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By Those Who Lived through It

History,” says Miriam Haier, curator at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, “is best told by those who lived it.”

And Holocaust history is best told by those who survived it.

That’s why the memoirs, biographies, lectures, and videos of survivors are such an essential part of the narrative. It’s difficult to come to grips with the enormity of the Holocaust, an event too huge and horrific to comprehend. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, but do we begin to understand that it refers to six million individual lives?

“The Nazis’ genocidal ambition,” says Miriam, “was to dehumanize, degrade, and ultimately destroy the Jewish People.” As curator of New York City’s primary Holocaust museum, Haier says it’s her mission to draw attention to the humanity of the people who experienced the worst. If we can engage with a survivor’s story, she says, the tragedy becomes more human, more heartbreaking, and more horrifying. That’s why the museum, which is located in Lower Manhattan, is currently offering a temporary exhibit called “In Confidence: Holocaust History Told by Those Who Lived It.”

On a cold, dark day, which matched the indoor mood, Haier gave Mishpacha a tour of the exhibit, housed in the Irving Schneider and Family Gallery adjacent to the permanent museum.

Branya’s Story

We take the elevator to the third floor of the Schneider Gallery and enter a large room filled with an impressive collection of Holocaust art and personal mementos drawn and written by survivors. The collection includes a diary, a photo album, some sketches and drawings, and a few letters. Much of this material, says Miriam, was donated to the museum by families who wanted to share their loved ones’ stories with others.

A large reproduction of a short message written by a little girl in Gdansk in 1939 catches my eye. Her name is Branya and she’s written a note to her mother who has managed to escape Poland. Though the mother hopes Branya can join her soon, in the meantime the little girl is thinking about Pesach, which is approaching soon.

The message is sweet and simple. “Ich vinch meiner lieben goldenen mutter aynen gutten Pesach — I wish my dear golden mother a good Pesach.” She even draws a few delicate little flowers around the words. I linger at this piece for a while and can’t help but wonder: Is she aware of the horror unfolding around her? Is this a desperate attempt to hang on to a sense of normalcy despite the circumstances? What goes on in the mind of a little girl in wartime?

Miriam tells me that Branya escaped from Poland a short time later on a Kindertransport and survived the war. Now, through this short note, I know Branya a little better. Though it contains just a few words, it speaks volumes about the courage of a little girl separated from her mother and with no one to comfort her as she discovers that life will never be the same again.

 Last Visit to Majdanek

The core of the “In Confidence” exhibit is “The Last Goodbye,” a virtual reality tour of a concentration camp led by survivor Pinchas Gutter. Pinchas was born in Lodz and endured unspeakable hardships in a total of six concentration camps as well as in the Warsaw ghetto. He miraculously lived to tell the tale and is clearly qualified to lead us into this abyss.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 743)


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