizations, museums and individuals who have dedicated decades to preserving stories.

Among them is the Toronto-based Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.

Michelle Fishman works at the centre, meeting with survivors to document their stories and helping create educational programs on Holocaust history.

“A future without survivors is inevitably going to happen and not too long from now, unfortunately,” she said, noting that’s part of the reason why centres around the world have been documenting stories so diligently.

A student in Toronto interacts with USC Shoah Foundation’s Dimensions in Testimony during its second pilot at the Neuberger in 2018. Courtesy The Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre

Part of that involves employing new technologies.

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Fishman gave the example of a project called Dimensions in Testimony, which was created by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation.

The technology allows visitors who attend the exhibit to ask common questions about the Holocaust, after which the technology matches up the question to the best pre-recorded video testimony from a survivor. The recorded testimony plays right away, which offers a conversation-like feel.

The Last Goodbye, a virtual reality experience created by the USC Shoah Foundation, piloted at the The Neuberger in November 2018 to coincide with our annual Holocaust Education Week. Courtesy The Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre

In November 2018, the Holocaust education centre also had an exhibit of a virtual reality experience, called The Last Goodbye, which allowed users to talk through a concentration camp along with a survivor.

Through all these efforts, Fishman noted every individual and education centre has unique goals. For this centre in particular, she says she hopes to teach the younger generation about Holocaust.

“The Holocaust in many ways was a universal experience, and there are universal lessons to be learned.”

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“Although it is history, there is much to be learned from this history,” she said.

Farber agreed, noting that anti-Semitism, xenophobia and intolerance aren’t just history. Jews in many parts of the world continue to face discrimination and violence — including in Canada.

According to Statistics Canada’s latest police-reported data, hate crimes against the Jewish population accounted for 19 per cent of total hate crimes in 2018, with 347 incidents reported.

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South of the border, multiple instances of anti-Semitism have occurred.

Less than a month ago, a man wounded five people in New York who had gathered at a rabbi’s home to celebrate Hanukkah. He was later charged with hate crimes.

Last year, a gunman opened fire inside a California synagogue. Another Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018 left 11 people dead.

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“Hatred knows no bound and it continues unabated. Lessons of history can form a certain protection,” Farber said.

For those observing the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, or other commemorations of the Holocaust, Farber noted the most important takeaway is a short one: “Never forget.”

“It’s in the act of forgetting that atrocities can once again reoccur.”

— With files from Global News reporter Caryn Lieberman

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