Surviving

Now that I have settled down in my dorm, figured out the ideal cost of cucumbers, strawberries, and cereal, and finally began my office tasks with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, I feel like I have gotten into the flow of this summer.

Last week, the Silberman Seminar came to an end. I got my Christopher Browning autograph and shook hands goodbye with a group of professors who are passionate about spreading knowledge of the Holocaust to a new generation of scholars. I realized afterwards that I had spent about 70 hours in a classroom with the legendary Christopher Browning. He lectured the majority of the time without notes, and knew the historiography of Holocaust studies like the back of his hand. His personal anecdotes were fascinating, especially when he talked about being an expert witness in the David Irving trial and the Daniel Goldhagen “debate” (I would say it was closer to a quarrel).

I have had a number of cool incidents here at the museum this week, but a few really stood out. I met three survivors of the Holocaust who volunteer to speak for the museum occasionally. One was a simple accident. My fellow intern and I decided to go downstairs and eat lunch with the interns who work in the museum to mix things up a bit. We were happily chatting about nonsense, when I finally caught wind of the conversation going on directly across from us at the table. There was an elderly women who I could barely hear, spelling out her experiences at Auschwitz, then afterwards her life in the U.S. It was a strange and humbling moment for me. Here we were talking about T.V., and right across from us was a woman who had had a remarkably hard life, but who was happy to share her difficult story.

On Thursday, I decided to take my lunch break during the “First Person” event that the museum puts on during the summer season. The hour I spent immersed in Steven Fenves’ story really shook me up. He was thirteen when he was sent to Auschwitz. His deportation occurred only a short time after the Americans landed in Europe, but they came too late to save his mother and grandmother. He survived a death march to Buchenwald and was liberated by American soldiers on April 11, 1945. I felt incredibly lucky to have seen his testimony in person, but he also has interviews online here. The part of his story that I found most emotional was when he was kicked out of his home in Subotica, Yugoslavia and forced into the local ghetto. When the family was leaving their home, a long line of neighbors stood waiting on the staircase, spitting and yelling at them as they left. They were waiting patiently in line to loot the recently-vacated apartment. They were people he knew, people who had seen him grow up, who had sold his family groceries, and whose kids were in his classes. The only exception to this was his former cook, who took it upon herself to rescue Steven’s mother’s paintings, recipe book, and a diary. Some of these items are safely resting behind glass in the museum’s permanent exhibit today.

His story was a perfect example of the themes I have been exploring this summer: complicity and indifference. In his story, one person out of an entire town decided to put themselves out there on behalf of the family. Although there were plenty of people who just decided to stay home that day, and took no part in the actual crime, they also took no part in fighting against the injustice. They slipped into the safe position of being a bystander. The question of their guilt in this event is complicated. But I was struck by the truth of Elie Wiesel’s speech “The Perils of Indifference”, and this statement in particular:

“It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.”

It seems to be the theme of my week, possibly the theme of my summer. Between reading Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, and encountering the people who witnessed the ultimate consequences of indifference, I feel like I’m being given a powerful lesson. Indifference empowers perpetrators. If they know that those who could stop them are turning away from their actions, they are given a terrible freedom to do whatever it is they want. With the headlines this week, these questions and thoughts have naturally been falling alongside the question of whether or not the US should get involved in Syria. Instead of leading me to an answer, my feelings towards the predicament have only become more complicated. Speaking about complicated conflicts, Israel has become a topic of frequent discussion for me. This brings me to my first experience with a Holocaust survivor last week. Gideon Frieder spoke at the Silberman seminar about his narrow escape from the Nazis. However, he ended his speech with a very long warning about Israel’s vulnerability and the dangers of indifference. What he had to say was extremely controversial and made me feel pretty uncomfortable, but he ended on something that I have had trouble getting out of my head this week. He said,

“No one took Hitler’s plans and threats seriously either. If the world had taken his words at face value, my sister and mother would never been killed in front of my eyes.”

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