There is a famous expression which goes, “Those who don’t learn about history are bound to repeat it.” Today, 73 years later, it is important not to  forget the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust. With many of the survivors already having passed and the remaining survivors continuing to get older, remembering the events of the time becomes a task for a new generation. This is why the United Nations General Assembly established International Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Jan. 27. Coinciding with this day, Brandeis University had an Internation Holocaust Remembrance Panel of members from the Women’s Studies Research Center, to share the unique experiences of their relatives who remember the Holocaust in the most vivid way possible — they lived through it.

Rachel Munn, a poet who spoke first, shared poetry describing her family’s experiences juxtaposed with her personal memories. She began with a poem describing the fear instilled in Jews living in the Lodz Ghetto as they hid under stairs in their home from the Gestapo. When her family gathered, Munn pondered how long each family member would survive, as they collapsed from hunger and Nazis stuck swords through the floor and  crouch under the stairs. She stressed the point that, given the recent inundation of fake news, it is more important now than ever to relay the stories of those who survived and those who perished. 

Sarah Swartz, a writer, followed Munn, discussing her life as a refugee child of survivors. She grew up in Southington, Connecticut where she tackled a language barrier for which she was mocked relentlessly. She talked about the struggles of being  called a Nazi on the playground as her parents acclimated to a new life filled with people who had no clue what they had gone through. All the while the family was working toward receiving asylum in the United States. The inability to adjust to the new environment stemmed from what Swartz believes were, “language and cultural differences … [which] often create a wedge in human understanding.” The experiences stayed with her as she moved to Berlin and then back to the States. Despite her travels, she continued to identify as an immigrant during her early life. At the end of her presentation, she noted that, today, Germany has opened its doors to refugees and those who seek asylum, becoming a leader in accepting those who seek shelter, which she believes is in part because of the guilt many Germans feel about their country’s bloody past. 

Karin Rosenthal, a fine arts photographer, approached the task of remembering the Holocaust through photographs. She discussed her attempts to learn the names of her father’s family who perished. She made genealogy trips to learn all she could about her family and the 19 members who were murdered. A powerful photo she took of a Jewish tombstone in Berlin speaks to the themes of the Holocaust. On the tombstone are carved the words, “Only those who are forgotten are dead.” 

Continuing with the use of visual images as a medium through which to remember, Ornit Barkai, a documentary filmmaker, spoke next about Anne Frank and her legacy. There is a parallel in the short film Barkai created between a girl while she visits the Anne Frank House and Anne Frank’s own descriptions as she becomes increasingly less naive. Through shaky camera footage from the small dark rooms within the Anne Frank house, the viewer is given a feeling of the terror and claustrophobia of being trapped as a fugitive from Nazis in your own home.

Debra Kaufman, a sociologist, approached the subject from a different angle. She spoke about the sociological comparisons between the current Jewish youth and their grandparents who survived the Holocaust. She referenced a survey of Jews born post-1980.  Many of the participants surveyed wanted to expand the memory of the Holocaust to extend to those not only of the Jewish faith. Additionally, they have moved further away from strict religion to spiritual rituals. The survey revealed that many participants wished to extend the memories of the Holocaust to helping others who are suffering similarly in the twenty-first century.

Laurel Leff, a journalist, discussed how the International Tracing Service released documents about the Holocaust and how this affected the public. She talked about Jewish scholars and what happened to them as the Holocaust progressed. Her mission is to find out whether or not the stories related by survivors are factually accurate, or if, in remembering certain events, survivors omitted details because the truth was too horrific or politically inconvenient. In the case of her cousin Vilna, she believes that her cousin was likely raped by U.S. or British soldiers and not Germans, but that Vilna covered the truth for fear of speaking about crimes committed by the allied forces. 

Karen Frostig, a public memory artist, spoke last. She discussed the dangers of nationalism and how it affects Holocaust memory. She explained that the first baby born in Austria in 2018 caused an outrage because her mother wore a headscarf. This is not so surprising, given that the leadership in Austria has such a clear right-wing platform. However, Austria was previously governed under democratic leadership that worked to promote the memories of the Holocaust. In 2016, the refugee crisis caused fear of outsiders as many refugees sought asylum in Austria. Frostig worried that global citizens are living in a dangerous time under similar conditions as those which gave rise to the Holocaust. She warned that nationalism can easily turn into fascism.

After the presentations, the floor was opened to discussion. As the audience members, many of whom appeared to be over the age of 70, began drifting toward the exits, one woman remained. Huddled in the corner of the room and resting on a cane, she pulled a silk handkerchief out of her left pocket and wiped away a tear. Before turning to go she said, “Thank you, that presentation was lovely, and we should never forget.”