Preserving Memories As Worldwide Holocaust Survivor Population Dwindling - The Jewish Voice
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Preserving Memories As Worldwide Holocaust Survivor Population Dwindling

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As an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor had schoolchildren enraptured by his tale of how he escaped the Nazis by jumping off of a train that was Auschwitz-bound and subsequently hiding for three years until World War II had ended, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, a new paradox emerged from his narrative.

Quite simply, how is the history of the Holocaust preserved nearly seven decades after the war has ended. Especially as it becomes more difficult to share the grim and tragic reality of the horrors of the Holocaust when it’s surviving victims are octogenarians at best and continue to age and pass on. And the need to preserve their experience is becoming only more prescient due to the recent recovery of a treasure trove filled with Nazi confiscated artworks has again brought up the issue of reparations and restitution.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, if a survivor of Auschwitz was as young as 20-years-old when Auschwitz was liberated, that survivor’s present day age would be 88-years-old. As it stands, there are not many Holocaust survivors still alive who were young adults at the war’s end.

As 74-year-old survivor Regina Sluszny told the Journal, “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life. But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.” Sluszny survived because she was hidden from the Nazis as a young child.

The Claims Conference is an organization that negotiates German government payouts to Holocaust survivors. According to this organization, the Journal reported that “roughly 160,000 people remain world-wide who lived in Nazi camps or ghettos, or who hid during the war. But that is a broad category, and many are frail or isolated, so the number of active witnesses is a fraction of that, especially in some specific cases. Of the 850,000 people slated for extermination at the Treblinka death camp in Poland, for example, 67 survived the war. Of those, two remain, according to the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom in Treblinka.”

The number of survivors is even more difficult to determine, the Journal explained, because figures for the camps listed above primarily focus on forced labor instead of outright killing of prisoners. Furthermore, inmates survived and moved among camps. As an example, the Journal cited Germany’s Bergen-Belsen camp, the camp where diary-writer died weeks before liberation due to typus. Bergen-Belsen, had roughly 50,000 inmates at liberation, however 10,000 of these “survivors” died within weeks. Today, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial and Museum knows of only about 2,000 survivors.

The world’s Holocaust memorials are scrambling to react to the dwindling population of survivors. According to the Journal “The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem are accelerating their collection of personal artifacts like dolls and diaries. Almost all Holocaust museums now feature eyewitness recordings. The Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, is developing holograms of survivors that can interact with visitors.”

These responses to the diminishing survivor population cannot be viewed as replacements to the living testimony of an individual. The Journal explained that survivor talks have become an integral aspect of how the Holocaust is told to others.

A certain moral credibility is afforded to survivor’s and allows them to speak in a way historians, curators or laymen simply cannot. The Journal expanded upon this by citing President Barack Obama’s visit last March to Yad Vashem. During the visit, the president was visibly and notably moved from a private discussion with Yad Vashem’s chairman, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. Rabbi Lau was liberated from Buchenwald at the age of 7 and he was found hiding under a pile of corpses. One of the camp’s youngest survivors, Rabbi Lau is now reported to to be 76-years-old.

The rapid deaths of Holocaust survivors has become a worldwide phenomenon, and is even more of a dramatic occurrence in Europe. That is because Europe is where the Holocaust actually took place and many of it’s survivors returned to Europe, even to their old homes and neighborhoods, when the war ended and live their until their deaths. Which are becoming more frequent due to the passage of time.

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