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February 24, 2023, auschwitz stories told by those who lived them, the director of the auschwitz-birkenau state museum in poland has collected hundreds of survivor testimonials, told with a rawness that no outsider could.

By Andrea Pitzer

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A photo of the entry gates into the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

The gate into the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII Nazi-occupied Poland. Translated, the words say "Work sets you free." Frederick Wallace via Unsplash

Hstorian Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland

Piotr Cywiński

“ Auschwitz: A Monograph on the Human ,” a 2022 book by Piotr Cywiński, tries to address that abyss. He does so not by working his way along the boundaries around Auschwitz — the dates and architecture of genocide that swallowed more than a million people , the overwhelming majority of them Jewish — but instead dives into the emptiness itself, gathering details from hundreds of memoirs and official testimonies, along with trial minutes and questionnaires. Chronology doesn’t serve as the organizing principle; instead, the book is divided into themes of human emotion and experience, such as “Decency,” “Hierarchy,” and “Fear” that emerged from looking at the survivors’ accounts as a whole.

Cywiński is a historian and has been the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland for more than 16 years. His polyphonic approach of bringing in hundreds of voices to tell one overarching story struck me as an answer to the question of how to write about something as vast as incomprehensible as Auschwitz.

This focus made me think of Pulitzer winner Katherine Boo who, in talking about her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” balked at the idea of the journalistic impulse to make an individual a symbol of a place or an event. In a 2012 interview Poynter.org, she warned of the    dangers of using one person’s story to represent a bigger concept:

“Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people. Making them representative loses sight of that.”

Cywiński’s Auschwitz monograph illustrates this idea elegantly, gathering related observations with care then ceding nearly all his book to camp prisoners themselves, letting their archival testimonies converse with one another, with minimal interpretation and explanation.

Last December, more than 80 years after Nazis first sent prisoners to the small town of Oświęcim in Poland, Cywiński sat for a public interview with me at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York. We spoke about why some stories went untold for decades, why understanding life at Auschwitz remains almost impossible and why it’s important to include a multitude of perspectives to even begin to glimpse the real story of Auschwitz.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity:

The train tracks that led to the ovens at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

Train tracks that lead from the entry to the Birkenau concentration camp to the gas chambers. Birkenauwas an extension of the Auschwitz camp in WWII Nazi-occupied Poland. Andrea Pitzer

Y ou mention several times in the book the experience of prisoners entering a different world on arrival at Auschwitz. This is extremely important, and I think that this was maybe the main reason why so many survivors started to speak about Auschwitz so late. And still, 95 percent of survivors didn’t speak, didn’t give testimonials, didn’t write any memoirs. I think that they were afraid that using words from our normal world would never give the sense of the reality of the camp.

When I’m hungry, it doesn’t mean the same as when you are hungry in the camp. It’s completely different, and it’s like this with many other emotions, because they are at an extreme that we can’t imagine in our world. You’re put in a situation when the most important factors, like space and time, are completely different. You don’t know how long you will survive.  When you’re speaking about hope, it means some plans for the future, but in the camp it means to survive for the next five or ten minutes. And at every moment, somebody is dying around you. That means you will also die, perhaps in a few minutes or in one hour. It’s a completely different kind of time than we experience in normal life.

At the beginning, I was thinking that I would speak about death at the end of the book. This was an error. In Auschwitz death did not happen at the end; it was present at all times and everywhere.

One of the essays in the collection is on death. There’s a quote from a survivor: “not only is life and human dignity violated here but human death counts for nothing.” For us, death is so tragic. It’s a big mystery. We will arrive all of us at one moment to face our death, but it’s something that we consider with a religious or para-religious approach, with a philosophical approach, even if we if we don’t want to organize our lives according to this destination.

In the camp death was everywhere and could arrive at every moment. Maybe the only thing that they were sure of was death. It’s also completely different when it’s an inverse point to our way of thinking about death. If I ask what you’re sure about in the immediate future, you would tell me about how you will go back home and get dinner or do something with your family. But nobody would be thinking about death as something that we can be sure of happening in the present moment.

One quote from another testimony says: “Among the Auschwitz prisoners who wrote their memoirs none of them claims the camp ennobled people.” Yet it’s woven into a lot of fabric of society before and after Auschwitz that suffering brings a kind of nobility, that there is something inherent in suffering that makes us pure or better. I think it’s important that is not what’s reflected in most of these testimonies. Yes, this perspective is present in very few testimonies. What we consider as a moral system in our society was completely different when it was recreated inside the camp. I think it was also a factor in the incapacity to speak about Auschwitz for many survivors because they begin to justify themselves, and they don’t want to justify themselves. They knew that their choices inside the camp — daily choices, I do not speak about dramatic choices — the daily choices were how to survive, to have one or two or three or days more to stay alive.

The position where you stand at the queue in order to have your soup: If you go at the starting point of the distribution of the soup, you will receive only water; if you go at the end, you’ll be beaten by some very well-positioned prisoners, some kapo or some people from the blocks, because they know that at the end, there will be some potatoes. So you have to find your own position, not too quickly and not too late. But that means you will take this place from some other prisoner. And with every choice you made, that means somebody else did not get this choice.

You also address the Sonderkommando — these people who were drafted into being active participants in the murder of other prisoners at Auschwitz. It’s perhaps the most tragic history in the camp, the story of the Sonderkommando . They were in general young men taken from different transports and put to work around the gas chambers and the crematoria. They had to burn corpses, to make all this machinery function. A clear majority were Jews, and many of them were coming from Jewish Orthodox families, and cremation of course was something they couldn’t have imagined. For decades after the war, they were considered maybe not as perpetrators but as collaborators of perpetrators, except two or three, like Shlomo Venezia or Filip Müller . Many of them stayed silent for years.

We are all very proud of our culture, our education and our sense of values. We feel really prepared to confront difficulties. Those people also, certainly they were thinking like this. But a few days were enough to change a person arriving from a normal world to a person completely acting according to the camp rules, thinking in a different way, approaching other humans in a different way, considering himself as a completely different person.

Another example of a theme that we in our world might think of quite differently than the voices we hear in the book is this idea of sacrifice. I want to speak specifically about Father Kolbe , because many people have heard about this story, and he was canonized later for switching places with a condemned person. Here’s what one of the survivors said about him: “I must stress that what impressed us was not that he gave up his life for someone else, for life wasn’t worth much in the camp. We were impressed that in front of so many SS men and prisoner functionaries, he had broken discipline and dared to step out of rank.” It’s quite different than what we might think. I heard many words like this. “If you give your life for another, that does not mean you give your life. You give your last few days or a few weeks, it’s not something exceptional. But breaking the rules, it is something, yes.”

And there were, of course, different levels of sacrifice. You can share, for example, your bread. So you have some bread. Your kid or your friend for some reason has no more bread, and maybe he’s in deeper need. You can give him the half of your bread; it seems nothing. But what was the remark of the prisoners?  “Oh, look at him he’s starting to share his bread. He has no will to survive. He will be finished very quickly.” It’s not like a sacrifice, it’s like suicide. This is why I am speaking about an entire axiology that is completely different in the camp than in our perception.

A prisoners' room at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

A prisoners' room at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Auschwitz memorial, Poland.

You note that some of those people wo were most deeply tied into their communities actually were a tremendous disadvantage in the camp. Those who had the easiest time adapting to the camp were people coming from very low socioeconomic levels from big cities, people who had very hard childhoods with many problems in their lives. They’ve got ideas on how to adapt to those difficulties.

But at the opposite end, you get for example people from the countryside, normal people without any education, unable to understand or to speak German, unable to imagine a different world than their own, living all the time in cyclical time according to the seasons. They found themselves in the camp and were completely unable to adapt. In general they did not leave testimonies after the war, because if you finish two grades in the schools or even not two, you are unable to write your testimony.

But many other prisoners themselves tried to enter in contact with them and describe them, and this was something incredible. Many times you think it’s those people coming from very traditional settings with centuries of culture and systems of ethics who will be the strongest in a difficult time. Not really. Not really.

One of the things the general public forgets today about the enormity of the death camps and the Holocaust was that it took many years to frame even the basic understanding that we have today of what happened. It was not understood in the immediate postwar time, so survivors didn’t have that space to speak, because what they experienced was in some ways quite different than what was first said about what had happened in the camps. The situation of somebody captured in 1940 in Warsaw because he prepared some anti-Nazi, anti-German action, as a scout or something like this, was completely different than somebody who was taken from their house for nothing. The latter was unable to know why he was in this camp. It was difficult to create a definite narrative after the war if you were taken for no reason from your house or from the street and sent to the camp. If somebody was involved in some unusual actions, it was different. He was able afterward to say, “Yes I suffered a lot. It was inhuman, but I was fighting against something.”

This psychological difference was huge in the postwar narratives.

A question from the audience, from a woman whose father spent years in Auschwitz, asks about the difference between the reception of Christian and Jewish narratives. In Poland, especially after 1968, the camp narrative was more organized by Christian prisoners. In the Western world it was more organized by Jewish survivors. It was a very clear difference between the two narratives.

I remember in the ’90s when Communism ended, it became possible to travel to Poland to visit Auschwitz. The two communities of remembrance met in the same place and did not recognize each other. It was like they were speaking about some completely different history. There were different symbols, words, approaches. It created tensions, it created emotions.

It took time, even a whole generation — up until 2010 or later — for those different worlds not only to accept each other but to understand that, yes, they’re all attached to the same story, to the same place. It was very, very difficult.

And at the same time, in the late ’90s, some new history arrived. The genocide of the Roma and Sinti — so-called gypsies — was discovered by the larger public. Then Russia started to speak about the Soviet prisoners of war who were put in Auschwitz.

I think we are headed in a good direction. We are learning to understand each other and all these stories.

Andrea Pitzer is the author of three books of narrative nonfiction that explore untold histories. She was the editor of Nieman Storyboard from 2009-2012.

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In the Shadow of the Holocaust

By Masha Gessen

A blackandwhite photo of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin Germany.

Berlin never stops reminding you of what happened there. Several museums examine totalitarianism and the Holocaust; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe takes up an entire city block. In a sense, though, these larger structures are the least of it. The memorials that sneak up on you—the monument to burned books, which is literally underground, and the thousands of Stolpersteine , or “stumbling stones,” built into sidewalks to commemorate individual Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals, mentally ill people, and others murdered by the Nazis—reveal the pervasiveness of the evils once committed in this place. In early November, when I was walking to a friend’s house in the city, I happened upon the information stand that marks the site of Hitler’s bunker. I had done so many times before. It looks like a neighborhood bulletin board, but it tells the story of the Führer’s final days.

In the late nineteen-nineties and early two-thousands, when many of these memorials were conceived and installed, I visited Berlin often. It was exhilarating to watch memory culture take shape. Here was a country, or at least a city, that was doing what most cultures cannot: looking at its own crimes, its own worst self. But, at some point, the effort began to feel static, glassed in, as though it were an effort not only to remember history but also to insure that only this particular history is remembered—and only in this way. This is true in the physical, visual sense. Many of the memorials use glass: the Reichstag, a building nearly destroyed during the Nazi era and rebuilt half a century later, is now topped by a glass dome; the burned-books memorial lives under glass; glass partitions and glass panes put order to the stunning, once haphazard collection called “Topography of Terror.” As Candice Breitz, a South African Jewish artist who lives in Berlin, told me, “The good intentions that came into play in the nineteen-eighties have, too often, solidified into dogma.”

Podcast: The Political Scene Masha Gessen talks with Tyler Foggatt.

Among the few spaces where memory representation is not set in apparent permanence are a couple of the galleries in the new building of the Jewish Museum, which was completed in 1999. When I visited in early November, a gallery on the ground floor was showing a video installation called “Rehearsing the Spectacle of Spectres.” The video was set in Kibbutz Be’eri , the community where, on October 7th, Hamas killed more than ninety people—almost one in ten residents—during its attack on Israel, which ultimately claimed more than twelve hundred lives. In the video, Be’eri residents take turns reciting the lines of a poem by one of the community’s members, the poet Anadad Eldan: “. . . from the swamp between the ribs / she surfaced who had submerged in you / and you are constrained not shouting / hunting for the forms that scamper outside.” The video, by the Berlin-based Israeli artists Nir Evron and Omer Krieger, was completed nine years ago. It begins with an aerial view of the area, the Gaza Strip visible, then slowly zooms in on the houses of the kibbutz, some of which looked like bunkers. I am not sure what the artists and the poet had initially meant to convey; now the installation looked like a work of mourning for Be’eri. (Eldan, who is nearly a hundred years old, survived the Hamas attack.)

Down the hallway was one of the spaces that the architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the museum, called “voids”—shafts of air that pierce the building, symbolizing the absence of Jews in Germany through generations. There, an installation by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, titled “Fallen Leaves,” consists of more than ten thousand rounds of iron with eyes and mouths cut into them, like casts of children’s drawings of screaming faces. When you walk on the faces, they clank, like shackles, or like the bolt handle of a rifle. Kadishman dedicated the work to victims of the Holocaust and other innocent victims of war and violence. I don’t know what Kadishman, who died in 2015, would have said about the current conflict. But, after I walked from the haunting video of Kibbutz Be’eri to the clanking iron faces, I thought of the thousands of residents of Gaza killed in retaliation for the lives of Jews killed by Hamas. Then I thought that, if I were to state this publicly in Germany, I might get in trouble.

View of the Fallen Leaves exhibition room at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. A number of metal face cutouts lie on the ground.

