May 6, 2020

The Stories Must Still Be Told: Survivor Speaks in Quarantine

Ilyse Muser Shainbrown Director of Holocaust Education

Nine weeks ago, on March 5, I went to a local middle school with a Holocaust survivor. I provided an introduction to the Holocaust and then listened as she told her story to 250 seventh graders. Afterwards, the questions from the students were incredibly meaningful and the day was, as always, one that I’m sure these students will never forget.

Although there was already talk of the virus, its implications, and resulting possible shutdowns, I never imagined that this would be our last live program for some time. As I said goodbye to the survivor in the parking lot and drove off, it didn’t occur to me that this Holocaust survivor, and so many others like her, would not be able to continue doing the work she loves.

How quickly things changed. By early the following week, given the age and high risk factor of Holocaust survivors, we began our cancellations. We started off week-by-week, then through the month of April, and quickly realized that our Survivor Speaks programs would be on hold indefinitely.

I turned my attention to writing this series of blogs on the coronavirus pandemic and the Holocaust, busied myself with Yom HaShoah and other program planning, and, of course, continuously check in with the survivors that speak for the Holocaust Council.

I wondered what I could do for the survivors. How can I help? Can I drop off meals? Bake them challah for Shabbat? Do a drive-by and wave? Help them with technology? Friends and colleagues have been asking me as well. And the answer is certainly yes to all of the above. If you know any Holocaust survivors struggling to get the help they need, please put them in touch with me and our Federation will help them. Providing for the basic needs of anyone in high-risk categories, Holocaust survivors included, is imperative.

But for the survivors who had been speaking at schools, synagogues, churches, and other places on a regular basis prior to the pandemic, it is also imperative that they have the opportunity to continue to tell their stories for as long as they are able. This is what they do… this is how they make a difference on a daily basis… this is how they keep the stories and the memory of the Holocaust alive.

In recent years, educators have begun to imagine and plan for how we will continue to teach about the Holocaust when there are no longer survivors among us to visit the students, let them hear their voices, and share their personal stories. These contingencies have always been for down the road. We never anticipated that we’d have to come up with an alternative plan sooner than expected, due to an international pandemic.

Thankfully, our survivors are still here – and though they can’t go to the schools physically, they can still share their stories. And so, from my own couch last week, I did my first Survivor Speak since March 5, and it was all it was previously and more. On a Sunday morning, Holocaust survivor Peter Fleischmann told his story, via Zoom, just as he has done live for years, to almost 100 participants from a local synagogue. Hearing how Peter’s family was able to escape Nazi controlled Czechoslovakia teaches about courage, helping others, and, of course, the will to survive – all powerful lessons – especially as we face our current crisis.

Right now, during these times, it is extremely uplifting and a real source of resilience and strength to hear from Holocaust survivors. Their wisdom and life’s experiences have proven that even in the darkest of times, and those they experienced are far darker then now, there is light and love and positivity in the world. These survivors provide us with a new lens on our current situation and a new way to face each day.

Without a doubt, listening to a Holocaust survivor tell their story virtually is the definition of a true mitzvah. It is what they need more then anything right now. They need to continue to tell their stories. This is what they live for; it is their way of surviving.

For information on arranging for a Holocaust survivor to speak with your organization via Zoom, click here.