On November 5, 1942, a group of teenagers in the Vilna ghetto went the house at 4 Shavler Street to interview the family about their experiences in the ghetto.
They were collecting ghetto folklore for a school project: “sayings, ghetto curses, and ghetto blessings…even songs, jokes, and stories that already sound like legends. …I shall participate zealously in this little circle,” fifteen-year-old Yitzhok Rudashevsky wrote in his diary, “because the ghetto folklore, which is amazingly cultivated in blood, and which is scattered over the little streets, must be collected and cherished as a treasure for the future.”1
They did not get a good reception. “We were reproached for having calm heads,” Yitzhok wrote. “You must not probe into another person’s wounds,” they were told, “our lives are self-evident.”
“She is right,” Yitzhok said, “but I consider that everything should be recorded and noted down, even the most gory.”
Yitzhok did not survive to tell these stories to the future he imagined so clearly. Less than a year later, he and his family were murdered in the killing pits at Ponar. His diary survived, though, and through his diary, we can hear his voice and his story. It is part of the treasure left behind for us by the people who lived the Holocaust.
Stories were recorded and remembered by people in the ghettos and in the camps. Stories were told to us afterwards by people who grew up in hiding. These stories of the Holocaust are a treasure we, their future, must cherish. We find them in diaries, memoirs, and stories passed down from generation to generation. What is our responsibility to these stories and the people who told them?
As the fragile window closes
On January 11, 2020, a group of adults gathered in the sanctuary at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. We were working on the same problem that concerned Yitzhok Rudashevsky in 1942: cherishing the stories of the Holocaust as treasures for the future.
In the years since the war, we have learned these stories from those who lived them. When we asked, the survivors told us their stories. We listened, and we learned. We wept with them. We tried to understand, but we couldn’t. What we did understand, deeply and viscerally, was that the story of the Holocaust is a vital part of our own stories, both as Jews and as human beings.
The window of witness is a fragile one, however. For the Holocaust, that window is closing. Every day brings news of the death of another Holocaust survivor. Soon there will be a generation of children who will never have the chance to listen to a survivor speak. How do we give those children the deep, visceral sense of the importance of this story that we got from listening to survivors?
Can we hold open that fragile window? Can we find another powerful way to tell these stories?
Storyteller Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff thinks we can. From 2004 to 2013, Zunikoff co-taught a class at Goucher College with Professor Uta Larkey and psychiatrist Steven Salzberg on how to tell survivors’ stories.They taught students to interview survivors and then to turn those interviews into stories that they, the students, could tell. Often, the students told the survivors’ stories in first person. Hearing stories that happened to young people told by young people was powerful. The students’ connection to the stories they themselves told was even more powerful.
I met Jennifer in 2018 at a Jewish educators’ conference. When she told me about the Goucher program, I saw immediately that this might be a bridge to a generation without survivors.
Many survivors’ stories can be found in video and text, but there is something lost in those media. Sitting in the presence of a survivor and listening to them tell their story has a power that watching a video or reading a book does not. What if we could teach people to tell the stories from those books and videos? Could we recreate some of the power of listening to a survivor? Could we pull the stories of some of the murdered millions out the dustbin of history?
Telling Holocaust stories
On that weekend in early January, Jennifer and I were taking the first step toward making that idea a reality. Sixteen men and women came to Kol Ami to learn how to tell stories of the Holocaust. Each had brought a story with which to work. Some were personal stories – stories of parents, grandparents, or teachers who had survived. Others were stories they had read in books. Some were survivor stories, others the stories of the murdered. Each person chose a story that called to them.
I chose to work with Yitzhok’s story. I love his story because over the two years he lived in the ghetto, Yitzhok learned not just to survive but to really live in the ghetto. When Yitzhok first moved into the ghetto, in September 1941, he felt trapped. “I feel as if I were in a box. There is no air to breathe.”
As time went on, however, Yitzhok found his perspective changing. He threw himself into school and the folklore collecting project. In March of 1943, he commented, “I often reflect, this is supposedly the ghetto yet I have such a rich life of intellectual work…I often forget that I am in the ghetto.”
To me, Yitzhok represents the strength of the Jews in the Holocaust. One evening, after a day of partying at the social club, he wrote, “We have proved that from the ghetto there will not emerge a youth broken in spirit; from the ghetto there will emerge a strong youth which is hardy and cheerful.” He also represents the tragedy of the Holocaust – a great writer cut down before he had a chance to explore his potential.
Finding our place in the story
Each of the stories we told had elements like these, elements of strength and elements of tragedy. Each had its own richness.
Over the course of the weekend, we found ourselves beginning to understand the breadth and depth of the community that experienced the Holocaust. We found ourselves getting beyond the stories that everyone knows, stories like Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. Frank and Wiesel’s stories, as rich as they are, are but two among a galaxy of stories that comprise the individuals who experienced the Holocaust.
We also discovered that we ourselves had a place in these stories. “We breathe ourselves into the stories,” Jennifer says. For those telling family stories, finding their own place was often about recognizing the impact their parents’ experiences had on their own lives. We all found that there was a personal connection between our chosen story and our own lives. Why did we choose this particular story? Where does their individuality meet our own?
For our children
As we found our place in the story of the Holocaust, we also found the bridge to the next generation. How can we help our children, who will never hear a survivor speak, gain a visceral connection and recognize the vital importance the story of the Holocaust has to their lives? One way is to help them find the stories that speak to them, and to teach them to tell those stories.
This is our next step. This spring, the high school class at Congregation Kol Ami will have the chance to try their hands at telling these stories. They will pick scenes and stories that speak to them. They will learn to tell those stories in their own voices. Hopefully, some of them will come away with a deeper connection to the story they have told as well as a deeper understanding of their connection to the story of the Holocaust.
If we want the story of the Holocaust to survive, our teens need to hear the sayings, the curses, and the blessings used by the people in the Holocaust. They need to learn the songs, the jokes, and the stories that seem like legends. They need to hear the voices of their people, as the Vilna ghetto teenagers did when they interviewed people in the ghetto. In 1943, Yitzhok Rudashevsky knew that these stories were a treasure that connected him to the future. In 2020, we know that they are a treasure that connects us to our past.
For more than three decades, Congregation Kol Ami has been the Jewish heart of Denton County, Texas. Founded in the 1970s as a Chavurah fellowship on the University of North Texas campus, we have since gone from strength to strength. We are currently a community of over 140 families who together sustain a dynamic spiritual life, a rich educational center, and a vibrant social scene for ourselves and for our children. We like to think of ourselves as the friendliest little shul in Denton County.
Our regular Shabbat Service is scheduled every Friday night at 7:30 pm. Shabbat morning services are scheduled at 10 am. On Saturdays with no B’nai Mitzvah on the calendar, we hold Torah n’Tefilah, an informal service-in-the-round with Torah study. Come visit us at 1887 Timber Creek Road Flower Mound, Texas 75028
Phone: (972) 539-1938 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Deborah Fripp is the president of Teach the Shoah Foundation and the Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. Deborah has a BS from Stanford University and a PhD from M.I.T. in communication and learning in formal and informal settings. Her website, www.TeachTheShoah.org, provides resources on commemorating, teaching, and understanding the Holocaust for communities, families, and educators. She can be reached at email@example.com.