On November 9th, to mark the eighty-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht, a Star of David and the phrase “ Nie Wieder Ist Jetzt! ”—“Never Again Is Now!”—was projected in white and blue on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. That day, the Bundestag was considering a proposal titled “Fulfilling Historical Responsibility: Protecting Jewish Life in Germany,” which contained more than fifty measures intended to combat antisemitism in Germany, including deporting immigrants who commit antisemitic crimes; stepping up activities directed against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement; supporting Jewish artists “whose work is critical of antisemitism”; implementing a particular definition of antisemitism in funding and policing decisions; and beefing up coöperation between the German and the Israeli armed forces. In earlier remarks, the German Vice-Chancellor, Robert Habeck, who is a member of the Green Party, said that Muslims in Germany should “clearly distance themselves from antisemitism so as not to undermine their own right to tolerance.”

Germany has long regulated the ways in which the Holocaust is remembered and discussed. In 2008, when then Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke before the Knesset, on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, she emphasized Germany’s special responsibility not only for preserving the memory of the Holocaust as a unique historical atrocity but also for the security of Israel. This, she went on, was part of Germany’s Staatsräson —the reason for the existence of the state. The sentiment has since been repeated in Germany seemingly every time the topic of Israel, Jews, or antisemitism arises, including in Habeck’s remarks. “The phrase ‘Israel’s security is part of Germany’s Staatsräson ’ has never been an empty phrase,” he said. “And it must not become one.”

At the same time, an obscure yet strangely consequential debate on what constitutes antisemitism has taken place. In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (I.H.R.A.), an intergovernmental organization, adopted the following definition: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” This definition was accompanied by eleven examples, which began with the obvious—calling for or justifying the killing of Jews—but also included “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

This definition had no legal force, but it has had extraordinary influence. Twenty-five E.U. member states and the U.S. State Department have endorsed or adopted the I.H.R.A. definition. In 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order providing for the withholding of federal funds from colleges where students are not protected from antisemitism as defined by the I.H.R.A. On December 5th of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution condemning antisemitism as defined by the I.H.R.A.; it was proposed by two Jewish Republican representatives and opposed by several prominent Jewish Democrats, including New York’s Jerry Nadler.

In 2020, a group of academics proposed an alternative definition of antisemitism, which they called the Jerusalem Declaration . It defines antisemitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)” and provides examples that help distinguish anti-Israel statements and actions from antisemitic ones. But although some of the preëminent scholars of the Holocaust participated in drafting the declaration, it has barely made a dent in the growing influence of the I.H.R.A. definition. In 2021, the European Commission published a handbook “for the practical use” of the I.H.R.A. definition, which recommended, among other things, using the definition in training law-enforcement officers to recognize hate crimes, and creating the position of state attorney, or coördinator or commissioner for antisemitism.

Germany had already implemented this particular recommendation. In 2018, the country created the Office of the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism, a vast bureaucracy that includes commissioners at the state and local level, some of whom work out of prosecutors’ offices or police precincts. Since then, Germany has reported an almost uninterrupted rise in the number of antisemitic incidents: more than two thousand in 2019, more than three thousand in 2021, and, according to one monitoring group, a shocking nine hundred and ninety-four incidents in the month following the Hamas attack. But the statistics mix what Germans call Israelbezogener Antisemitismus —Israel-related antisemitism, such as instances of criticism of Israeli government policies—with violent attacks, such as an attempted shooting at a synagogue, in Halle, in 2019, which killed two bystanders; shots fired at a former rabbi’s house, in Essen, in 2022; and two Molotov cocktails thrown at a Berlin synagogue this fall. The number of incidents involving violence has, in fact, remained relatively steady, and has not increased following the Hamas attack.

There are now dozens of antisemitism commissioners throughout Germany. They have no single job description or legal framework for their work, but much of it appears to consist of publicly shaming those they see as antisemitic, often for “de-singularizing the Holocaust” or for criticizing Israel. Hardly any of these commissioners are Jewish. Indeed, the proportion of Jews among their targets is certainly higher. These have included the German-Israeli sociologist Moshe Zuckermann, who was targeted for supporting the B.D.S. movement, as was the South African Jewish photographer Adam Broomberg.

In 2019, the Bundestag passed a resolution condemning B.D.S. as antisemitic and recommending that state funding be withheld from events and institutions connected to B.D.S. The history of the resolution is telling. A version was originally introduced by the AfD, the radical-right ethnonationalist and Euroskeptic party then relatively new to the German parliament. Mainstream politicians rejected the resolution because it came from the AfD, but, apparently fearful of being seen as failing to fight antisemitism, immediately introduced a similar one of their own. The resolution was unbeatable because it linked B.D.S. to “the most terrible phase of German history.” For the AfD, whose leaders have made openly antisemitic statements and endorsed the revival of Nazi-era nationalist language, the spectre of antisemitism is a perfect, cynically wielded political instrument, both a ticket to the political mainstream and a weapon that can be used against Muslim immigrants.

The B.D.S. movement, which is inspired by the boycott movement against South African apartheid, seeks to use economic pressure to secure equal rights for Palestinians in Israel, end the occupation, and promote the return of Palestinian refugees. Many people find the B.D.S. movement problematic because it does not affirm the right of the Israeli state to exist—and, indeed, some B.D.S. supporters envision a total undoing of the Zionist project. Still, one could argue that associating a nonviolent boycott movement, whose supporters have explicitly positioned it as an alternative to armed struggle, with the Holocaust is the very definition of Holocaust relativism. But, according to the logic of German memory policy, because B.D.S. is directed against Jews—although many of the movement’s supporters are also Jewish—it is antisemitic. One could also argue that the inherent conflation of Jews with the state of Israel is antisemitic, even that it meets the I.H.R.A. definition of antisemitism. And, given the AfD’s involvement and the pattern of the resolution being used largely against Jews and people of color, one might think that this argument would gain traction. One would be wrong.

The German Basic Law, unlike the U.S. Constitution but like the constitutions of many other European countries, has not been interpreted to provide an absolute guarantee of freedom of speech. It does, however, promise freedom of expression not only in the press but in the arts and sciences, research, and teaching. It’s possible that, if the B.D.S. resolution became law, it would be deemed unconstitutional. But it has not been tested in this way. Part of what has made the resolution peculiarly powerful is the German state’s customary generosity: almost all museums, exhibits, conferences, festivals, and other cultural events receive funding from the federal, state, or local government. “It has created a McCarthyist environment,” Candice Breitz, the artist, told me. “Whenever we want to invite someone, they”—meaning whatever government agency may be funding an event—“Google their name with ‘B.D.S.,’ ‘Israel,’ ‘apartheid.’ ”

A couple of years ago, Breitz, whose art deals with issues of race and identity, and Michael Rothberg, who holds a Holocaust studies chair at the University of California, Los Angeles, tried to organize a symposium on German Holocaust memory, called “We Need to Talk.” After months of preparations, they had their state funding pulled, likely because the program included a panel connecting Auschwitz and the genocide of the Herero and the Nama people carried out between 1904 and 1908 by German colonizers in what is now Namibia. “Some of the techniques of the Shoah were developed then,” Breitz said. “But you are not allowed to speak about German colonialism and the Shoah in the same breath because it is a ‘levelling.’ ”

The insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust and the centrality of Germany’s commitment to reckoning with it are two sides of the same coin: they position the Holocaust as an event that Germans must always remember and mention but don’t have to fear repeating, because it is unlike anything else that’s ever happened or will happen. The German historian Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, who heads the Centre for Research on Antisemitism, in Berlin, has argued that unified Germany turned the reckoning with the Holocaust into its national idea, and as a result “any attempt to advance our understanding of the historical event itself, through comparisons with other German crimes or other genocides, can [be] and is being perceived as an attack on the very foundation of this new nation-state.” Perhaps that’s the meaning of “Never again is now.”

Some of the great Jewish thinkers who survived the Holocaust spent the rest of their lives trying to tell the world that the horror, while uniquely deadly, should not be seen as an aberration. That the Holocaust happened meant that it was possible—and remains possible. The sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argued that the massive, systematic, and efficient nature of the Holocaust was a function of modernity—that, although it was by no means predetermined, it fell in line with other inventions of the twentieth century. Theodor Adorno studied what makes people inclined to follow authoritarian leaders and sought a moral principle that would prevent another Auschwitz.

In 1948, Hannah Arendt wrote an open letter that began, “Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the ‘Freedom Party’ (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy, and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Just three years after the Holocaust, Arendt was comparing a Jewish Israeli party to the Nazi Party, an act that today would be a clear violation of the I.H.R.A.’s definition of antisemitism. Arendt based her comparison on an attack carried out in part by the Irgun, a paramilitary predecessor of the Freedom Party, on the Arab village of Deir Yassin, which had not been involved in the war and was not a military objective. The attackers “killed most of its inhabitants—240 men, women, and children—and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.”

The occasion for Arendt’s letter was a planned visit to the United States by the party’s leader, Menachem Begin. Albert Einstein, another German Jew who fled the Nazis, added his signature. Thirty years later, Begin became Prime Minister of Israel. Another half century later, in Berlin, the philosopher Susan Neiman, who leads a research institute named for Einstein, spoke at the opening of a conference called “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right.” She suggested that she might face repercussions for challenging the ways in which Germany now wields its memory culture. Neiman is an Israeli citizen and a scholar of memory and morals. One of her books is called “ Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil .” In the past couple of years, Neiman said, memory culture had “gone haywire.”

Germany’s anti-B.D.S. resolution, for example, has had a distinct chilling effect on the country’s cultural sphere. The city of Aachen took back a ten-thousand-euro prize it had awarded to the Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad; the city of Dortmund and the jury for the fifteen-thousand-euro Nelly Sachs Prize similarly rescinded the honor that they had bestowed on the British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie. The Cameroonian political philosopher Achille Mbembe had his invitation to a major festival questioned after the federal antisemitism commissioner accused him of supporting B.D.S. and “relativizing the Holocaust.” (Mbembe has said that he is not connected with the boycott movement; the festival itself was cancelled because of COVID .) The director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, resigned in 2019 after being accused of supporting B.D.S.—he did not, in fact, support the boycott movement, but the museum had posted a link, on Twitter, to a newspaper article that included criticism of the resolution. The office of Benjamin Netanyahu had also asked Merkel to cut the museum’s funding because, in the Israeli Prime Minister’s opinion, its exhibition on Jerusalem paid too much attention to the city’s Muslims. (Germany’s B.D.S. resolution may be unique in its impact but not in its content: a majority of U.S. states now have laws on the books that equate the boycott with antisemitism and withhold state funding from people and institutions that support it.)

After the “We Need to Talk” symposium was cancelled, Breitz and Rothberg regrouped and came up with a proposal for a symposium called “We Still Need to Talk.” The list of speakers was squeaky clean. A government entity vetted everyone and agreed to fund the gathering. It was scheduled for early December. Then Hamas attacked Israel . “We knew that after that every German politician would see it as extremely risky to be connected with an event that had Palestinian speakers or the word ‘apartheid,’ ” Breitz said. On October 17th, Breitz learned that funding had been pulled. Meanwhile, all over Germany, police were cracking down on demonstrations that call for a ceasefire in Gaza or manifest support for Palestinians. Instead of a symposium, Breitz and several others organized a protest. They called it “We Still Still Still Still Need to Talk.” About an hour into the gathering, police quietly cut through the crowd to confiscate a cardboard poster that read “From the River to the Sea, We Demand Equality.” The person who had brought the poster was a Jewish Israeli woman.

The “Fulfilling Historical Responsibility” proposal has since languished in committee. Still, the performative battle against antisemitism kept ramping up. In November, the planning of Documenta, one of the art world’s most important shows, was thrown into disarray after the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung dug up a petition that a member of the artistic organizing committee, Ranjit Hoskote, had signed in 2019. The petition, written to protest a planned event on Zionism and Hindutva in Hoskote’s home town of Mumbai, denounced Zionism as “a racist ideology calling for a settler-colonial, apartheid state where non-Jews have unequal rights, and in practice, has been premised on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on it under the heading “Antisemitism.” Hoskote resigned and the rest of the committee followed suit. A week later, Breitz read in a newspaper that a museum in Saarland had cancelled an exhibit of hers, which had been planned for 2024, “in view of the media coverage about the artist in connection with her controversial statements in the context of Hamas’ war of aggression against the state of Israel.”

This November, I left Berlin to travel to Kyiv, traversing, by train, Poland and then Ukraine. This is as good a place as any to say a few things about my relationship to the Jewish history of these lands. Many American Jews go to Poland to visit what little, if anything, is left of the old Jewish quarters, to eat food reconstructed according to recipes left by long-extinguished families, and to go on tours of Jewish history, Jewish ghettos, and Nazi concentration camps. I am closer to this history. I grew up in the Soviet Union in the nineteen-seventies, in the ever-present shadow of the Holocaust, because only a part of my family had survived it and because Soviet censors suppressed any public mention of it. When, around the age of nine, I learned that some Nazi war criminals were still on the loose, I stopped sleeping. I imagined one of them climbing in through our fifth-floor balcony to snatch me.

During summers, our cousin Anna and her sons would visit from Warsaw. Her parents had decided to kill themselves after the Warsaw Ghetto burned down. Anna’s father threw himself in front of a train. Anna’s mother tied the three-year-old Anna to her waist with a shawl and jumped into a river. They were plucked out of the water by a Polish man, and survived the war by hiding in the countryside. I knew the story, but I wasn’t allowed to mention it. Anna was an adult when she learned that she was a Holocaust survivor, and she waited to tell her own kids, who were around my age. The first time I went to Poland, in the nineteen-nineties, was to research the fate of my great-grandfather, who spent nearly three years in the Białystok Ghetto before being killed in Majdanek.

