The art of story: Oral histories of the Holocaust

Ryan Derham
Co-editor Global

Three items: a cigarette holder, a pocket watch, and a wedding ring. These objects

Students in oral histories of the Holocaust class after Friday night performance. (Photo: Ryan Derham)

Students in oral histories of the Holocaust class after Friday night performance. (Photo: Ryan Derham)

held within them the sorrow of death and the fear of war. Senior Moriah Patashnik retold Dr. Avi Niv’s story with a heavy heart, but an important message. As, in our minds eye, we witness a priest bring Avi’s deceased father’s belongings home, we feel sophomore Dana Ehrentreu’s ‘16 chilling words: “the winds of war were blowing.”
The Oral History of the Holocaust is a group-taught course made up of three teachers: Uta Larkey, Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, and Steve Salzberg. Together they teach students about the Holocaust, how to interview Holocaust survivors, and how to in return, retell their stories. The stories cover pre-war, wartime, and post-war in an effort to see a transformation and to become active witnesses to their memories.
As each student stands to tell their stories, often in the first person, we see images of prayer books being ripped up, tallits thrown to the ground, people beaten for carrying white flour. While each story is special in its own way, one story sticks in my mind, and will forever. Dr. Avi Niv and his family were assigned to train car number two, while their friends were assigned to train car three. His grandfather fought his way threw throngs of crowds, desperate to reach his friends, but Hungarian border police forced them to their assigned car. Patashnik reveals, “That second car saved our lives.” The first and third train cars went directly to Auschwitz, while the second car went to Strasshoff, a labor camp. That moment changed the course of Dr. Avi Niv’s life forever, but not all Jews were as lucky. At the end of the Holocaust only 90 of about 1000 Jews in his hometown remained.
The hatred towards Jews during the Holocaust brings forth stories of unparalleled strength. From chants of “if the blood of the Jews fall from our knives, everything will fall into place” to laments of “there should be a grave here” it’s easy to forget this. Memories of going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. came back to me, the cold metal of the Auschwitz sign and the hundreds of torn and tattered shoes of the fallen sent chills down my spine. There should be thousands of graves here. Instead there are none, and the charred remains of a synagogue take their place. Evan Winalski ‘16 wonders why, but answers, “When you ask why, that question can’t be answered.” Perhaps we will never know, or never begin to comprehend why.
But, this event brought the images in my head and the stories written in my mind into being. Here were Dr. Avi Niv’s, Rosa and Werner Marx’s, and Felicia Graber’s stories materialized. These images sat right in front of me in the audience as real people, as physical representations of the shadow of the Holocaust. But they were here this night as active members of the Baltimore community, as people who give each day and who actively tell their stories. They are doctors. They are authors. They are storytellers. In the last words of the performances Winalski states, “I asked him and he told me, and now I’ve told you.”
The importance of these stories speak for themselves, but soon the people behind them will be gone. Their memoirs and stories will be written into history, but we will no longer have the pain and pleasure of talking to them ourselves. We must tuck these stories away in our hearts. We must educate ourselves and those around us, as Dr. Avi Niv tells the audience, so that we are able to say with certainty, “never again.”


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