The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pandemic forces Holocaust survivor interviews onto Zoom

With in-person meetings canceled, time and covid push voices online

Ina Navazelskis, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's oral history interviewer, prepares a virtual interview in her home in Falls Church, Va., on Dec. 10. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Holocaust survivor Mano Orel, 95, was an hour and a half into telling his story when he broke down and began to cry.

He had been recounting his life as a German-speaking Jewish teenager in Greece who translated for unsuspecting Nazis, how he had been part of the resistance and how he helped eliminate collaborators.

But when he got to the part about how his mother, Liza, and younger brother, Rafael, had been lured to an Athens synagogue with promises of food, and how they were shipped off to the Auschwitz death camp, he began to weep.

Ina Navazelskis, an interviewer with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was quiet for a moment as she watched him on her laptop in her study in Falls Church, Va. Normally, she would have been face to face with Orel in his home with a video and audio crew.

Now, forced by the pandemic to talk on a shaky Zoom connection over a cellphone taped to his computer, Orel took out some tissues and wiped his nose.

“Do you want me to stop the recording for a minute?” Navazelskis asked.

“No,” he said, composing himself. “You don’t have to stop it. Go ahead.”

Among the other things disrupted by the global pandemic has been the Holocaust museum’s 30-year-long oral history project.

Since 1989, the museum has conducted more than 6,000 interviews with people touched by the Holocaust, the World War II genocide by Germany and its allies of millions of Europe’s Jews, Poles, Russians and others.

The accounts are collected and stored at the museum where they are available to researchers.

In the past, experts like Navazelskis would travel the country and the world gathering the stories of survivors, witnesses, liberators and others. Ninety percent would be in-person video interviews. Several were scheduled for this year.

He was 10 when his mother sent him away to escape the Nazis. He never saw her again.

But when the virus hit last winter, the oral history project had to be rethought, said Leslie Swift, head of the museum’s oral history, film and recorded sound division.

“We work with very elderly people, and we are used to going into a person-to-person situation,” she said. “We had to quickly figure out that we were going to do that differently.”

But it couldn’t just be paused.

“We couldn’t … sort of let go of everything,” she said. “By the time this pandemic is over, a lot of these people may not be here.”

Navazelskis began researching the process of conducting remote interviews. “I didn’t know what Zoom was,” she said. “I had never heard of it before.”

But it turned out to be a key tool. The quality of the video and audio often was not ideal, as with Orel’s case. And such interviews can be awkward for the elderly.

But the narrative is recorded.

“It works,” she said. “The key thing is that we’ve got the story.”

Navazelskis, 64, who is not Jewish, is the museum’s main interviewer. Trained as a journalist, she was born in Boston to parents who were refugees from Lithuania. “I grew up with stories from World War II,” she said.

She has been doing the job for about 13 years, she said, and has conducted about 400 interviews.

“The stories people are telling me are pivotal in their lives,” she said. “For many … it’s the first time they’ve told this story publicly.”

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” she said.

Defiant Hungarian doctor hid Jewish boy as Nazis scoured Budapest during Holocaust

As Orel regained his composure one day earlier this month, Navazelskis asked him more about the fate of his mother and brother.

“How did you find out?” she said.

Orel, wearing a headset and a light blue windbreaker, sat in the living room of his apartment in a retirement community in Westborough, Mass., outside Boston.

His vision and hearing are poor, but his memory was mostly sharp. And he often closed his eyes, saying, “I’m thinking,” in answer to a question.

He was looking at the monitor of his desktop computer. But his computer lacked a camera, so his stepson had used packing tape to attach a cellphone, which had a camera.

Four-hundred miles away, Navazelskis sat at a desk in her townhouse, surrounded by shelves of books and files about the Holocaust. She wore a headset, a rust-colored sweater, with the sleeves pushed up, a black blouse and a long gold necklace.

Behind her stood a statue of a seated Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and a look of utter dejection, as if at the world.

Orel said he left Athens, where he had been born, and joined the resistance fighting the occupation of Greece by the Nazis and their allies. He was given a false name, Yanis Tranoris, and false papers.

He was 19. Because he had grown up speaking German, he was offered a job as a translator for the German military police in Thebes, about 30 miles northwest of Athens. He was afraid to take the position.

If the Germans found out he was a member of the resistance, and a Jew, he would surely be killed.

But resistance leaders told him to take the job. “You could not refuse,” he said.

Orel’s father, Aron, was a native of Odessa, in Ukraine, who had operated a successful hat-making factory in Athens and sold to the finest department stores, he told Navazelskis.

The family was well off. His father owned three cars and spoke German, Russian, Greek and Turkish.

Orel attended private schools. He was a Boy Scout. There was little anti-Semitism in Athens, he said. Greece was a friendly country where one never felt alone.

But his job as a translator was high risk. One German soldier in particular was deeply suspicious of him.

“Which resistance group do you belong to?” he said the German once asked him.

“All of them,” Orel said he replied.

His job made him privy to inside information.

At one point, he tipped off the resistance that two Greek collaborators were trying to gather names of resistance members for the Germans.

“The next day, these people disappeared,” he said. When he asked what happened to them, he was told, “they were taken care of, whatever that meant.”

“Much later, I heard that they were not just killed, they were cut to pieces,” he said. “The resistance was very brutal against traitors.”

Orel’s father had died before the Germans invaded Greece in 1941, leaving his mother, who was from Turkey, where his parents met, and his brother, who was about 14.

They had gone into hiding, for fear of the Nazis, who by war’s end would kill 80 percent of Greece’s more than 70,000 Jews — about 800 of them from Athens, according to the museum.

Orel said he had built a good black-market business, buying things from German soldiers who needed money for alcohol and prostitutes. He had been sending food to his mother and brother in Athens, where provisions were scarce.

But eventually, they fell into a trap set by the Germans.

“They played a smart trick,” Orel said.

“The Germans announced that they are not going to touch the Jews of Athens because they were assimilated to the Christian population,” he said.

“Not only that, they [said they were] going to give them, also, food,” he said. “They should go to synagogue periodically and get their food. … For two years, the Jews went to the synagogue and got food. And they were not touched.”

Those who remained in hiding were told by friends, “Hey, come back. Everything is okay,’ ” he said. “Until, in 1944, when the Jews were there, they were encircled” and captured.

He began to cry.

“My mother and little brother were there,” he said.

He told Navazelskis he was still working for the Germans in Thebes when he found out. “Some Greek said, ‘Did you hear the news? The Nazis encircled all the Jews in Athens.’ This is how I knew.”

He said he traveled to Athens and went to the apartment where his mother and brother had been hiding. “I saw leftover food,” he said. But they were gone.

“A neighbor told me, ‘Get lost. Immediately,’ ” he said. “So I got lost.”

As the war ended, Orel said he left the resistance and headed home.

“And where was home?” Navazelskis asked.

Orel said he stayed temporarily with a Jewish family in Greece and then took advantage of a Jewish group’s offer of free passage to Israel.

“I decided to throw everything behind me and start a new life, and forget what happened,” he said. “So with my little suitcase in my hand, I went to Israel.”

Orel later moved to the United States and became a professional photographer. He was married twice, and was twice a widower.

At the end of the interview, Navazelskis asked whether he wanted to sum things up.

“There is so much going on in the world,” he said. “My experiences during the war, they’re a small detail.”

Read more:

The first transport of Jews to Auschwitz was 997 teenage girls

Pope Pius XII knew Jews were being killed, researcher says

The Polish hero who volunteered to go to Auschwitz

The Black liberators who helped defeat the Nazis and free the Dutch

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