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A Race to Preserve the Voices of Holocaust’s Last Survivors

The Wall Street Journal,  December 5, 2013, by Naftali Bendavid

Simon Gronowski was a child when he jumped off a train heading to Auschwitz, after being held in Belgium. Cédric Gerbehaye for The Wall Street Journal

As Witnesses Die, Historians Find Reality of Tragedy Harder to Convey

JEMEPPE-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium—Simon Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz and hiding from the Nazis for three years.

The students lobbed close to 50 questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated—”Did you meet Hitler ?”—to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister who stayed on the train.

But the talk exhausted Mr. Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn’t hear that well, and it isn’t clear how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop. “My children and my grandchildren will talk about it,” he said. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”

Barracks in Belgium where Simon Gronowski was held. Kazerne Dossin

Mr. Gronowski’s plight underlines an increasingly urgent problem facing those seeking to memorialize the Holocaust: Nearly seven decades after World War II ended, the final survivors are aging and dying off, making it immensely harder to convey the tragedy’s reality, which has become only more engraved in public sentiment since a large trove of Nazi-confiscated artworks was recently disclosed.

A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults during the war. “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. “But we have no choice.

The Claims Conference, which negotiates with Germany on payments to survivors, says roughly 160,000 people remain world-wide who lived in Nazi camps or ghettos, or who hid during the war. But that is a broad category, and many are frail or isolated, so the number of active witnesses is a fraction of that, especially in some specific cases. Of the 850,000 people slated for extermination at the Treblinka death camp in Poland, for example, 67 survived the war. Of those, two remain, according to the Museum of Struggle and Martyrdom in Treblinka.

Figures for camps that focused on forced labor rather than killing are more complex, because more inmates survived and moved among camps. Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, had roughly 50,000 inmates at liberation, though about 10,000 died within weeks. Today, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial and Museum knows of about 2,000 survivors.

The world’s Holocaust memorials are scrambling to react. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel’s Yad Vashem are accelerating their collection of personal artifacts like dolls and diaries. Almost all Holocaust museums now feature eyewitness recordings. The Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, is developing holograms of survivors that can interact with visitors.

Mr. Gronowski’s mother and sister didn’t survive. Cédric Gerbehaye for The Wall Street Journal

But these are responses, not replacements. After the war, Holocaust survivors were initially slow to speak, partly because a world focused on healing didn’t seem that interested. But a desire to scrutinize the Holocaust has grown sharply over the decades, and a few years ago survivors began telling their stories, driven by a need to rebut Holocaust deniers and a recognition that they wouldn’t be around forever.

Now talks by survivors are a central way the story is told, and the looming loss is evident each time they speak. Chil Elberg, 89, who was held in a dozen camps, addressed about 180 teenagers recently in Brussels, at one point rolling up his sleeve to show his Auschwitz tattoo, number B-10785. “There are people who say it never existed. This way, you know,” he said.

Mr. Elberg recounted arriving in Auschwitz, seeing the giant flame from the crematoria and thinking, “This is the end.” His family was immediately killed, but he was assigned the task of transferring bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria. He ultimately survived the war by adopting the identity of a political prisoner who had recently died.

The students were transfixed, their hands occasionally flying to their mouths as Mr. Elberg spoke. “It’s shocking to know we are [among] the last to hear him,” Jessica Kraaijer, 17, said afterward. “In 10 years it will only be teachers and people like us who know the stories.”

Of the roughly 1,800 Jews on Mr. Elberg’s train from Belgium to the camps, 18 survived the war, and Mr. Elberg said he believes he is the only one still alive.

The survivors’ moral credibility lets them speak to power in a way others can’t. When President Barack Obama visited Yad Vashem in March, he appeared moved by a private conversation with its chairman, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was liberated from Buchenwald at 7 while hiding under a pile of corpses. Mr. Lau, one of the camp’s youngest survivors, is now 76.

Auschwitz inmate Paul Halter, a leader of the Belgian resistance, created the Auschwitz Foundation for research and education and personally spoke to about 1,000 groups. He told stories only a survivor would know—like how guards killed a prisoner one frigid day by dousing him with water, then forcing other inmates to watch him freeze to death.

Mr. Halter can no longer tell his stories, having died in March at age 92.

The survivors’ passing is a world-wide phenomenon, but in a sense it is more dramatic in Europe because this is where the Holocaust happened. Survivors often returned to their old neighborhoods after the war, and some are living there still.

