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Local film screening reminds us of cost to survivors of bearing witness

(L-R): Pawel Lichter, Walter Feiger, Sidney Finkel, and Wolfgang Hellpap pose with their ‘World War II Holocaust Survivor’ caps at the Holocaust History Center in Tucson. (Courtesy Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona)

In an interview published Aug. 27, 2012, five years before his death in 2017 at the age of 87, Elie Wiesel spoke of devoting his life to the principle and the ideal of memory and remembrance. The article was titled “Elie Wiesel on His Fear of Being the Last Holocaust Witness.” Wiesel’s concerns are shared with Holocaust survivors worldwide who realize not only their own mortality but also fear the potential death of the memory of the Holocaust. The urgency they feel to tell their stories and to be present is palpable — to, in the immortal words of Wiesel, make certain the statement “To listen to a witness is to become a witness” is part of their legacy.

On Sunday, Jan. 27, along with an almost silent audience at The Loft Cinema, I sat with six Holocaust survivors and their spouses, children and grandchildren to watch the documentary film “Who Will Write Our History,” the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, the secret archive he created and led in the Warsaw Ghetto. The reason behind the archive was simple and yet haunting; to ensure that by some miracle the story of the unimaginable horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto would be told through Jewish eyes and experiences, rather than through the meticulous documentation of the Nazi regime. To listen to a witness is to become a witness.

One of the local survivors is Wanda Wolosky, who was 6 years old when she and her family were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. She wanted to see the film to see how accurate it would be. “That’s how I remember it,” she says. It was all there, all its ugliness and inhumanity. Wanda wrote and published a memoir of her life and through that process dealt with a lot of her trauma. She too sees the necessity to tell the Jewish story because so much of what we see is from the Nazi footage. Wanda feels strongly that reading and listening are important, but to see a picture is so much stronger, especially with the Holocaust deniers of today.

For Pawel Lichter, a survivor born in Rypin, Poland, the film was almost impossible to watch. His family fled before being forced into the ghetto, but his uncle was tortured and murdered for being a Jew, nothing else. He mourned the lives of family and friends who were forced into the ghetto to face unimaginable conditions only to be murdered in the most brutal ways. For Pawel, the film brought with it thoughts of, “Why me, why did I survive?” It was too much for him all these years later.

We want, we need survivors to be present, to bear witness for us, but at what cost? The responsibility is so great and they will feel it until they take their last breath. Finding the balance between their wellness, which is clearly a priority, and our needs is a challenge. Having the honor to work with these incredible, resilient people, I see their humanity, their emotions, their trauma that is re-experienced each time they speak, and each time they are present for our community. It is heartbreaking and beautiful to both feel the responsibility and know what it might do to you. I tell them they are not called “survivors” for nothing.

And then there are four amazing men who followed the lead of one among them and each wears a baseball cap of their creation that reads: World War II Holocaust Survivor. Puzzled at first when military veterans saluted them, they questioned the use of World War II, and then something happened. People they came in contact with started noticing, questioning, beginning a dialogue. The reality of the Holocaust during World War II was new to some, the proximity to our present day was mind-boggling to others. These four men are educating wherever they go. They are making a difference, they are standing in the face of the deniers, and they are creating witnesses in the most unlikely places.

Where does our responsibility lie? When will we start being their voice? Hillel said, if not now, when? For our Holocaust survivors and for our Jewish future, if not now …

Sharon Glassberg is a clinical therapist and wellness and support specialist at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona. She works to support Holocaust survivors through funding from a national grant from the Jewish Federations of North America Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care.