The generation of Holocaust survivors may be passing, but thanks to a just-launched initiative in San Francisco, their testimonies will live on through their children and grandchildren.
Called the Next Generation Speakers Bureau, the initiative is the brainchild of Morgan Blum Schneider, director of Jewish Family and Children Services’ Holocaust Center. The bureau is designed to address the challenge of Holocaust education when the last of the survivors are gone.
“We want to ensure that the Holocaust remains a story of faces, not just a history of numbers,” said Alexis Herr, the Holocaust Center’s new associate director, who was hired with the specific task of leading the NGSB effort.
“The goal is to continue to keep storytelling a key component of Holocaust education and find new ways for students to connect and learn from this history and to keep these stories of courage and resilience alive,” Herr added.
Since the late 1970s, those stories have been told across the Bay Area through the Holocaust Center Speakers Bureau, now called the William J. Lowenberg Speakers Bureau.
Demand for speakers remains high. This academic year there have been approximately 150 requests for speakers. More than 11,000 students (sixth grade through college) as well as numerous community organizations have heard first- generation recollections from survivors.
At its peak, that speakers program included 70 survivor-participants, but the number has dwindled. Today there are just 15 active participants, most of them children at the time of the Holocaust who survived thanks to the Kindertransport or were hidden or escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere. Two survived Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Now, survivors’ children and grandchildren are stepping up to make sure the stories of the Holocaust will continue to be told. To date there are six second- and third-generation speakers signed up to participate.
Batya Ross, a San Francisco psychotherapist and art therapist, is one of them. Ross is part of the third generation; her maternal grandmother was in Auschwitz and her maternal grandfather was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. The two met after the war. In America, they worked as shoemakers. For Ross, passing on the lessons she learned from her grandparents is vital: the importance of respect for all human beings.
“I hope people will hear the stories of the Holocaust, hear what happens when some people don’t matter. [Anti-Semitism] isn’t the only example of hatred and discrimination. I’m hoping that people will hear it and think about how they’re treating other people.”
And as a therapist, Ross hopes to bring a second lesson to her audiences, especially the students, and that is the lesson of resilience.
We want to ensure that the Holocaust remains a story of faces, not just a history of numbers.
“I’m sort of in awe of how you can experience something so traumatizing and not be broken by it. That there is still life to be had and things to be experienced. And that no matter what someone has gone through they still can live beyond it.”
The challenge of how to tell the stories of the Holocaust once the survivors are gone is being discussed across the country and the globe. In the U.S., Next Generation programs are starting up in New York, New Jersey and Washington.
Technology holds part of the answer. In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation recorded 52,000 video accounts of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Those interviews took place in 56 countries and in 32 languages. Interview subjects include Jewish, Roma, Jehovah’s Witness and gay survivors, as well as survivors of eugenics policies, political prisoners, liberators, aid providers and war crime trials participants.
In 2005, the Shoah Foundation entered into an agreement to transfer its assets and control to the University of Southern California with the guarantee that the archive will be preserved in perpetuity. As part of that agreement, research centers across the globe — including the JFCS Holocaust Center — have access to that repository of first-hand accounts.
To help San Francisco’s NGSB volunteers, a speaking coach has been brought in, and Herr, who holds a doctorate in Holocaust and genocide studies, is conducting historical research related to each family’s specific stories. “There is no handbook on how to train and empower these next-generation speakers,” Herr noted.
With anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise, up 57 percent in 2017 from 2016 in just the U.S., some NGSB participants feel a heightened urgency to speak out against intolerance.
Suzanne Samuel is one of them. Her father, Ralph Samuel, is a longtime and current member of the survivors’ speakers program. He left Germany in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport. Sponsored by a British family, he lived in London where he was reunited with his mother during the war. His father, however, died in Auschwitz.
“It’s not just hatred, but also what you can do about it. It’s both,” said Suzanne Samuel. “And the reason I’m interested in speaking is to use my family story to unite the audiences I speak to, to be united against hatred, not only anti-Semitism but all kinds, the anti-immigration bias, and the pervasive culture that’s starting to be here in our country.”
The current cohort of Next Generation speakers will continue training through the summer and begin making presentations in the fall. Recruitment for additional NGSB speakers will take place this summer.
A historian, Herr takes the long view on the benefits of Holocaust education. “For me personally, I think that these lessons are universal and are always timely. The stories from survivors are the ones that teach us the moral imperative to act.”