The Holocaust memory wars in Poland have run in parallel with Germany’s. The ideas being battled out in the two countries are different, but one consistent feature is the involvement of right-wing politicians in conjunction with the state of Israel. As in Germany, the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands saw ambitious memorialization efforts, both national and local, that broke through the silence of the Soviet years. Poles built museums and monuments that commemorated the Jews killed in the Holocaust—which claimed half of its victims in Nazi-occupied Poland—and the Jewish culture that was lost with them. Then the backlash came. It coincided with the rise to power of the right-wing, illiberal Law and Justice Party, in 2015. Poles now wanted a version of history in which they were victims of the Nazi occupation alongside the Jews, whom they tried to protect from the Nazis.

This was not true: instances of Poles risking their lives to save Jews from the Germans, as in the case of my cousin Anna, were exceedingly rare, while the opposite—entire communities or structures of the pre-occupation Polish state, such as the police or city offices, carrying out the mass murder of Jews—was common. But historians who studied the Poles’ role in the Holocaust came under attack . The Polish-born Princeton historian Jan Tomasz Gross was interrogated and threatened with prosecution for writing that Poles killed more Polish Jews than Germans. The Polish authorities hounded him even after he retired. The government squeezed Dariusz Stola, the head of POLIN , Warsaw’s innovative museum of Polish Jewish history, out of his post. The historians Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking were dragged into court for writing that the mayor of a Polish village had been a collaborator in the Holocaust.

When I wrote about Grabowski and Engleking’s case, I received some of the scariest death threats of my life. (I’ve been sent a lot of death threats; most are forgettable.) One, sent to a work e-mail address, read, “If you keep writing lies about Poland and the Poles, I will deliver these bullets to your body. See the attachment! Five of them in every kneecap, so you won’t walk again. But if you continue to spread your Jewish hatred, I will deliver next 5 bullets in your pussy. The third step you won’t notice. But don’t worry, I’m not visiting you next week or eight weeks, I’ll be back when you forget this e-mail, maybe in 5 years. You’re on my list. . . .” The attachment was a picture of two shiny bullets in the palm of a hand. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, headed by a government appointee, tweeted a condemnation of my article, as did the account of the World Jewish Congress. A few months later, a speaking invitation to a university fell through because, the university told my speaking agent, it had emerged that I might be an antisemite.

Throughout the Polish Holocaust-memory wars, Israel maintained friendly relations with Poland. In 2018, Netanyahu and the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, issued a joint statement against “actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations.” The statement asserted, falsely, that “structures of the Polish underground state supervised by the Polish government-in-exile created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people.” Netanyahu was building alliances with the illiberal governments of Central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, in part to prevent an anti-occupation consensus from solidifying in the European Union. For this, he was willing to lie about the Holocaust.

Each year, tens of thousands of Israeli teen-agers travel to the Auschwitz museum before graduating from high school (though last year the trips were called off over security issues and the Polish government’s growing insistence that Poles’ involvement in the Holocaust be written out of history). It is a powerful, identity-forming trip that comes just a year or two before young Israelis join the military. Noam Chayut, a founder of Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation advocacy group in Israel, has written of his own high-school trip, which took place in the late nineteen-nineties, “Now, in Poland, as a high-school adolescent, I began to sense belonging, self-love, power and pride, and the desire to contribute, to live and be strong, so strong that no one would ever try to hurt me.”

Chayut took this feeling into the I.D.F., which posted him to the occupied West Bank. One day he was putting up property-confiscation notices. A group of children was playing nearby. Chayut flashed what he considered a kind and non-threatening smile at a little girl. The rest of the children scampered off, but the girl froze, terrified, until she, too, ran away. Later, when Chayut published a book about the transformation this encounter precipitated, he wrote that he wasn’t sure why it was this girl: “After all, there was also the shackled kid in the Jeep and the girl whose family home we had broken into late at night to remove her mother and aunt. And there were plenty of children, hundreds of them, screaming and crying as we rummaged through their rooms and their things. And there was the child from Jenin whose wall we blasted with an explosive charge that blew a hole just a few centimeters from his head. Miraculously, he was uninjured, but I’m sure his hearing and his mind were badly impaired.” But in the eyes of that girl, on that day, Chayut saw a reflection of annihilatory evil, the kind that he had been taught existed, but only between 1933 and 1945, and only where the Nazis ruled. Chayut called his book “ The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust .”

I took the train from the Polish border to Kyiv. Nearly thirty-four thousand Jews were shot at Babyn Yar, a giant ravine on the outskirts of the city, in just thirty-six hours in September, 1941. Tens of thousands more people died there before the war was over. This was what is now known as the Holocaust by bullets. Many of the countries in which these massacres took place—the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine—were re-colonized by the Soviet Union following the Second World War. Dissidents and Jewish cultural activists risked their freedom to maintain a memory of these tragedies, to collect testimony and names, and, where possible, to clean up and protect the sites themselves. After the fall of the Soviet Union, memorialization projects accompanied efforts to join the European Union. “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket,” the historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book, “ Postwar .”

In the Rumbula forest, outside of Riga, for example, where some twenty-five thousand Jews were murdered in 1941, a memorial was unveiled in 2002, two years before Latvia was admitted to the E.U. A serious effort to commemorate Babyn Yar coalesced after the 2014 revolution that set Ukraine on an aspirational path to the E.U. By the time Russia invaded Ukraine, in February, 2022, several smaller structures had been completed and ambitious plans for a larger museum complex were in place. With the invasion, construction halted. One week into the full-scale war, a Russian missile hit directly next to the memorial complex, killing at least four people. Since then, some of the people associated with the project have reconstituted themselves as a team of war-crimes investigators.

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has waged an earnest campaign to win Israeli support for Ukraine. In March, 2022, he delivered a speech to the Knesset, in which he didn’t stress his own Jewish heritage but focussed on the inextricable historical connection between Jews and Ukrainians. He drew unambiguous parallels between the Putin regime and the Nazi Party. He even claimed that eighty years ago Ukrainians rescued Jews. (As with Poland, any claim that such aid was widespread is false.) But what worked for the right-wing government of Poland did not work for the pro-Europe President of Ukraine. Israel has not given Ukraine the help it has begged for in its war against Russia, a country that openly supports Hamas and Hezbollah.

Still, both before and after the October 7th attack, the phrase I heard in Ukraine possibly more than any other was “We need to be like Israel.” Politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and ordinary Ukrainians identify with the story Israel tells about itself, that of a tiny but mighty island of democracy standing strong against enemies who surround it. Some Ukrainian left-wing intellectuals have argued that Ukraine, which is fighting an anti-colonial war against an occupying power, should see its reflection in Palestine, not Israel. These voices are marginal and most often belong to young Ukrainians who are studying or have studied abroad. Following the Hamas attack, Zelensky wanted to rush to Israel as a show of support and unity between Israel and Ukraine. Israeli authorities seem to have other ideas—the visit has not happened.

While Ukraine has been unsuccessfully trying to get Israel to acknowledge that Russia’s invasion resembles Nazi Germany’s genocidal aggression, Moscow has built a propaganda universe around portraying Zelensky’s government, the Ukrainian military, and the Ukrainian people as Nazis. The Second World War is the central event of Russia’s historical myth. During Vladimir Putin’s reign, as the last of the people who lived through the war have been dying, commemorative events have turned into carnivals that celebrate Russian victimhood. The U.S.S.R. lost at least twenty-seven million people in that war, a disproportionate number of them Ukrainians. The Soviet Union and Russia have fought in wars almost continuously since 1945, but the word “war” is still synonymous with the Second World War and the word “enemy” is used interchangeably with “fascist” and “Nazi.” This made it that much easier for Putin, in declaring a new war, to brand Ukrainians as Nazis.

Netanyahu has compared the Hamas murders at the music festival to the Holocaust by bullets. This comparison, picked up and recirculated by world leaders, including President Biden, serves to bolster Israel’s case for inflicting collective punishment on the residents of Gaza. Similarly, when Putin says “Nazi” or “fascist,” he means that the Ukrainian government is so dangerous that Russia is justified in carpet-bombing and laying siege to Ukrainian cities and killing Ukrainian civilians. There are significant differences, of course: Russia’s claims that Ukraine attacked it first, and its portrayals of the Ukrainian government as fascist, are false; Hamas, on the other hand, is a tyrannical power that attacked Israel and committed atrocities that we cannot yet fully comprehend. But do these differences matter when the case being made is for killing children?

In the first weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when its troops were occupying the western suburbs of Kyiv, the director of Kyiv’s museum of the Second World War, Yurii Savchuk, was living at the museum and rethinking the core exhibit. One day after the Ukrainian military drove the Russians out of the Kyiv region, he met with the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, and got permission to start collecting artifacts. Savchuk and his staff went to Bucha, Irpin, and other towns and cities that had just been “deoccupied,” as Ukrainians have taken to saying, and interviewed people who had not yet told their stories. “This was before the exhumations and the reburials,” Savchuk told me. “We saw the true face of war, with all its emotions. The fear, the terror, was in the atmosphere, and we absorbed it with the air.”

In May, 2022, the museum opened a new exhibit, titled “Ukraine – Crucifixion.” It begins with a display of Russian soldiers’ boots, which Savchuk’s team had collected. It’s an odd reversal: both the Auschwitz museum and the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., have displayed hundreds or thousands of shoes that belonged to victims of the Holocaust. They convey the scale of loss, even as they show only a tiny fraction of it. The display in Kyiv shows the scale of the menace. The boots are arranged on the floor of the museum in the pattern of a five-pointed star, the symbol of the Red Army that has become as sinister in Ukraine as the swastika. In September, Kyiv removed five-pointed stars from a monument to the Second World War in what used to be called Victory Square—it’s been renamed because the very word “Victory” connotes Russia’s celebration in what it still calls the Great Patriotic War. The city also changed the dates on the monument, from “1941-1945”—the years of the war between the Soviet Union and Germany—to “1939-1945.” Correcting memory one monument at a time.

In 1954, an Israeli court heard a libel case involving a Hungarian Jew named Israel Kastner. A decade earlier, when Germany occupied Hungary and belatedly rushed to implement the mass murder of its Jews, Kastner, as a leader of the Jewish community, entered into negotiations with Adolf Eichmann himself. Kastner proposed to buy the lives of Hungary’s Jews with ten thousand trucks. When this failed, he negotiated to save sixteen hundred and eighty-five people by transporting them by chartered train to Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews were loaded onto trains to death camps. A Hungarian Jewish survivor had publicly accused Kastner of having collaborated with the Germans. Kastner sued for libel and, in effect, found himself on trial. The judge concluded that Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil.”

The charge of collaboration against Kastner rested on the allegation that he had failed to tell people that they were going to their deaths. His accusers argued that, had he warned the deportees, they would have rebelled, not gone to the death camps like sheep to slaughter. The trial has been read as the beginning of a discursive standoff in which the Israeli right argues for preëmptive violence and sees the left as willfully defenseless. By the time of the trial, Kastner was a left-wing politician; his accuser was a right-wing activist.

Seven years later, the judge who had presided over the Kastner libel trial was one of the three judges in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Here was the devil himself. The prosecution argued that Eichmann represented but one iteration of the eternal threat to the Jews. The trial helped to solidify the narrative that, to prevent annihilation, Jews should be prepared to use force preëmptively. Arendt, reporting on the trial , would have none of this. Her phrase “the banality of evil” elicited perhaps the original accusations, levelled against a Jew, of trivializing the Holocaust. She wasn’t. But she saw that Eichmann was no devil, that perhaps the devil didn’t exist. She had reasoned that there was no such thing as radical evil, that evil was always ordinary even when it was extreme—something “born in the gutter,” as she put it later, something of “utter shallowness.”

Arendt also took issue with the prosecution’s story that Jews were the victims of, as she put it, “a historical principle stretching from Pharaoh to Haman—the victim of a metaphysical principle.” This story, rooted in the Biblical legend of Amalek, a people of the Negev Desert who repeatedly fought the ancient Israelites, holds that every generation of Jews faces its own Amalek. I learned this story as a teen-ager; it was the first Torah lesson I ever received, taught by a rabbi who gathered the kids in a suburb of Rome where Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union lived while waiting for their papers to enter the United States, Canada, or Australia. In this story, as told by the prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, the Holocaust is a predetermined event, part of Jewish history—and only Jewish history. The Jews, in this version, always have a well-justified fear of annihilation. Indeed, they can survive only if they act as though annihilation were imminent.

When I first learned the legend of Amalek, it made perfect sense to me. It described my knowledge of the world; it helped me connect my experience of getting teased and beaten up to my great-grandmother’s admonitions that using household Yiddish expressions in public was dangerous, to the unfathomable injustice of my grandfather and great-grandfather and scores of other relatives being killed before I was born. I was fourteen and lonely. I knew myself and my family to be victims, and the legend of Amalek imbued my sense of victimhood with meaning and a sense of community.

Netanyahu has been brandishing Amalek in the wake of the Hamas attack. The logic of this legend, as he wields it—that Jews occupy a singular place in history and have an exclusive claim on victimhood—has bolstered the anti-antisemitism bureaucracy in Germany and the unholy alliance between Israel and the European far right. But no nation is all victim all the time or all perpetrator all the time. Just as much of Israel’s claim to impunity lies in the Jews’ perpetual victim status, many of the country’s critics have tried to excuse Hamas’s act of terrorism as a predictable response to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Conversely, in the eyes of Israel’s supporters, Palestinians in Gaza can’t be victims because Hamas attacked Israel first. The fight over one rightful claim to victimhood runs on forever.

