It is an unavoidable fact of working in Holocaust education that there will come a day when no living survivors remain.
In the late-1990s, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, we dreaded the arrival of that day. Children of Holocaust survivors formed an advisory group and created an exhibit about Displaced Persons Camps called Life Reborn. I participated in the gathering of photographs for that exhibit and later wrote a master’s thesis called “The Second Generation and the Future of Holocaust Remembrance.” We were preparing to remember the Holocaust without the witnesses.
That was nearly 20 years ago. I was certain, as we were in Washington several years before, that long before the present day, we would have to face our work, and our lives, without the guiding light of Holocaust survivors.
Nevertheless, the death of Herman Snyder last week at the age of 98 came as a terrible blow. The intellectual understanding that no one can live forever is quite different from the emotional experience of losing a friend.
Herman (Chaim) Snyder was born on Jan. 21, 1921, in Vilna, Lithuania, then part of Poland. After the Nazi invasion, Herman escaped from the ghetto, prevailed upon strangers for shelter, hid in the swamps of Belarus, and made his way East to escape the Nazis. He fought in the Soviet Red Army and remained loyal to Russia, a point of contention at many a Café Europa — the monthly program for Holocaust survivors which is sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
Chaim settled in Pittsburgh to join family in nearby Greensburg and went on to have a very successful career as a home builder. It was a point of pride until his last days that he could work with his hands.
One recent memory will stay with me: In April 2019, the German-Italian artist Luigi Toscano visited Pittsburgh to photograph Holocaust survivors at the Holocaust Center. We were surprised to see Herman. His friend Albert Farhy, a Holocaust survivor from Bulgaria, had met up with Herman at the JCC and they came to the Center together. After a lovely afternoon of photography and kosher lasagna, we gathered outside of the Center in front of the moving truck that Toscano and his team drove across the country. At the top of the truck were written the words: “United Against All Forms of Exclusion, Discrimination, Anti-Semitism, and Racism. Are you with us?”
My phone began to ring. It was security at the Jewish Association on Aging, asking if we had seen Herman. I responded with a smile, “He is right in front of me.”
How lucky many of us were to have had the opportunity to know Chaim, to listen to him switch between seven languages, and to hear him spontaneously burst into song. Each survivor we lose takes with him an entire lost world. We share the responsibility to remember and to continue to tell their stories.
The Lest we Forget exhibit will be displayed on the Cathedral Lawn at the University of Pittsburgh from Oct. 18 through Nov. 15. pjc
Lauren Bairnsfather, Ph.D., is the director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.