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News: They Remember

Holocaust survivors tell so we don't forget

By Hannah Roberts · January 24th, 2007 · News
  (L-R) Sarah Weiss, acting director of the Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education, and Terrie Puckett, associate curator at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, discuss an upcoming exhibition on the Holocaust opening at the Freedom Center.
Graham Lienhart

(L-R) Sarah Weiss, acting director of the Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education, and Terrie Puckett, associate curator at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, discuss an upcoming exhibition on the Holocaust opening at the Freedom Center.

Sarah Weiss isn't quiet. There's a lot to talk about as the Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education readies its upcoming observation of the United Nations National Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday. Jan. 27 is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945, but the observation was moved back a day to avoid conflict with the Jewish Sabbath.

The event will feature a speech by local survivor Conrad Weiner, followed by a guided tour of the center's award-winning exhibition, Mapping Our Tears, a showcase of personal testimony from local Holocaust survivors, rescuers and liberators.

The center works to change Cincinnatians' understanding of the Holocaust from vague awareness to tangible familiarity. That way people will understand that the Holocaust wasn't an isolated incident but rather a living paradigm with far-reaching impact and the ability to be repeated.

"Everything we do is locally focused," Weiss says. "Any survivor, any story, any artifact, anything we focus on -- here and in Mapping Our Tears-- is local. The most amazing thing that happens is when someone is upstairs (she motions toward the exhibit) and the light bulb turns on and you hear them say, 'I know that person, they used to live on my street' or 'Did it just say that survivor was at UC?' These people are here with us, they live in our community. And that's so powerful."

After the survivors
In addition to being the center's project manager, Weiss is the granddaughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who, by her admission, was one of the many victims too emotionally scarred to discuss the experience.

"I am from a family that did not speak, so I'm very accustomed with that kind of survivor," she says.

Acknowledging the guilt that comes with opening such emotional wounds, she forges on in an effort to collect as many stories as possible. Weiss knows that the goals she shares with her colleagues -- transmitting tolerance and perpetuating understanding -- are worth the trouble.

Part of the center's strength has been the involvement of people such as internationally known survivor Henry Meyer of Cincinnati, whose lifelong commitment to speaking out became a cornerstone of the center's mission. Meyer's musical talent, which he carried on to critical acclaim after his relocation to the United States, saved him from execution during internment in Auschwitz.

His recent passing touches the lives of many, including Weiss, who remembers Meyer as both a friend and an icon. While the death of one of the center's founders hits hard, it signifies a simple directive: Get busy.

"It's sad, but there will come a day when no survivors remain," Weiss says.

With that day looming too near -- and in addition to the continual resurgence of hate groups bent on claiming that the Holocaust never happened -- the impetus for reaching out and conveying important lessons has never been greater.

"There was a recent conference in Iran, where 60 individuals got together to deny the Holocaust, and who do we turn to?" Weiss says. "We turn to the survivors who were there and ask, 'What do we say to these people?' Luckily, though, we do have Mapping Our Tears. We have it documented. So the group that put this (the center) together really had a lot of forethought in realizing there would be a day when they would be gone."

Last year the center applied for 501c-3 status, which will solidify it as its own nonprofit organization separate from Hebrew Union College, although the center will remain on campus. It will continue an agenda that includes relaying eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, recruiting and training teachers, maintaining permanent and traveling exhibits and reaching out to motivate the public.

'This isn't OK'
Mapping Our Tears proves more intense than what initially meets the eye. The room is intentionally reminiscent of an attic, with exposed rafters, trunks for seating and signs of life from the street below the "windows." Heirlooms and treasures are scattered amongst everyday items of the era: a butterfly net, a rowing paddle.

As survivors testify on a projection screen, the sometimes whimsical, often harrowing music and lighting effects pull deep into history to a time that's at once horrible to imagine and impossible to ignore. The attic is a cozy place where one could read or sleep and assume things will be all right. The documentaries, however, echo an unsettling truth.

In studying the Holocaust, Weiss says she and her colleagues are continually amazed at the unlimited perspectives to be drawn from it. The center is planning to integrate three additional installations into Mapping Our Tears -- all are stories told from the perspectives of people who were children during World War II.

Sonja Stratman, a different person now, tells the story of her childhood in Germany during the height of Hitler's influence. She was a member of the Nazi Youth.

"(Stratman) was a kid then, she enjoyed going to youth group," Weiss says. "Her friends were there. And then her parents sort of realized, 'Hey, this isn't OK,' and she came to understand what was going on, and they wanted to get out of Germany as quickly as possible."

Sunday's commemoration will also include some of the center's traveling exhibits. Her Story Must Be Told: Women's Voices from the Holocaust presents the memories, photos and stories of 15 female survivors now living in Cincinnati. Dr. Seuss Wants You! shows a very different side of the famed cartoonist, one that helped America face its own isolationism, racism and anti-Semitism during World War II.

United Nations National Holocaust Remembrance Day is 2-5 p.m. Sunday at the Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College, Clifton. The event is free and open to the public. Donations are welcome.


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