For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time—in other words, a ghetto. Not like the Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany. In the two months since Hamas attacked Israel, all Gazans have suffered from the barely interrupted onslaught of Israeli forces. Thousands have died. On average, a child is killed in Gaza every ten minutes. Israeli bombs have struck hospitals, maternity wards, and ambulances. Eight out of ten Gazans are now homeless, moving from one place to another, never able to get to safety.

The term “open-air prison” seems to have been coined in 2010 by David Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary who was then Prime Minister. Many human-rights organizations that document conditions in Gaza have adopted the description. But as in the Jewish ghettoes of Occupied Europe, there are no prison guards—Gaza is policed not by the occupiers but by a local force. Presumably, the more fitting term “ghetto” would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.

The Nazis claimed that ghettos were necessary to protect non-Jews from diseases spread by Jews. Israel has claimed that the isolation of Gaza, like the wall in the West Bank, is required to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians. The Nazi claim had no basis in reality, while the Israeli claim stems from actual and repeated acts of violence. These are essential differences. Yet both claims propose that an occupying authority can choose to isolate, immiserate—and, now, mortally endanger—an entire population of people in the name of protecting its own.

From the earliest days of Israel’s founding, the comparison of displaced Palestinians to displaced Jews has presented itself, only to be swatted away. In 1948, the year the state was created, an article in the Israeli newspaper Maariv described the dire conditions—“old people so weak they were on the verge of death”; “a boy with two paralyzed legs”; “another boy whose hands were severed”—in which Palestinians, mostly women and children, departed the village of Tantura after Israeli troops occupied it: “One woman carried her child in one arm and with the other hand she held her elderly mother. The latter couldn’t keep up the pace, she yelled and begged her daughter to slow down, but the daughter did not consent. Finally the old lady collapsed onto the road and couldn’t move. The daughter pulled out her hair … lest she not make it on time. And worse than this was the association to Jewish mothers and grandmothers who lagged this way on the roads under the crop of murderers.” The journalist caught himself. “There is obviously no room for such a comparison,” he wrote. “This fate—they brought upon themselves.”

Jews took up arms in 1948 to claim land that was offered to them by a United Nations decision to partition what had been British-controlled Palestine. The Palestinians, supported by surrounding Arab states, did not accept the partition and Israel’s declaration of independence. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Transjordan invaded the proto-Israeli state, starting what Israel now calls the War of Independence. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the fighting. Those who did not were driven out of their villages by Israeli forces. Most of them were never able to return. The Palestinians remember 1948 as the Nakba, a word that means “catastrophe” in Arabic, just as Shoah means “catastrophe” in Hebrew. That the comparison is unavoidable has compelled many Israelis to assert that, unlike the Jews, Palestinians brought their catastrophe on themselves.

The day I arrived in Kyiv, someone handed me a thick book. It was the first academic study of Stepan Bandera to be published in Ukraine. Bandera is a Ukrainian hero: he fought against the Soviet regime; dozens of monuments to him have appeared since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. He ended up in Germany after the Second World War, led a partisan movement from exile, and died after being poisoned by a K.G.B. agent, in 1959. Bandera was also a committed fascist, an ideologue who wanted to build a totalitarian regime. These facts are detailed in the book, which has sold about twelve hundred copies. (Many bookstores have refused to carry it.) Russia makes gleeful use of Ukraine’s Bandera cult as evidence that Ukraine is a Nazi state. Ukrainians mostly respond by whitewashing Bandera’s legacy. It is ever so hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea that someone could have been the enemy of your enemy and yet not a benevolent force. A victim and also a perpetrator. Or vice versa. ♦

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described what Jan Tomasz Gross wrote. It also misstated when Anna’s parents decided to kill themselves and Anna’s age at the time of those events.

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Why We Remember the Holocaust

This video provides an overview of the Holocaust, Days of Remembrance, and why we as a nation remember this history.

Estelle Laughlin, Holocaust Survivor: Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is.

[Text on screen] Between 1933 and 1945, the German government, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, carried out the systematic persecution of and murder of Europe’s Jews. This genocide is now known as the Holocaust. The Nazi regime also persecuted and killed millions of other people it considered politically, racially, or socially unfit. The Allies’ victory ended World War II, but Nazi Germany and its collaborators had left millions dead and countless lives shattered.

Sara Bloomfield, Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: I think the important thing to understand about this cataclysmic event is that it happened in the heart of Europe. Germany was respected around the world for its leading scientists, its physicians, its theologians. It was a very civilized, advanced country. It was a young democracy, but it was a democracy. And yet it descended not only into social collapse but world war and eventually mass murder.

Margit Meissner, Holocaust Survivor: A strong man came to power in Germany whose ideas were that Germany has to create a national community, which would include only the Aryan race, which he considered superior, and all the people who did not belong to the Aryan race could be eliminated. With planning and propaganda, he was able to convince most of the German people to go along with him, insensitive to what happened to the Jews who had basically been their former neighbors. And he managed to build concentration camps and killing centers and finally gas chambers to annihilate six million Jews and at the same time also millions of others, murdered in a systematic, government-sponsored way.

Raye Farr, Film Curator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: And it’s made up of so many people who participated in different ways, who made it possible.

Rev. Dr. Chris Leighton, Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies: People who follow orders without question, bystanders who watch and do nothing, ordinary men and women simply going with the flow.

Raye Farr, Film Curator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The events and the results of the Holocaust were so devastating. It was an extreme that we can barely imagine.

Rev. Dr. Chris Leighton, Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies: It’s so mind-boggling that the temptations to forget and to repress, to just put it out of mind, are very real.

Raye Farr, Film Curator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: But we remember. We remember because it is an unthinkable scar on humanity. We need to understand what human beings are capable of.

Barack Obama, President of the United States: We gather today to mourn the loss of so many lives and celebrate those who saved them, honor those who survived, and contemplate the obligations of the living.

Kadian Pow, Museum Educator, Smithsonian Institution: Days of Remembrance is our nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust—this time that was both a blight on the history of humanity but also a shining moment for the people who were brave enough to put an end to it.

Sara Bloomfield, Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: We are remembering, first and foremost, all the victims, and that is not only the Jewish victims, but there were many non-Jewish victims. Of course, the Jews were the primary target.

Estelle Laughlin, Holocaust Survivor: The millions of innocent people, including my family and friends, who were killed because they were of the wrong religion, because they had no means of protecting themselves.

Sara Bloomfield, Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: It’s also important to remember the rescuers. These were people who risked not only their own lives, sometimes the lives of their family, to save a fellow human being. And we also remember our American soldiers who were fighting to win World War II and in the course of that, liberated these concentration camps.

Col. Michael Underkofler, U.S. Air Force Reserve: Those that arrived at the camps in 1945 and were just horrified at what they saw.

Carly Gjolaj, Museum Educator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: And that was a huge task for the American soldiers: to help bring humanity back to these people who had been dehumanized for years, to give them medical care.

Lt. Col. Terrance Sanders, U.S. Army: Looking back allows us to understand how important it is for us to serve in a country where we have the strength and the might and the will to defend those that are defenseless.

Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, Washington Hebrew Congregation: So Days of Remembrance is an opportunity for us to remember the suffering that was and the efforts that were made to put an end to such suffering, and it’s a call to conscience today in our world to make sure that we aren’t the silent ones standing by, contributing to the suffering of others.

Margit Meissner, Holocaust Survivor: In 1945, at the end of the war, I would have thought that there would never be another Holocaust, that the world was so shocked by what had happened that the world would not permit that. And yet you see what happened in Bosnia, what happened in Rwanda, what happened in Darfur. So there’s still millions of people being persecuted because of their ethnicity.

Sara Bloomfield, Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: It’s really a moral challenge to us to do more in our own lives when we confront injustice or hatred or genocide.

Bridget Conley-Zilkic, Genocide Prevention Educator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, we can honor them today by not being silent. Remembering ties the past and the present together with a powerful, simple thread: “This is not right.”

Margit Meissner, Holocaust Survivor: The important thing is that one should not become indifferent to the suffering of others, that one should not stand by and just raise one’s hands and say, “There’s nothing I can do, I’m just a little one person,” because I think what everyone of us does matters.

Estelle Laughlin, Holocaust Survivor: That’s not enough to curse the darkness of the past. Above all, we have to illuminate the future. And I think that on the Day of Remembrance the most important thing is to remember the humanity that is in all of us to leave the world better for our children and for posterity.

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A family helped a Holocaust survivor escape death. Then they became his real family

Emma Bowman, photographed for NPR, 27 July 2019, in Washington DC.

Emma Bowman

essay about the holocaust survivors

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, both Holocaust survivors, married over a decade after Ruth's mother saved him from a massacre, Philip said. The Lazowski family. hide caption

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, both Holocaust survivors, married over a decade after Ruth's mother saved him from a massacre, Philip said.

When Nazis invaded the Polish town of Bielica, Philip Lazowski and his family were among the Jewish residents who were sent to the Zhetel ghetto during Word War II.

One April morning in 1942, the Lazowski family caught wind that the Nazis were killing Jews in the ghetto, in what is now Belarus, and decided to go into hiding. Philip, then just 11 years old, helped his parents and siblings take shelter in a hideout they'd built in their apartment. He closed off the hiding spot so it wouldn't be discovered, telling his family he would find another place to hide.

But before he could, a German soldier spotted him.

Philip was then taken to the Zhetel marketplace, where German soldiers split people into two groups — those who could work and those who could not. As Nazis conducted the selection, Philip noticed that the killing squad members were sparing families with adults who had work papers.

About 1,000 Jews were killed in the massacre that day.

'We Were Lucky': Kids Of Holocaust Survivors Learned Their Parents' Life Philosophy

'We Were Lucky': Kids Of Holocaust Survivors Learned Their Parents' Life Philosophy

'Into The Forest' Tells Story Of One Family's Escape From Nazi-Created Zhetel Ghetto

Book Reviews

'into the forest' tells story of one family's escape from nazi-created zhetel ghetto.

Philip, now a 91-year-old rabbi, came to StoryCorps with his wife, Ruth, last month to remember how quick thinking and a woman's kindness in that moment had saved his life.

Searching the crowds frantically, the young Philip saw a woman with the documentation in hand, a nurse who stood with her two girls.

"I went over to her and I asked her, 'Would you be kind enough to take me as your son?' " Philip recalled. "She said, 'If they let me live with two children, maybe they'll let me live with three. Hold on to my dress,' " as he tells it.

That woman, Miriam Rabinowitz, was the mother of his future wife, Ruth.

essay about the holocaust survivors

Philip and Ruth Lazowski are pictured on their wedding day in 1955. The Lazowski family hide caption

Philip and Ruth Lazowski are pictured on their wedding day in 1955.

Years later, after Philip immigrated to the U.S., a strange happenstance would miraculously reconnect him with Ruth. Author Rebecca Frankel detailed their story in the book, Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival.

While attending a wedding, Philip struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to him.

"Sitting at the table I said, 'I come from the town of Bielica,' " he said. "She says, 'You know, a girlfriend told me a story, they saved a boy from Bielica. And we don't know if he's alive.' "

That's when Philip realized he was that boy. He then got in touch with Miriam and visited her and the rest of the family. In 1955, Philip and Ruth married.

"Your mother saved my life," Philip told Ruth, 86, at Storycorps. "That's how our family began."

The Lazowskis now have three children and seven grandchildren.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jo Corona.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

Survivors: Faces of Life After the Holocaust

Photographs by Martin Schoeller Jan. 24, 2020

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Faces of Life After the Holocaust

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ It is my mission in life to teach the next generations to continue our traditions and contribute to building a better society and a better world.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ We must remember the accurate and true accounts of things as they really happened and not as fake news.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ It is important to distinguish between good and evil, and seek out the good. Find your faith.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ I would do anything if I could turn back time and return to the moment when my family was still whole, before the devastation of the Holocaust.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ As Jews, we have learned that there is just one country for us: Israel. The world has to understand that and allow us to live here in peace.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ In light of rising antisemitism in Europe and around the world, we must do everything in our power to reduce conflict.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ The most important thing we can do is to love. To love more and to love everyone.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

“ We can only hope that the events of the Shoah were a one-time occurrence, and that nothing like that will ever happen again.”


essay about the holocaust survivors

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The Holocaust

By: History.com Editors

Updated: April 11, 2023 | Original: October 14, 2009

Watch towers surrounded by high voltage fences at Auschwitz II-Birkenau which was built in March 1942. The camp was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945.

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of millions of European Jews, Romani people, the intellectually disabled, political dissidents and homosexuals by the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. The word “holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar.

After years of Nazi rule in Germany, dictator Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution”—now known as the Holocaust—came to fruition during World War II, with mass killing centers in concentration camps. About six million Jews and some five million others, targeted for racial, political, ideological and behavioral reasons, died in the Holocaust—more than one million of those who perished were children.

Historical Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler . Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust—even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine .

The Enlightenment , during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious tolerance, and in the 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.

Did you know? Even in the early 21st century, the legacy of the Holocaust endures. Swiss government and banking institutions have in recent years acknowledged their complicity with the Nazis and established funds to aid Holocaust survivors and other victims of human rights abuses, genocide or other catastrophes.

Hitler's Rise to Power

The roots of Adolf Hitler’s particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitism are unclear. Born in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I . Like many anti-Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in 1918.

Soon after World War I ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers’ Party, which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), known to English speakers as the Nazis. While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote the memoir and propaganda tract “ Mein Kampf ” (or “my struggle”), in which he predicted a general European war that would result in “the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany.”

Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power.

On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler anointed himself Fuhrer , becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.

Concentration Camps

The twin goals of racial purity and territorial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy.

At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.

Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler , head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS) and later chief of the German police.

