Recovering the Oral History of the Holocaust

February 24 marked the death of the oldest living Holocaust survivor.  Certainly there are still survivors out there, but they are growing scarcer by the year.  Someone who was 15 in 1945 would be 83 today, and most people under the age of 15 didn’t survive the Holocaust at all because they were seen as useless for labor.  Even those born in 1945 are 68 this year.

One might think that all the stories to be told have already been told at this point.  Yet organizations that attempt to record such oral lore continue to get submissions.

Why would survivors just be telling their stories now?  For some, they simply haven’t told the right person.  Friends and family might know some of it, but it’s never gotten to a historian.  For others, the stories have been just too painful to repeat, but the advance of old age has encouraged them to preserve their stories as a lesson for future generations.

The Holocaust is a subject I read up on.  I’m not sure “I like the subject” is the correct phrase to use.  Sometimes I have to do it in small doses because my brain just can’t deal with it for long.  Every time I read something new, it offers up something even more horrible than I have previously known.  The Holocaust was not just genocide.  It was torture, humiliation and dehumanization is so many astounding horrible, arbitrary and sadistic ways.

Survivors commonly suffer survivor guilt.  Why did they live when so many didn’t? Why did people eating the same food and doing the same work as the survivor not make it?  Twins were used in medical experiments when one was kept as a control while the other was experimented upon.  One survived because their twin had the bad luck of not being the control.

Some of them credit their survival to doing something unsavory.  A 15-year-old boy had his uniform cap stolen by a man who raped him in his bunk.  Showing up for roll call without a complete uniform earned immediate execution, so he stole another person’s cap, who was subsequently shot.  Some killed their babies to shield them from a more horrible and guaranteed death.  Less dramatically, some stole food, did trades with guards, and lied about any number of things, and they are wracked with guilt even if their “sin” didn’t hurt anyone.

Another related how a prisoner guard warned his mother during intake that she should state her son was 15 even though he was only 12.  Put into the workforce, he was the only member of his family to survive: his mother and younger siblings were immediately exterminated.

Another man had his glasses broken in a camp one day, and he figured he would be exterminated because he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his workload.  The next day a group of men were killed because they wore glasses, presumably seen as an indication such men were too flawed to be productive.  He survived by dumb luck.

These stories are important.  They put a face on the impersonal numbers we so often hear in relation to the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is not 6 million but rather one and one and one and one and…”

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