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Holocaust survivors are dying, but their stories are more relevant than ever

Lucy Rosenzweig survived the Holocaust and came to the United States with her husband in 1949. (Video: Allie Caren/TWP)

Lucy Rosenzweig survived Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” And like many survivors, my grandmother sought healing through storytelling — by teaching younger generations the lessons that she had learned, because I — and we — must never forget.

But her stories could begin to be told only after the German occupation of Poland, when the Third Reich reigned supreme and ushered forced labor, separation of families and mass murder into her home state.

They came after the Nazis deported her brother and newly wed husband to their deaths. After the train car into which she was crammed arrived at a location she did not recognize. They came after she was treated like cattle at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was ordered to strip for Joseph Mengele, a German SS officer renowned for his human experiments. They came after he inspected her naked body with white gloves, then selected which newcomers would be herded into the gas chambers.

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The storytelling came after her liberation. Now, as her generation departs amid a surge of anti-Semitism, racism and hate, who will tell their stories?

Survival did not erase my grandmother’s memory of hundreds of nights that felt like “how [she] pictured hell” — the darkness, the smell of burned bones, fellow Jews shrieking from beatings or worse. But it shaded her expectations of me.

Like clockwork, I lit candles to welcome in the Sabbath; but my grandmother put faces to the flames with stories of loved ones who had not been as fortunate. I never wasted the vegetables on my plate; I wanted to acknowledge and respect the deprivation she withstood.

Lucy Rosenzweig died 10 years ago — not slaughtered by an enemy but laid to rest by her children and grandchildren in a Jewish cemetery. A decade has passed, yet I remember vividly the string of blue numbers branded on my grandmother’s forearm and the way my eyes unconsciously darted to them when she pushed up the sleeves of her blouse.

In Auschwitz, she told me, the tattoo stripped her of her identity.

“From that day we didn’t have a name, they called us by number,” she explained, ensuring I understood the consequences of intolerance and bigotry. She instilled in me the memory of and responsibility to bear her oral history.

The Holocaust may be a tale of Jewish persecution, but those who listen emerge forewarned of the evil that can befall man and the suffering of others. The next generations’ struggle is how to apply the affliction of the past to the cruelty of the present.

“It could have been prevented had the world simply stopped the evil in the beginning,” said Mallory Blair, the chief executive of Small Girls PR and the granddaughter of concentration camp survivors. Survivors’ stories should bridge multicultural gaps, she said, “so we can all be allies for each other. You pass the torch to people who now or in the future may face the same rumblings of prejudice and threats to their identity that we as Jews had with the Holocaust."

As the grandson of survivors, Josh Gordon, a Los Angeles screenwriter, said the lessons extend far beyond concentration camp walls.

“The Holocaust was so vast and so horrific that it tends to sit in a category on its own,” he said, “but I think we can acknowledge the past while also extending its lessons to other mass traumas, no matter the scale or the scope.”

Celia Kerner was born in Poland in 1935. Decades later, she sees some similarities between then and now. She hopes sharing her story will make a difference. (Video: Allie Caren/TWP)

The survivors’ collective story is a cautionary tale. It should undercut hate-fueled attacks on houses of worship, whether at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue or the Chabad of Poway during Sabbath prayers, in the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., or in Sri Lanka during Easter services. It is the lens through which we should view the violence happening in Myanmar, and the atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, decades ago.

Humans have the capacity for depravity. Without survivors it is easier to forget the not-too-distant past and remain silent as history is rewritten.

When hatred of “the other” — whomever he or she may be — grows, people act out of fear. Rather than celebrate differences, they aspire to a supposed “American identity.”

From the anti-immigrant rhetoric used to denounce migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, to Nazi slogans chanted by the white supremacists descending on Charlottesville, current events draw alarming yet obvious similarities to Hitler’s regime. The comparison rouses a polarized response, but they also remind us to be vigilant when the parallels emerge.

The execution of 6 million people is inconceivable. But individual stories enable understanding, even empathy. Retelling these personal parables allows the last of the largest mass genocide a chance to help prevent persecution of “the other” down the road.

As survivors become endangered, and their flames extinguish, they rely on the next generation to not only light new candles but also to bear witness — for both the dead and the living.

It is up to us, now, to keep their stories alive.

Read more:

Anti-Semitic attacks spike, killing most Jews in decades

How German journalists are using Snapchat to teach teens about the Holocaust

Jews fleeing the Holocaust weren’t welcome in the U.S. Then FDR finally offered a refuge to some.