By July 1933, German concentration camps ( Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength and unity.

In 1933, Jews in Germany numbered around 525,000—just one percent of the total German population. During the next six years, Nazis undertook an “Aryanization” of Germany, dismissing non-Aryans from civil service, liquidating Jewish-owned businesses and stripping Jewish lawyers and doctors of their clients. 

Nuremberg Laws

Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew, while those with two Jewish grandparents were designated Mischlinge (half-breeds).

Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht , or the “Night of Broken Glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish home and shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested.

From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.

essay about the holocaust survivors

HISTORY Vault: Third Reich: The Rise

Rare and never-before-seen amateur films offer a unique perspective on the rise of Nazi Germany from Germans who experienced it. How were millions of people so vulnerable to fascism?

Euthanasia Program

In September 1939, Germany invaded the western half of Poland , starting World War II . German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles.

Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation and poor sanitation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.

Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or physical disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program.

After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.


'Final Solution'

Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Romani people, were transported to Polish ghettoes.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units of Himmler’s SS called Einsatzgruppen would murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.

A memorandum dated July 31, 1941, from Hitler’s top commander Hermann Goering to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD (the security service of the SS), referred to the need for an Endlösung ( Final Solution ) to “the Jewish question.”

Liberation of Auschwitz: Photos

Yellow Stars

Beginning in September 1941, every person designated as a Jew in German-held territory was marked with a yellow, six-pointed star, making them open targets. Tens of thousands were soon being deported to the Polish ghettoes and German-occupied cities in the USSR.

Since June 1941, experiments with mass killing methods had been ongoing at the concentration camp of Auschwitz , near Krakow, Poland. That August, 500 officials gassed 500 Soviet POWs to death with the pesticide Zyklon-B. The SS soon placed a huge order for the gas with a German pest-control firm, an ominous indicator of the coming Holocaust.

Holocaust Death Camps

Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young.

The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz.

From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Amid the deportations, disease and constant hunger, incarcerated people in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up in armed revolt.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from April 19-May 16, 1943, ended in the death of 7,000 Jews, with 50,000 survivors sent to extermination camps. But the resistance fighters had held off the Nazis for almost a month, and their revolt inspired revolts at camps and ghettos across German-occupied Europe.

Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of the camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter.

This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also partly a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.

'Angel of Death'

At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease.

In 1943, eugenics advocate Josef Mengele arrived in Auschwitz to begin his infamous experiments on Jewish prisoners. His special area of focus was conducting medical experiments on twins , injecting them with everything from petrol to chloroform under the guise of giving them medical treatment. His actions earned him the nickname “the Angel of Death.”

Nazi Rule Ends

By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power.

In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”—the Jews.

The following day, Hitler died by suicide . Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.

German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people.

In his classic book Survival in Auschwitz , the Italian-Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops liberated the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”

Legacy of the Holocaust

The wounds of the Holocaust—known in Hebrew as “Shoah,” or catastrophe—were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their entire family and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.

In an effort to punish the villains of the Holocaust, the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, which brought Nazi atrocities to horrifying light. Increasing pressure on the Allied powers to create a homeland for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust would lead to a mandate for the creation of Israel in 1948.

Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years.

Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.

The Holocaust. The National WWII Museum . What Was The Holocaust? Imperial War Museums . Introduction to the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum . Holocaust Remembrance. Council of Europe . Outreach Programme on the Holocaust. United Nations .

essay about the holocaust survivors

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Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust

University of Illinois Medical Center Chicago

This article is only available in the PDF format. Download the PDF to view the article, as well as its associated figures and tables.

This book delineates the social setting and the process of organizing the extermination of millions according to National Socialist philosophy. As Hamburg notes in his foreword, the "level of sophistication in modern organization and technology" that the Germans brought to this work was unique—railway schedules, euphemisms for murder, classifications of Gypsies, Jews, Poles, and political prisoners, the architectural design and chemistry of mass murder. Also detailed are the use of inmates as cards for political negotiation and the resistance of some Italian Fascists and German clergymen.

There is a section on the victims, telling how survivors coped in the camps and afterwards, and about the psychotherapy of survivors and what happens to their children. A general model of stress and coping under extreme conditions is developed by Benner, Roskies, and Lazarus.

A final section deals with the perpetrators. There are diaries and autobiographical material from guards and prominent Nazis, as

Bernstein NR. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust. JAMA. 1982;247(22):3138. doi:10.1001/jama.1982.03320470078043

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History | May 2, 2024 11:06 a.m.

‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ Demonstrates the Limits of Holocaust Fiction

A new mini-series dramatizes the best-selling 2018 novel that sparked debate over the line between history and memory

Gita and Lali

Ellen Wexler

Assistant Editor, Humanities

In a scene from the novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz , two Jewish prisoners sneak a few moments alone together behind an administration building at the eponymous Nazi camp complex . Lali, the protagonist, asks Gita, his love interest, for her last name. She refuses to answer, insisting that she is just a number. “You should know that,” she tells him. “You gave it to me.”

Like most prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lali and Gita have identification numbers that were forcibly tattooed on their arms. Gita’s tattoo happens to be Lali’s handiwork. He is the concentration camp’s tattooist, a role that affords him a greater chance of getting out alive. Gita, meanwhile, cannot imagine life after Auschwitz. “Outside doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only here,” she says. “I am prisoner 34902 in Birkenau, Poland.”

There’s just one problem with this scene: The real Gita, whose last name was Furman, was never prisoner 34902.

While Heather Morris ’ 2018 novel is a work of fiction, it’s based on the memories of an actual Holocaust survivor, Lali Sokolov , who met Gita while they were both imprisoned at Auschwitz. But when the novel debuted, historians found a number of puzzling factual inconsistencies . Based on existing evidence, including a 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation , Gita’s number was 4562.

“Popular books only seemingly present the history of Auschwitz and the fate of its victims,” says Wanda Witek-Malicka , a researcher at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum , per a translation by a colleague. “In reality, they are representations of the author’s imaginings about this history, often very distant from factual realism. We cannot understand the reality of concentration camps and genocide if, instead of reliable knowledge about them, we receive a collection of inauthentic imaginations.”

The layers of Lali’s story

This is what historians agree on: A young Jewish man from Slovakia was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942. His name was Ludwig Eisenberg, and his identification number was 32407. Those core details have been verified against Auschwitz’s records.

The next layer of this story relies on personal accounts. According to Ludwig—who went by “Lali” and later changed his last name to “Sokolov”—he eventually became a tattooist, inking numbers onto other prisoners’ arms. One day, the prisoner sitting before him was 18-year-old Gita, also from Slovakia. In this moment of despair, they fell in love. After the war, they moved to Melbourne, Australia, 10,000 miles away from the camp where they met.

Some 75 years later, their story became the premise of Morris’ best-selling novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz . Her dramatized account bears all the hallmarks of a modern romance: Gazes linger. Knees go weak. Faces grow hot. And so on. When Lali finishes tattooing the number on Gita’s arm, he looks up at her. Her eyes “dance”; his heart is “pounding.”

The story of the Auschwitz tattooist who fell in love became a sensation. To date, Morris’ novel has sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages . It’s a New York Times best seller and an ever-popular book club pick . This week, a new TV adaptation of the novel arrives on Peacock.

YouTube Logo

Filtered through layers of tellings and retellings, Lali’s story has become a game of telephone. What changed between Lali’s first steps through Auschwitz’s gates and Morris’ millionth book sale? How can readers know which details are an accurate reflection of history?

“As I have often said, I have not written the story of the Holocaust, but a Holocaust story: [Lali’s] story, as he remembered it in his late 80s,” says Morris.

Still, when the book debuted, many readers were concerned by its romanticized portrayal of life in a Nazi death camp. They also identified numerous factual errors, one of the most egregious being the number on Gita’s arm.

Where did the number 34902 come from? Gary Sokolov, the couple’s son, told the New York Times he has no idea. While his father would draw attention to his tattoo, using it as a narrative aid, his mother felt uneasy about hers. Over the years, that uneasiness only grew. She had the tattoo removed when she was in her 60s. Unlike her husband, Gita never wanted to tell this story.

Hearing Lali’s testimony

Morris met Lali in 2003, just months after Gita’s death. Until then, he had largely refrained from talking about their time at Auschwitz out of respect for his wife. Now that she was gone, Lali, who was approaching 90, decided he was ready. His son, Gary, started looking for someone he could talk to, someone who could record the story in some capacity. He found Morris, an amateur screenwriter, through mutual friends.

Morris is not Jewish. She grew up in a small town in New Zealand—where she doesn’t recall ever meeting a Jew—before moving to Australia at age 18.

When she first met Lali, he asked her what she knew about the Holocaust. “I had to hang my head in shame,” Morris told Tablet magazine in 2018. “Of course, I knew it existed, and I’d read Anne Frank ’s diary, but that was the beginning and the end of it.” According to Morris, this is exactly what Lali wanted: a blank slate, a writer without any baggage or family history connected to the Holocaust.

An older Lali with Heather

They met two to three times a week for three years . She saw herself as a friend, not an interviewer, and as such didn’t always take notes. In the early sessions, Morris also decided against recording their conversations in an attempt to make Lali feel at ease.

“Note-taking—or recording while someone is talking to you—can become a third person in the room,” she says. “The teller of the story will want to look at what you are writing. They will become cautious about every word they say out of concern that they might get something wrong.”

Lali’s recollections came out in fragments, often with “limited coherency” and “no flow or connection” to each other, she wrote in a 2018 Literary Hub essay. “But it didn’t matter. Sitting with him, listening to him, was spellbinding.” Sometimes, she added, Lali would get confused or choose not to share certain details. Morris chalked this confusion up to grief.

She had initially intended to create a record for Gary, as his parents had never discussed Auschwitz with him. Later, she asked Lali if she could write his story as a screenplay. Morris spent more than a decade trying to sell the resulting fictionalization, but while she says it was optioned twice , the project never came to fruition. Eventually, after venting her frustrations, her brother and sister-in-law convinced her to rewrite the screenplay as a novel.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Morris was often asked about how much creative license she took. “Ninety-five percent of it is as it happened, researched and confirmed,” she told the Guardian . In the novel’s acknowledgments, she thanks two colleagues for “their brilliant investigative skills in researching the ‘facts’ to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step.”

On several occasions, Morris mentioned stories that didn’t make it into the book because they couldn’t be verified. One of them involved a man who had been caught in an escape attempt; Lali said he altered the number tattooed on the prisoner’s arm and helped him escape again a few days later. “I couldn’t include it because I didn’t have proof; I only had Lali’s word,” Morris told Tablet.

Another such story is more troubling. The novel follows Lali’s transfer to Mauthausen , a concentration camp in Austria, where he posed as a non-Jew—and was nearly exposed when a fellow prisoner told the guards of his true identity. What the real Lali says happened next is not included in the novel. Writing in the Monthly , an Australian magazine, journalist Christine Kenneally pointed to a taped interview Lali gave in the 1990s.

In his “more spectacular” account, Lali asked two workers at a local steel mill to “take the man who reported him and send him through the mill’s enormous rollers,” wrote Kenneally. “When I asked Morris why she’d left out Sokolov’s murder story, she explained that there was no way of confirming it, and that she wouldn’t include anything in the book without corroboration.”

What did the book get wrong?

Every year, as many as two million visitors tour Auschwitz. They see the “​​ Arbeit Macht Frei ” (“Work Sets You Free”) gate, the barbed-wire fencing, the wooden barracks, the gas chamber. Sometimes, visitors come to the camp with pre-existing notions of what it should look like based on books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen.

“One of my colleagues told me about a request from a visitor asking for a tour ‘in the footsteps of The Tattooist of Auschwitz ,’” says Witek-Malicka. “That visitor received the refusal with regret and disappointment. The truth, however, is that even if we wanted to create such a ‘tour route,’ due to the numerous errors in the book regarding the camp’s topography and the incorrect placement of many scenes, it would simply be impossible.”

Witek-Malicka knows those errors well. In 2018, she published a lengthy investigation into the text’s historical inconsistencies in Memoria , the Auschwitz museum’s magazine.

The center confirmed that one Ludwig Eisenberg (camp documentation records him as “Ludovit”) arrived at Auschwitz on April 23, 1942. He could not, however, have traveled the train route Morris described in the novel. (“Here, she probably used the modern online search engine of railway connections,” wrote Witek-Malicka.)

Railway tracks leading to Auschwitz

Gita’s story also contains several errors. While Lali had remembered her number as 34902, this was not the number she cited in her USC Shoah Foundation testimony. It also wasn’t associated with her name in Auschwitz’s records. Gita was thought to have arrived on April 13, 1942, when prisoners were not yet receiving numbers as high as 34902. The number appears to have been issued a year later, on February 11, 1943, to a woman who arrived in a transport from the Netherlands.

“We were really surprised to find out that the number given in the book is not correct,” Paweł Sawicki, editor in chief of Memoria , told the Guardian in 2018. “It is a very basic but a crucial detail in the story.”

Another storyline in the novel involves Lali acquiring penicillin for an ailing Gita, who has contracted typhus. But this could not have happened, as penicillin was not yet widely available . This is corrected in later printings of the book. “Even though [Lali] used the word ‘penicillin,’ recollections more than 50 years after an event can be difficult,” says Morris. “Replacing this term with the word ‘medicine’ was appropriate.”

Morris says the inaccuracies identified by the museum “were rectified immediately in reprints of the English language books and corrected before publication in the foreign language editions.” But the museum’s concerns weren’t always so clear-cut. In the book, for example, prisoners seem to have a surprising amount of freedom to roam about the camp. The world of Tattooist also imagines new horrors, like buses turned into gas chambers, as if the true horrors were not sufficient.

