Commentary: Telling History in the Future

Roll over image for audio. (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Belarussian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography)

By Megan Turchi
BU News Service

Thomas Jefferson told John Adams: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” But, the future and the past cannot be thought of as separate acts – in order to progress into the future, the past must never be forgotten.

The oldest know Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, died last week at 110. Her death is a reminder of the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors, and how the history will be remembered in the future.

The registry at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., has approximately 195,000 names of survivors and family members, but there is no way to know an exact number. The museum notes that survivors who registered in the past 15 years may now be deceased.

In addition to measuring the number of survivors, just defining them can be difficult. In a 2011 article titled “Caring for Aging Holocaust Survivors and Subsequent Generations,” published in journal American Imago, Dr. Michael Grodin, paints a broad definition.

“The term ‘survivor’ in reference to the Holocaust broadly refers to any Jew threatened by the Nazi occupation during the second World War,” Grodin writes. ”But the level and type of victimization and the terrors and atrocities experienced and witnessed vary from person to person.”

Age is also an important aspect to consider when examining the experiences of survivors. At this point, most survivors that are left were children during the Holocaust and would have had different experiences than their parents.

“What constitutes historical truth is a problem in its own right,” Grodin said in an interview at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. ”What I would argue is if you interview a survivor, you become a witness. As you go on it becomes more problematic to chronicle and witness.”

Grodin is the Director of the Medical Ethics and Human Rights Programs at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health and Director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Wiesel Center.

Grodin said that video and audio can play an important role in keeping history alive. Steven Spielburg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation, created in 1994 after the making of the movie Schindler’s List, gathers video testimonies from Holocaust survivors and other witnesses. They currently have 51,696 audio-visual testimonies from 56 countries in 32 languages.

But, primary source audio-video is not the only way to remember Holocaust victims and survivors. Memorials across the world are physical reminders of the past.

One such memorial is located in Boston. “The memorial itself was started by survivors and they organized funding and petitioned the city to get it built where it is now,” said Emily Reichman, manager of the New England Holocaust Memorial. “For survivors, it’s a place to mourn those they lost during the Holocaust as most victims did not have a proper burial.”

Memorials can also have an influence upon visitors who have no personal connection to the Holocaust.

“For other people it is a way to come face-to-face with what happened,” Reichman said. ”There are a lot of elements to the memorial and I always say it uses all of your senses to experience it properly and it can be overwhelming – everyone has a unique experience”
The memorial, in downtown Boston near Faneuil Hall, is made of six 54-foot tall glass towers representing 6 million Jews killed, the names of six main death camps, and the six years (1939-45) during which Adolph Hitler’s “Final Solution” was carried out.
There are quotes to read, smoke that rises from the ground, and shadows that reflect on each visitor as he or she walks through.
“It is a very tangible way for people to come to terms with what happened,” Reichman said.

(Note: Due to a production error an unedited version of this story was published.)

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