In Belgium, the Nazis deported 25,482 Jews, and about 1,250 survived the war. Of those, at most 20 to 30 remain, said Henri Goldberg, a friend of Mr. Halter’s who now heads the Auschwitz Foundation.

Mr. Halter is among those featured in “The Irreversible,” a new book on the final survivors by Polish photographer Maciek Nabrdalik. Mr. Nabrdalik started the project after a 2009 trip to Auschwitz, when he noticed inmates’ obituaries posted by the gate almost daily.

At least 10 of the 42 survivors he photographed for the book have since died. “I think this was the last moment to start it,” Mr. Nabrdalik said.

Libraries and other institutions are trying to help by recording survivors, while museums are hustling to gather wartime belongings, which can tell moving stories in themselves. Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive has recorded more than 4,400 testimonies; the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California has close to 52,000.

The most eye-catching effort is the Shoah Foundation’s project to create lifelike holograms of survivors, which aims for completion within five years. Visitors will be able to ask the “survivors” questions and, if it works, receive natural-seeming responses.

Some find such re-creations inappropriate, even vulgar. “It ends up being like a fictionalization technique,” said James Young, professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s like creating a survivor. There is something robotic about it.”

Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, said that the project in fact honors survivors, done in high-definition that helps create a beautiful image. “We’re not trying to trick the students—it’s not a Disneyland ride or haunted image,” he said.

Mr. Smith also said the holograms won’t be unveiled until the technology has matured “to the point that it does justice to the subject.” Another consideration is the survivors themselves. While they are alive, he said, “we don’t want to pre-empt them and say, ‘Thanks very much, we’ll now replace you with a true lifelike version of you.’ ”

The questions raised by the survivors’ aging go deeper than educational techniques. With their fading, the Holocaust is transforming from memory to history, and it is now being fitted into its long-term place in the Western narrative.

The question is where that place is. Some museums are trying to keep the Holocaust relevant, as survivors age, by putting it in the context of more recent atrocities. Belgium recently opened a “Museum on the Holocaust and Human Rights,” and it seeks to tie the tragedy to recognizable daily problems.

A film near the entrance shows episodes of playground bullying and workplace harassment, then moves to apartheid and lynching before arriving at the Nazis. On another floor, a wall features a photo of a delirious crowd at a music festival, to illustrate mob behavior.

The museum focuses primarily on the Holocaust, and its displays are affecting, but some Belgian Jews are unhappy with its broad lens—”There is not enough feeling from the Jewish deportation,” said survivor Denis Baumerder. It is an expression of a broader dispute between those who see the Holocaust as unique, almost outside history, and those who want to place it firmly in the flow of historical events.

Steven Katz, director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, criticized the idea of including harassment in a Holocaust museum. “Not that bullying is not a terrible thing; it’s a very serious issue,” Mr. Katz said. “But it trivializes what happened at Auschwitz and Treblinka.”

Museum director Herman Van Goethem said the point isn’t to compare the bullying with the Holocaust, but to explore the origins of mass violence in a way that is relevant to ordinary people. “If you start with the Holocaust, you can’t understand it,” Mr. Van Goethem said. “You have to start at the beginning of the chain of violence.”

Such disputes will likely become more pointed as the tragedy moves beyond memory and educators search for ways to tell the story. For now, people like Mr. Gronowski are doing their best to simply pass on their experiences.

Mr. Gronowski, who favors jeans and sweaters, is a small, sturdy figure, resembling an aging Picasso. An amateur pianist, his dream is to play with Woody Allen, the comedian-clarinetist—an improbable vision, perhaps, for an 82-year-old French-speaking Belgian.

In March 1943, when Mr. Gronowski was 11, Gestapo officers burst into the home where his family was hiding and arrested him, along with his mother and sister. A month later, the three were crammed onto a train carrying about 1,500 Jews to Auschwitz.

By chance, this was the only train of Jews to be successfully raided during the war, stopped by three young resistance fighters. As the train slowed, prisoners in young Simon’s train forced the car door open, and as it sped back up, his mother held him outside to jump.

Simon ran all night through the woods, finally locating sympathetic Belgians who returned him to his father, who had escaped the roundup because he was in the hospital. Simon spent the next 17 months hidden by various Catholic families.

But his mother and sister died at Auschwitz, and his father died shortly after the war.

After he told this story at the elementary school, a boy in a gray sweatshirt asked about the last words his mother spoke to him. The answer: “The train is going too fast.”

Write to Naftali Bendavid at naftali.bendavid@wsj.com

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