“The author is not a researcher, and her lack of substantive and technical competence to work on personal sources, as well as the lack of general knowledge on the realities of the camp, is visible in the book,” wrote Witek-Malicka in her report. She added, “Given the number of factual errors, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of … Auschwitz.”

The gates of Auschwitz

Gary, the son of the titular tattooist, also found aspects of the novel troubling, such as the spelling of his father’s name. He told the New York Times that the book incorrectly used “Lale,” rather than “Lali.”

By the end of 2018, Gary had “backed away a bit” from the project, Morris told the Australian . “Gary’s wife found a piece of paper that Lale had written on, one sentence, and she reckons the way he spelt his name, it’s an ‘i’ on the end, and now she’s fixated on this. My response has been, this is an 80-plus-year-old, it’s shaky writing, and anyway, Lale read my screenplay, with the name L-A-L-E. That is what he told me his name was.”

Morris eventually stopped emphasizing the book’s historical accuracy in interviews. “It’s not a memoir,” she told the Australian . “It’s fiction, and if people want to quibble, fine.” Last year, she told the London Times that Lali had given her this story—and if she hadn’t written it, nobody would have.

Holocaust fiction’s fraught history

In the summer of 1989, nearly three decades before Tattooist appeared on shelves, the New York Times published a withering essay by Elie Wiesel , the famous writer, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor. “The Holocaust,” he wrote, “has become a fashionable subject.” As such, the entertainment industry has “set out to exploit it.”

Wiesel cited philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (“whereof one cannot speak, one must not speak”) and pointed to a spate of “cheap and simplistic melodramas” from the 1970s and 1980s that used the Holocaust as a convenient backdrop. He marveled that even though survivors were still alive, their stories were being turned “into a kind of no man’s land” in which “newcomers to this history appoint themselves experts.”

“The truth of Auschwitz,” he wrote, “remains hidden in its ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so.”

Elie Wiesel

Wiesel was 15 when he arrived at Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister would perish. After the war, he refused to write about his experiences for years, fearing his words could not accurately describe the horrors he had seen. Finally, in 1960, he published the memoir Night , now considered one of Holocaust literature’s most lauded works. As a survivor, Wiesel felt a duty to bear witness. Still, he agonized over the project .

“Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else,” he wrote in the preface to a 2006 translation of the text. “I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was ‘it’? ‘It’ was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned.”

Night is part of a larger body of work written by firsthand witnesses, which includes texts such as Man’s Search for Meaning , Viktor Frankl ’s meditation on finding meaning in suffering; Survival in Auschwitz , Primo Levi ’s account of his arrest and imprisonment; and The Diary of a Young Girl , Anne Frank ’s famous account of hiding out with her family in the Netherlands.

Eventually, a second generation of Holocaust literature appeared, as the children of survivors began writing about their experiences. Perhaps the best-known work in this category is Maus , the graphic novel that follows cartoonist Art Spiegelman as he interviews his father about his time in Auschwitz.

Then there were those “newcomers to this history”: fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust by those with little connection to or knowledge of it. In the case of Tattooist , it appears that Lali specifically requested such a person chronicle his experience. “Thousands of survivors have chosen to tell their stories in different ways, through different people,” says Morris.

Today, Holocaust fiction is well-worn territory. Interested readers can find titles such as The Librarian of Auschwitz , The Saboteur of Auschwitz , The Mistress of Auschwitz , The Brothers of Auschwitz , The Last Boy in Auschwitz , Last Stop Auschwitz , The Auschwitz Escape and Auschwitz Lullaby . Also available is a large selection of picture books for younger children: Benno and the Night of Broken Glass , Oskar and the Eight Blessings , The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank . Holocaust fiction has indeed become fashionable, written by both those with and without direct connections to the subject material.

essay about the holocaust survivors

One of the most discussed titles in recent years is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas , a 2006 novel by Irish writer John Boyne, who isn’t Jewish. The children’s book follows 9-year-old Bruno, a German boy whose father has just been promoted to commandant at Auschwitz . One day, Bruno meets another boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a wire fence. What could he be doing over there? Why is he wearing the titular striped pajamas? After Bruno climbs under the fence to see his new friend, both boys are killed in a gas chamber. Bruno’s father, the Nazi commandant, feels very guilty about his son’s death—and perhaps for his broader culpability for the atrocities at Auschwitz, too. The book sold more than 11 million copies .

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Holocaust Education in London, 35 percent of teachers in England said they used either the book or the 2008 movie adaptation in their lessons. Another study from the center found that the book actually introduces new misconceptions about the Holocaust.

“The study reported, for example, that the story regularly elicited profound and often somewhat misplaced sympathy for German and even Nazi families, whom, students argued, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas helped them to see as ‘victims,’ too,” writes the center. “Moreover, while most young people who took part in the study recognized the narrative as a work of fiction, and many were able to identify and critique its most glaringly implausible plot points or historical inaccuracies, they nonetheless overwhelmingly characterized it as ‘realistic’ and/or ‘truthful.’”

Witek-Malicka says that popular understandings of the Holocaust are weakening with time. Most of today’s teenagers, for instance, have grandparents who were born after World War II. “One could certainly engage in lengthy discussions about whether contemporary popular novels about Auschwitz influence the common (informal) understanding of Holocaust history or merely reflect it—likely partly both,” she says. “They certainly have a crucial impact on perpetuating and disseminating a simplified, very superficial image of the Holocaust and reinforcing erroneous stereotypes, but they do not significantly (or at all) contribute to a genuine, deep understanding of the mechanisms of the rise and strengthening of totalitarianism and the nature of the genocide of World War II.”

The Auschwitz museum also weighed in on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas , writing on social media that the book “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust.” Boyne, undeterred by this criticism, published a sequel in 2022.

Similarly, Morris released a sequel to Tattooist , called Cilka’s Journey , in 2019. This book follows Cilka Klein, a minor character in Tattooist who is also based on a real person . In Morris’ version of the story, 16-year-old Cilka is repeatedly sexually assaulted by a high-ranking camp commander.

Heather Morris and Melanie Lynskey

George Kovach, the real Cilka’s stepson, met with Morris when she asked him to write the book’s afterword. But after reading excerpts from the project, and reading Tattooist , “I decided not to be associated with this project in any way,” he told the Guardian in 2019.

The Auschwitz museum had criticized this storyline in its original report on Tattooist , explaining that “the disclosure of such a relationship would involve an accusation of race dishonor … and severe punishment for the SS man.” Due to the man’s high-ranking position, the possibility of an arrangement of this kind was “nonexistent.”

The new mini-series

The six-episode mini-series offers a new interpretation of Lali’s story. Directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, the show begins with an elderly Lali (played by Harvey Keitel) at his home in Melbourne. Morris (Melanie Lynskey) takes a seat in his living room and asks, “You’re looking for someone to write your life story?”

The pair’s conversations in the early 2000s anchor a series of flashbacks featuring a younger Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) and Gita (Anna Próchniak). From the beginning, it’s clear that these flashbacks are the elder Lali’s memories—which may or may not be entirely reliable.

In one such flashback, a young Lali, newly arrived at Auschwitz, is still uncertain about the camp’s purpose. One night, he wanders outside of his crowded barracks. He sees an SS soldier taunt three Jews before shooting them in quick succession—an early harbinger of the brutality to come.

The show cuts back to Melbourne. When Lali walks into the kitchen, an apparition of the SS soldier appears. “Hey, old man,” he says. “It was me that night? I’m not so sure you remember it right.”

“Memory isn’t linear. It doesn’t come out as one fully constructed piece,” says Claire Mundell , the series’ executive producer. “We literally frame it that way. So we dramatize the real Lali Sokolov and we dramatize the real Heather Morris in order [to] make it super clear to the audience that our story is subjective. You only see what Lali sees, and what you’re seeing is Lali’s memory of what he experienced—and he’s recalling this memory some 60 years after it occurred.”

Lali's home in Melbourne

In another memory, Lali learns that his friend Aaron has been sent to the gas chambers. Back in Melbourne, when Morris asks why Aaron was chosen, Lali says he doesn’t remember.

Later, after Morris has gone home, Lali relives the memory alone. This time, when Lali finds Aaron missing, he’s told that his own number had been on a selection list. Because he hadn’t been there, Aaron was taken instead.

“We’re trying to demonstrate through drama the nature of shame and guilt and trauma—and what trauma does to memory over time ,” says Mundell. In other words, even when memory’s accuracy degrades, its emotional resonance does not. The Nazi apparition in Lali’s living room is no less haunting for being poorly remembered.

The showrunners, who ensured that cast and crew had access to counselors during production, say the series’ tone is darker than the novel’s. “If you’re telling a love story set in a place such as Auschwitz,” says Mundell, “you have to show something of the darkness in order for the audience to fully understand the miracle of finding love there.”

Broadly speaking, Witek-Malicka says that compared with novels, film and television present unique challenges for telling Holocaust narratives.

“What can largely be left to the viewer’s imagination in a book is shown directly in a film image,” she says. “Showing the visual aspects of Auschwitz seems like an ostensibly easy task. After all, the authentic place is preserved, and we have not only photos of prisoners but also original striped uniforms” and other elements of camp life. But “this usually turns out to be a trap, and film creators often stumble over details that seem insignificant but are crucial from a historical perspective,” Witek-Malicka adds.

Throughout production, showrunners have been able to use the Auschwitz museum’s 2018 report as a resource. Do they see the series as a way to finally correct some of those concerns?

“Yes is the short answer, I suppose,” says Mundell, caveating that the project is a drama, not a documentary or docudrama. Lali’s recollections drive the story, which is further shaped by budgetary constraints, scheduling conflicts and editorial decisions. Still, Mundell felt it was important to show the Auschwitz museum that showrunners were taking its critiques seriously. “We wanted to lean into the comments that they had made,” she says. “There’s a number of things that were of concern to them that we’ve been able to address in the drama.”

Morris, on the other hand, says, “There is nothing to fix. The handful of historical errors in [Lali’s] memories were acknowledged and rectified five years ago, as soon as they were identified.”

Gita at Auschwitz

In addition to prioritizing representation—through, for instance, casting Jewish actors in Jewish roles—the showrunners hired Naomi Gryn , the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, to work as a historical consultant. She served as the project’s conduit to museums, libraries and other resources around the world. While Morris didn’t visit Auschwitz until after her book’s publication (or access its records), the showrunners paid their respects there. They say they’ve been in touch with the Auschwitz museum to ask specific questions.

They also spent several days with Gary, who appears to be on board with the project. He saw the series at a private screening in February. In the closing credits (as well as all promotional materials), his father’s name is spelled with the letter “i.”

His parents’ fateful meeting is shown at the end of episode one. Lali is sitting before a line of prisoners, all waiting to be tattooed, when Gita appears at his table. She tells him his blue eyes look like the sky. He steadies her trembling hand and gets to work. The number on her arm is 4562.

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Ellen Wexler

Ellen Wexler | | READ MORE

Ellen Wexler is Smithsonian magazine’s assistant digital editor, humanities.

essay about the holocaust survivors

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The grim reality of Holocaust survivors in Israel since start of war

Holocaust remembrance day, which will be observed next week, serves as a poignant reminder of the daily struggle many holocaust survivors endure, and since october 7 the challenges have only become more complex.


The children who remember their past lives

What happens when your toddler is haunted by memories that aren’t hers?

essay about the holocaust survivors

In the beginning, it seemed like Nina was just an imaginary friend.

Two-year-old Aija had invented plenty of fictional characters before, but her parents — Ross, a musician, and Marie, a psychologist — noticed right away that Nina was different. (The family spoke to The Washington Post on the condition that only their middle names be used because of the sensitivity of the subject and because Aija is a young child.) From the time Aija learned how to talk, she talked about Nina, and her descriptions were remarkably consistent. Aija told her parents that Nina played piano, and she loved dancing, and she favored the color pink (Aija emphatically did not). When Aija spoke as Nina, in the first person, Aija’s demeanor changed: Her voice was sweeter and higher-pitched, her affect more gentle and polite than what Marie and Ross typically expected from their rambunctious toddler.

Aija sometimes told them that Nina was afraid of bad guys coming to get her, or of not having enough food to eat; Aija once hid a bowl of cereal and told her mother it was for Nina. One day, when Marie was using the food processor in the kitchen, Aija reacted with horror to the sound: “Get the tank out of here!” she shrieked. Marie couldn’t fathom how her daughter knew the word “tank.”

It all seemed more curious than concerning — until one afternoon in the early spring of 2021, when Marie came to believe that there was something more to Nina. That day, Marie recalls, she and Aija were playing together in their living room, enacting little scenes with toy figurines.

Then Aija suddenly turned to her mother and said, “Nina has numbers on her arm, and they make her sad.”

Marie’s mind raced. “What did you say?” she asked her daughter, willing her voice to remain calm.

“Nina has numbers on her arm, and they make her sad,” Aija said again, pointing to the inside of her forearm. Then she added: “Nina misses her family. Nina was taken away from her family.”

It wasn’t just the words that sent a jolt of adrenaline through Marie’s body, or the way her child said them — clear and certain, with the letter R pronounced correctly, which Aija usually couldn’t manage — but there was also something about Aija’s expression in that moment.

Nearly three years later, Marie tries to explain it: “There was just —” she pauses. “There was such deep pain there.” It seemed beyond what a toddler should know: “The look on her face, it was too old ,” Marie says. “Does that make sense?”

It does, and it doesn’t, even to her, even now. What she knows: that her toddler had never heard anything about the Holocaust, and could not possibly recognize the significance of numbers on a forearm. Marie knows how this story might sound, and she is exceedingly careful about sharing it.

essay about the holocaust survivors

“There was just —

there was such deep

pain there. The look

on her face, it was too  old .

Does that make sense?”

Marie, Aija’s mom

essay about the holocaust survivors

“There was just — there was

such deep pain there.

The look on her face, it was too  old .

essay about the holocaust survivors

“There was just — there was such deep pain there.

The look on her face, it was too  old . Does that make sense?”

essay about the holocaust survivors

Marie also knows that she is not alone — that since the 1960s, more than 2,200 children from across the world have described apparent recollections from a previous life, all documented in a database maintained by the Division of Perceptual Studies within the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Sometimes a child presents enough identifying information for relatives or researchers to pinpoint a deceased person, but that level of specificity is elusive; about a third of the cases in the database do not include such a match.

The phenomenon, with its aura of the paranormal, has long been fodder for books, academic studies, newspaper stories and dramatized documentaries. All of these explorations tend to orbit the same existential questions: Is reincarnation real? What happens after we die? How can this be explained? But there is, of course, no scientific means to conclusively prove — or disprove — a mechanism that might explain how a person could recall living a past life.

Which leaves parents such as Marie and Ross to navigate an inexplicable, often isolating experience. Something is happening, that much they know, and so they find themselves facing different but equally daunting questions: What happens — what does it mean, what do you do — when, one day, your child tells you they remember being someone else?

Some of the most notable cases began with a child crying in the night.

In Louisiana in 2000, 2-year-old James Leininger would wake screaming, repeating the same phrases to his baffled and disturbed parents: “Airplane crash on fire! Little man can’t get out!” Over the following year, a story unspooled in memories and drawings: He was a World War II pilot whose plane took off from a boat, and he died when he was shot down by Japanese forces. James offered names of people and places, and his account would ultimately become one of the most prominent and thoroughly documented “cases of the reincarnation type,” or CORT, ever recorded.

In Oklahoma in 2009, 5-year-old Ryan Hammons would lie awake at night and plead: “Can I go home? Can I see my mom?” or “What happened to my children?” Sometimes, he would climb tearfully into his mother’s bed. He was lying beside her one night, Cyndi Hammons remembers, when he said that he needed to tell her something. “I think I used to be somebody else,” he whispered.

Soon after Aija told her mother about the numbers on Nina’s forearm, Aija also began to wake at night in a state of agitation. Crying and pacing in her room, she would say she was afraid of eyes staring at her in the dark, or “bad guys” who would take her away, or bluish clouds that were “coming to kill us all.”

By that point, Marie says, she had done more reading about children who seem to recall past lives, and felt convinced that Aija was experiencing the same phenomenon. “I always tried to remain open-minded,” Marie says. Ross was less certain, but he agreed that whatever was happening seemed extraordinary.

In the moments when Aija seemed scared or inconsolable, her parents learned that what helped most was simply to stay close. They would hold her, or sit calmly on the floor, and remind her that she was safe. “I didn’t know what to do except love her through it,” Marie says. Aija, who was otherwise a fearless and happy kid, sometimes seemed to share their bewilderment. One night, as Marie tried to soothe her daughter, Aija asked a question her mother couldn’t answer: “Why do I have these bad pictures in my heart?”

Marie eventually shared these stories with a few trusted friends from her graduate school psychology program. “They were like, ‘This is not normal for a 2-year-old,’” she says.

For many of the parents who find themselves in this surreal circumstance, there comes a point when they realize that it is not a passing phase. It isn’t the kind of topic they can research in parenting books or casually bring up to their peers at the playground.

So they do what any parent might do when they have a question they’re not sure how to answer: They turn to the internet. They pull up Google — child talking about past life? — and discover a search result that looks startlingly legitimate. “Advice to Parents of Children who are Spontaneously Recalling Past Life Memories,” reads the headline on the page of the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s website, and further down, “Contact Us, ” and that is how they come to the attention of Jim Tucker.

As director of the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia for the past 10 years, Tucker has worked directly with nearly 150 families, making comprehensive records of children’s descriptions of past-life memories.

Tucker inherited this work from Ian Stevenson, U-Va.’s former psychiatry department chairman and the founder of the division that would eventually become DOPS. Beginning in the 1960s, Stevenson traveled the world documenting cases of the reincarnation type, publishing academic papers and a number of books about his findings before his death in 2007. Stevenson’s reputation — even among those skeptical of the topic — was that of a serious and scrupulous scientist, someone who openly examined both the strengths and weaknesses of the cases he chronicled.

Tucker learned of Stevenson’s research while completing his residency at U-Va., but he didn’t become more interested until nearly a decade later. After nine years in private practice as a child psychiatrist, Tucker married a clinical psychologist who was curious about reincarnation, telepathy and near-death experiences. “That opened me up a little,” Tucker says, and in 1996 he began assisting Stevenson with a study of people who had had near-death experiences. Since joining the School of Medicine full time in 2000, Tucker has split his focus between DOPS and his work as a clinician and professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences.

Stevenson’s ideas faced no shortage of criticism from the scientific community: Some maintain that consciousness is generated by the brain and therefore cannot survive beyond its death; others have speculated that the children he documented could be reciting “false memories,” having been unintentionally pushed toward a particular narrative by their parents.

Tucker shares Stevenson’s desires for these critics to engage with the evidence in the case reports, and for the work of DOPS to be destigmatized; but Tucker’s own goal is more personal. “In many ways, I am doing this to try to sort it out for myself,” he says. “With each case, I come in with certainly an openness, but also, I think, a fairly critical eye: What is the level of evidence, and could it be explained in other ways?”

Certain consistent patterns have emerged: The most pronounced and convincing cases, Stevenson and Tucker both found, tend to occur in children between the ages of 2 and 6. They might suddenly describe places they have never been, people they have never met, sometimes using words or phrases that seem beyond their vocabulary. Nightmares or sleep disturbances are occasionally reported. Many of these children are highly verbal and start speaking earlier than their peers. Their descriptions of past-life recollections often fade away entirely by the time the child turns 7 or 8.

essay about the holocaust survivors

“In many ways, I am

doing this to try to sort it out

for myself. With each case,

I come in with certainly

an openness, but also,

I think, a fairly critical eye:

What is the level of evidence,

and could it be explained

in other ways?”

Jim Tucker, director of the

Division of Perceptual Studies

at the University of Virginia

essay about the holocaust survivors

“In many ways, I am doing this

to try to sort it out for myself.

With each case, I come in with

certainly an openness, but also,

Jim Tucker, director of the Division of Perceptual

Studies at the University of Virginia

essay about the holocaust survivors

“In many ways, I am doing this to try to sort it out for myself.

With each case, I come in with certainly an openness, but also,

I think, a fairly critical eye: What is the level of evidence,

and could it be explained in other ways?”

Jim Tucker, director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia

essay about the holocaust survivors

These similarities span accounts recorded around the world. Among the cases in the DOPS database, about 15 percent are North American; of those, an overwhelming majority are from Indigenous communities. “There’s no question that the cases are easier to find in cultures where there’s a belief in reincarnation,” Tucker says.

The true prevalence of this phenomenon is difficult to know, Tucker says — particularly given that many families might not recognize it, or might actively suppress it — but DOPS is contacted by about 120 families per year, most of whom are American. If a child’s recollections are detailed enough to potentially identify a particular individual, DOPS opens an investigation, and the case is entered into the database.

But even if a child can offer that level of specificity, sometimes parents don’t want to know more. “That can be the frustrating part, where you get what starts like a really interesting case, but then the parents don’t stick with you,” Tucker says.

Other times, parents can be too intrigued — which can muddle potential evidence. If parents ask leading questions, or if children learn that certain statements are met with dramatic or enthusiastic responses, it can be difficult to discern whether a child is just trying to please their parents.

Tucker is convinced that the vast majority of families he’s met are not lying or embellishing their accounts to draw attention. In fact, he says, the opposite is often true: Many parents are quite unsettled by their child’s claims and do not want to publicly share them.

That impression is echoed by Tom Shroder, a former Washington Post editor and author of “ Old Souls: Compelling Evidence From Children Who Remember Past Lives ,” who accompanied Stevenson as he studied cases in Lebanon and India. None of the families they interviewed, Shroder says, seemed to have any personal or material motive to misrepresent what they’d witnessed. “They were normal people relating their experiences,” he says. And what they were describing of their children, he says, “is so clearly not normal imaginative behavior.”

Tovah Klein, a leading child development psychologist and author who directs the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York, confirms that assertion.

She explained that at age 2 or 3, children engage in fantasy play, but they are not likely to fabricate a statement involving their primary relationships. In other words: Saying “You’re not my mom” or “I want my other parents” or “Where are my children?” — common among these cases — is not something you would typically expect a very young child to say, let alone repeat insistently. “It doesn’t sound like confusion,” Klein says. “It sounds like a real statement. And young children just don’t make this kind of thing up.”

What to make of that, then? Being receptive to this kind of message from a child requires a degree of openness that might feel challenging, Klein says, particularly in the absence of a clear scientific explanation.

“Sitting with the unknown, for humans, is perhaps the hardest thing we have to do,” she says. “But we owe it to a child, we owe it to the family, to listen, and to try to understand and support them, wherever they are, whatever is happening.”

On a sunny Saturday morning in late August, Tucker parks his car on a suburban neighborhood street in Alexandria, Va., outside the home of one of Marie’s friends. “Let’s see what we have here,” he says as we walk to the front door of the house, where we are greeted by Marie, her friend Shawn, and Aija, a petite, elfin child in a Spider-Man T-shirt, her wispy blond hair tied in a loose topknot.

We settle inside, where Aija plays with magnetized blocks and munches graham crackers, while Marie and Tucker go over paperwork for the research study. Tucker is poised and soft-spoken, his tone calm and steady when he leans forward to speak to Aija. “I understand you’ve been talking about Nina,” he says.

“Yeah!” Aija chirps in a sweet, singsong voice.

“What can you tell me about Nina?” Tucker asks.

“Oh!” Aija says. “She is being me.”

Tucker mishears this: “She’s being mean?” he asks.

Aija shakes her head. “She’s being me.”

Tucker nods. “Well, one thing your mom mentioned was that Nina had some numbers on her arm. Can you tell me about that?” At this question, Aija lowers her eyes and falls silent, pressing her small body against the couch cushions. “Don’t want to talk?” Tucker says gently. He is well accustomed to the challenges of conversing with a small child and never pushes beyond what feels comfortable. “Well, I will talk with your mom a little bit about Nina, and then you speak up any time you want to, all right?” he says, and Aija nods.

“Do you remember the first things she would say about Nina?” Tucker asks Marie.

“She would say that Nina is very fancy,” Marie says. “And she also sometimes would be very theatrical. That or shy. Her personality has been really consistent since we started hearing about Nina.”

“Were there things that made you think this was different from an imaginary friend?” Tucker asks.

“Just the consistency,” Marie says. “And like, who Nina was and her background.”

Over the next hour, Marie describes standout moments from Aija’s story: How she once sat down at a piano and sounded out the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and when her parents reacted with surprise, she said, “Nina taught me how to do that.” How Aija sometimes cried when she spoke of how Nina missed her family. How Aija once dramatically declared to her parents, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the end of the world!” and curtsied.

“It’s a little disturbing to hear that from a 2-year-old, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Marie says with a slight laugh.

Tucker nods. “You kind of wonder where she even picked up the expression.”

Throughout their conversation, Tucker is thorough and attentive, carefully recording each detail Marie shares. At moments when Marie or Shawn become animated about something Aija has said — at one point, they wonder whether Aija’s reaction to the cover of a book written by a Holocaust survivor might be a sign of some connection to the author — Tucker remains impassive and pragmatic.

“It’s not always clear how we should put the pieces together,” he tells them. He understands the impulse to identify a specific person Aija might be recalling, but “most of the time, certainly in the American cases, we’re not able to identify one particular person,” he says. “Presumably there were a lot of Ninas in concentration camps.”

Toward the end of the interview, their discussion turns toward what the experience has felt like for Aija and her family. Marie talks about how they’ve neither prompted nor discouraged Aija from talking about Nina, responding instead with a neutral openness. Tucker nods approvingly.

“The good news is that this stuff almost always fades, and will often disappear, and hopefully over the next year or two you’ll be hearing less and less about Nina,” Tucker says. The more Aija becomes fully involved in this life, he says, the more Nina will recede: “Often school helps them do that.”

Later, when I call Tucker to ask him what he thought of Aija’s story, he says that he found the family’s account compelling that but there was not enough specific detail to continue an investigation. “It basically becomes one more unverified American case,” he says.

But even if Tucker couldn’t guide Aija’s family toward a clear resolution, it seems he provided something perhaps even more meaningful. “I felt so much validation,” Marie tells me. “I have been having this feeling, like, ‘This is so profound; is anyone else seeing this?’ And I felt like we were finally seen.”

It made her think that, at some point, she might seek out another parent who has gone through this before, someone who could tell her how it all plays out. “I would love that support,” she says. “Just to talk to these parents, like — what have they done? How do they feel?”

Over the past dozen years, Cyndi Hammons has grown adept at fielding the messages that appear in her Facebook inbox, sent by overwhelmed parents who don’t know what to do about children who seem to be remembering a past life.

“Anybody who is struggling with it, I tell them, ‘You’re going to make it through,’” she says. Mostly, she just tries to listen and offer understanding. “I don’t know that I’ve helped anybody, but I know what it feels like. I know what the fear feels like, what the judgment feels like, and it’s heavy,” she says. “And most cases aren’t solved. Ryan’s was solved. So I was very lucky.”

It didn’t feel lucky in the beginning, when Ryan was waking up sobbing at night and describing things his mother couldn’t fathom: that he remembered living in Hollywood in a big white house with a swimming pool. That he once had three sons and a younger sister. That he drove a green car, and his wife drove a black one.

“It felt like living with someone who had Alzheimer’s, mixed with grieving,” Cyndi says. But that someone was her small child, and all she wanted was for him to feel safe and happy.

Cyndi didn’t tell anyone at first, not even her husband, Ryan’s father. Kevin Hammons was the son of a Church of Christ minister, a police officer in their small town in Oklahoma, and Cyndi knew what he would think. For months, it remained a secret between mother and son. She brought home library books about Hollywood in the 1940s so Ryan could leaf through the pages. When he wanted to collect sunglasses instead of Hot Wheels, or window-shop for suit jackets, or listen to Bing Crosby, “that’s what we did,” Cyndi says.

essay about the holocaust survivors

“It felt like living

with someone who

had Alzheimer’s,

mixed with grieving.”

Cyndi Hammons, Ryan’s mom

essay about the holocaust survivors

“It felt like living with

someone who had Alzheimer’s,

essay about the holocaust survivors

“It felt like living with someone

who had Alzheimer’s, mixed with grieving.”

essay about the holocaust survivors

But Ryan’s night terrors and recollections did not stop, and eventually Cyndi told Kevin what was happening. He didn’t initially accept the possibility of reincarnation, she says, but as a detective, he told her to write down everything Ryan said. Not long after, Ryan saw a man he recognized in one of his library books, a peripheral figure in a photograph of six men: “That’s me!” he told his mother.

Cyndi wrote to Tucker, and in April 2010, with the help of a production crew from the A&E series “The Unexplained,” they were able to identify the man as Marty Martyn, a movie extra and talent agent who died in 1964.

With Tucker and the television crew, Cyndi and Ryan traveled to California to meet Martyn’s daughter, Marisa Martyn Rosenblatt, who was 8 when her father died. She was skeptical — but she ultimately confirmed many of Ryan’s statements about Marty Martyn, including some she hadn’t realized were correct. She didn’t know that her father had driven a green car, or that he had a younger sister, but it turned out both claims were accurate. Marty Martyn’s death certificate cited his age as 59, but Ryan insisted he had died at 61; Tucker found census records and marriage listings that confirmed this, as did Martyn’s daughter.

When the episode of “The Unexplained” aired in 2011, it catapulted the Hammons family into a different realm, where their names were in newspaper headlines, and everyone in their town knew Ryan’s story.

“Kevin and I had professional jobs. I was a county clerk’s deputy for 14 years,” Cyndi says. “We were known in our community.” But that didn’t stop people from telling her their thoughts: Your child needs to find Jesus. You’re a bad parent. Are you doing this for money?

“People don’t really understand this unless they’ve lived it,” she says. “Everything pivoted around protecting Ryan. I didn’t care what anyone thought about me — it didn’t matter. I knew the truth, and I just knew that Ryan had to be okay.”

Ryan is a college junior now. He doesn’t remember being Marty Martyn anymore, and this isn’t a story he shares when he meets people. He still isn’t sure how to label what he experienced: “I’m open to anything,” he says, “but I cannot say with certainty that reincarnation is real.” He says he is at peace with the unknown, focused now on his future.

But he knows his mother is still searching for answers about what they lived through. Time has made Cyndi the lone keeper of those memories: Ryan’s father died two years ago, and Ryan’s recollections have faded. “It isn’t really my story,” he says. “It’s kind of her story now.”

A few weeks after Marie and Aija meet with Tucker in Virginia, Aija starts attending preschool — and as Tucker had predicted, Nina’s presence begins to subside. Aija is enthralled with her new school and the friends she makes there.

Several months later, on a cold Sunday morning in February, Aija twirls and dances to a playlist of favorite songs in the bright living room of her grandmother’s house in Michigan. Her parents sit nearby, describing a transition that feels, to them, like the beginning of an ending. Only months ago, they say, Aija would speak as Nina, or about Nina, nearly every day; now, several days might pass without any reference to her. So far, Nina has never been mentioned at school, at least not to their knowledge. Aija turned 5 in December, and Tucker had told Marie that past-life recollections often begin to fade around this age.

As a family, they’ve been reflecting on their experience recently. Marie feels certain that Nina is some sort of distinct entity, that Aija carries memories that aren’t her own. Ross’s mother — whom Ross describes as “more conservative” — is convinced that Nina is just an imaginary friend, like the ones Ross used to conjure when he was a small boy. Ross says he understands the human impulse to name something so mystifying, but he doesn’t share that need. “The mystery — I can observe it, but I don’t need to define it,” he says.

Months have passed since Aija described the frightening imagery that once defined her night terrors, and Marie says she would be profoundly relieved if those episodes never returned. “You never want to see your child suffer,” she says. “I hope she never has dreams of that intensity again.”

Yet Nina has also been a source of joy for Aija — a companion of sorts, whose presence has infused moments of her early childhood with a gentle, delicate charm. That, too, is beginning to recede, which feels more poignant to Marie: “There is a kind of nostalgia, already.”

Ross nods in understanding. But he feels more at peace with the ebbing of Nina’s influence, he says; it seems to mirror so much of parenthood, the constant movement from one uncharted landscape to the next. “The disappearance of it feels like part of the natural progression,” he says. As a family, they have learned to stay open to whatever comes.

Marie lifts her phone to select a new song to play, and Aija raises her arms into position for her next dance. She looks at her parents and grins. “Are you ready?” she asks.

essay about the holocaust survivors

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<p>Jews from <a href="/narrative/10727">Subcarpathian Rus</a> get off the deportation train and assemble on the ramp at the <a href="/narrative/3673">Auschwitz-Birkenau</a> killing center in occupied Poland. May 1944. </p>

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What made it possible.

How and why did ordinary people across Europe contribute to the persecution of their Jewish neighbors?

Discussion Question How and why did ordinary people across Europe contribute to the persecution of their Jewish neighbors?

How did German professionals and civil leaders contribute to the persecution of Jews and other groups?

Discussion Question How did German professionals and civil leaders contribute to the persecution of Jews and other groups?

What conditions, ideologies, and ideas made the Holocaust possible?

Discussion Question What conditions, ideologies, and ideas made the Holocaust possible?

How did the Nazis and their collaborators implement the Holocaust?

Discussion Question How did the Nazis and their collaborators implement the Holocaust?

What does war make possible?

Discussion Question What does war make possible?

Which organizations and individuals aided and protected Jews from persecution between 1933 and 1945?

Discussion Question Which organizations and individuals aided and protected Jews from persecution between 1933 and 1945?

How did leaders, diplomats, and citizens around the world respond to the events of the Holocaust?

Discussion Question How did leaders, diplomats, and citizens around the world respond to the events of the Holocaust?

How did the United States government and American people respond to Nazism?

Discussion Question How did the United States government and American people respond to Nazism?

After the war.

What have we learned about the risk factors and warning signs of genocide?

Discussion Question What have we learned about the risk factors and warning signs of genocide?

How did postwar trials shape approaches to international justice?

Discussion Question How did postwar trials shape approaches to international justice?

Other topics.

How did the shared foundational element of eugenics contribute to the growth of racism in Europe and the United States?

Discussion Question How did the shared foundational element of eugenics contribute to the growth of racism in Europe and the United States?

What were some similarities between racism in Nazi Germany and in the United States, 1920s-1940s?

Discussion Question What were some similarities between racism in Nazi Germany and in the United States, 1920s-1940s?

How did different goals and political systems shape racism in Nazi Germany and the United States?

Discussion Question How did different goals and political systems shape racism in Nazi Germany and the United States?

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  1. Tales from Auschwitz: survivor stories

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  2. Survivors return to Auschwitz on 70th anniversary of liberation

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  3. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Holocaust Survivors, Ever Dwindling in Number

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  4. For Some Holocaust Survivors, Even Liberation Was Dehumanizing

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  5. Survivors return to Auschwitz on 70th anniversary of liberation

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  6. 2015 Days of Remembrance

    essay about the holocaust survivors


  1. Remembering stories of the Holocaust survivors


  1. Behind Every Name a Story

    Share. Behind Every Name a Story consists of essays describing survivors' experiences during the Holocaust, written by survivors or their families. The essays, accompanying photographs, and other materials, including submissions that we are unable to feature on our website, will become a permanent part of the Museum's records.

  2. The Survivors

    Holocaust survivors, the passengers from the Exodus, DPs from central Europe, and Jewish detainees from British detention camps on Cyprus are welcomed to the Jewish homeland. Survivors faced huge obstacles in rebuilding their lives after the devastation of the Holocaust years. Learn about some of the challenges they faced.

  3. Series: In Their Own Words: Holocaust Survivor Testimonies

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  4. Introduction to the Holocaust

    Introduction to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators. The Holocaust was an evolving process that took place throughout Europe between 1933 and 1945. Antisemitism was at the foundation of the Holocaust.

  5. Survivor Reflections and Testimonies

    Read essays written by survivors registered on the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors and their families Conversations With Holocaust Survivors. Listen to survivors share their personal histories in person at the Museum's First Person programs. Learn More.

  6. Auschwitz stories told by those who lived them

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  7. In the Shadow of the Holocaust

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  8. Why We Remember the Holocaust

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  9. Concentration Camp Survivors Share Their Stories

    Share Their Stories. The Holocaust was the systematic murder of Europe's Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. The Nazis also enslaved and killed other groups who they perceived as racially, biologically or ideologically inferior or dangerous. Jews, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Poles, Slavs, Soviet prisoners of ...

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  11. Survivors: Faces of Life After the Holocaust

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  12. PDF Surviving the Holocaust: A Meta-Analysis of the Long-Term Sequelae of a

    The traumatic experiences of Holocaust survivors provide the ground for in-depth studies of the long-term consequences of trauma on later adaptation and adjustment. The importance of studying the long-term effects of the Holocaust on survivors pro- duced an extended body of literature (e.g., Krell & Sherman, 1997).

  13. Holocaust: Definition, Remembrance & Meaning

    The Holocaust. Updated: April 11, 2023 | Original: October 14, 2009. The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of millions of European Jews, Romani people, the ...

  14. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust

    There is a section on the victims, telling how survivors coped in the camps and afterwards, and about the psychotherapy of survivors and what happens to their children. A general model of stress and coping under extreme conditions is developed by Benner, Roskies, and Lazarus. A final section deals with the perpetrators.

  15. Effects and Aftermath of the Holocaust

    Many feared to return to their former homes. Key Facts. 1. Following the liberation of Nazi camps, many survivors found themselves living in displaced persons camps where they often had to wait years before emigrating to new homes. 2. Many feared returning to their former homes due to postwar violence and antisemitism. 3.

  16. Essay Ivingwiththe Holocaust the Journeyofa Childof Holocaust Survivors

    This essay was given as the Second Annual Holocaust Remembrance Lecture at the Center for American and Jewish Studies and the George W. Truett Seminary, Baylor University, on 8 April 2002. Journal of Palestine Studies XXXII, no. 1 (Autumn 2002), pages 5-12. ISSN: 0377-919X; online ISSN: 1533-8614.

  17. Holocaust Survivors Essay

    The survivors of the holocaust were deeply effected by the trauma they encountered. This unforgettable experience influenced their lives, those around them, and even their descendants. When the infamous Hitler began his reign in Germany in 1933, 530,000 Jews were settled in his land. In a matter of years the amount of Jews greatly decreased.

  18. 'The Tattooist of Auschwitz' Demonstrates the Limits of Holocaust

    Finally, in 1960, he published the memoir Night, now considered one of Holocaust literature's most lauded works. As a survivor, Wiesel felt a duty to bear witness. Still, he agonized over the ...

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    In a meeting in Jerusalem with Holocaust survivors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Jews "will stand alone" if they must. "If it is possible to get the help of the Gentiles, I am ...

  20. Film shares Holocaust survivor's message: Live a life with meaning

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  21. Psychological Pain of Holocaust Still Haunts Survivors

    WASHINGTON — Holocaust survivors show remarkable resilience in their day-to-day lives, but they still manifest the pain of their traumatic past in the form of various psychiatric symptoms, according to an analysis of 44 years of global psychological research.. Jewish Holocaust survivors living in Israel also have higher psychological well-being than those who live in other countries, which ...

  22. 'A Holocaust survivor, I never imagined I would be hiding in fear for

    Holocaust survivor Ruth Haran from Kibbutz Be'eri can barely sleep at night. Sometimes she has dreams in which she ... With those precious papers, we were able to move to the 'international ghetto' in Budapest, which was designated for Jews and their families who held protective papers from a neutral country. We managed to survive there until ...

  23. The Aftermath of the Holocaust: Personal Histories

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  28. The Survivors

    The Germans occupied Krakow in 1939. Murray's family was confined to the Krakow ghetto along with the rest of the Jewish population of the city. In 1942, Murray and a brother were deported for forced labor in the nearby Plaszow camp. In May 1944, his brother was transferred to Auschwitz and Murray was sent to the Gross-Rosen camp in Germany.

  29. Why does my child remember being someone else?

    At moments when Marie or Shawn become animated about something Aija has said — at one point, they wonder whether Aija's reaction to the cover of a book written by a Holocaust survivor might be ...

  30. Discussion Questions

    Media Essay Oral History Photo Series Song ... these discussion questions examine how and why the Holocaust happened. They are designed to help teachers, students, and all citizens create discussion and encourage reflection about the Holocaust. ... Holocaust Encyclopedia Collections Search Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center History ...