For several decades, the candle lighting ceremony at Pittsburgh’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration has featured local Holocaust survivors publicly lighting the six memorial candles, one for each of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. This year, teenage students will help their elders kindle the flames at the Thursday evening ceremony at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.
The decision to pair students and survivors signals an awareness that Holocaust remembrance, a key aspect of American Jewish life, will soon exist independent of survivors.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh is currently in touch with 58 survivors, said Lauren Bairnsfather, the center’s director. But those actively involved in its programs are far fewer.
“We have about 10 who speak to school groups,” explained Bairnsfather. “That number is more alarming [and] shows the immediacy of what is happening. We are talking about a dwindling number of survivors speaking to groups.”
As far as anticipating a closely approaching future without the live link to the Holocaust that survivors provide, Bairnsfather said that the current plan is “to make it possible for as many people as possible to hear from survivors while they are here.”
A centerpiece of that strategy is the time-honored classroom visit.
“This month, I have spoken five times, last month three times,” said Shulamit Bastacky, 74, a native of Vilna who survived the war as a child by being hidden with a Catholic family. “I will go to my final rest knowing that I have spoken to thousands and thousands of students and knowing the impact I’ve made on them.”
A new approach to Holocaust education and remembrance includes having the children of survivors continue their legacy.
“Many of the survivors’ children can be just as effective as presenters,” said Bairnsfather. “They are able to present the stories in a way that is inspiring.”
Apart from the obvious distinction of first-person and second-person accounts, the latter approach is plagued by numbers.
“The only problem that we have here in Pittsburgh is that we don’t have an active second or third generation,” said Harry Schneider, 79, a native of Poland who survived the Holocaust by hiding with his family for two years in a forest. He chairs the Holocaust Center’s survivors’ organization.
Other cities and areas, such as Cleveland, Boston, New York and Florida have benefited from the involvement of second- or third-generation survivors, said Schneider. “But so far, we haven’t been able to get it done. … Hopefully, before we are all gone there is an organization like this in Pittsburgh for the second and third generation, and they can really tell the stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ survival. I think that would have a greater meaning than just reading about it.”
Mark Davidson is well aware of Schneider’s concern.
“A lot of Holocaust education in the past decade has been having survivors speak and hearing that direct first-person story, and yes, there are very few people alive today who can do that,” said Davidson, executive director of the Kol Israel Foundation, an organization of Cleveland Holocaust survivors. “Today, our greatest strength and asset is the family members and direct descendants of the survivors.”
Kol Israel also has made four short films based on interviews of survivors. A fifth is in production.
“We have the authentic voice and face of the survivors, but we’ve interspersed their testimonies with archival footage of the Holocaust,” said Davidson. “[We] bring this to classrooms and have children and grandchildren of those survivors show the films and engage in dialogue. The idea is to keep that family connection alive, to give you some of the more personal between the lines of what it was like growing up with this person and watching them, seeing their pain, joy, victories [and] struggles at times.”
Bairnsfather said that in Pittsburgh, the Holocaust Center is still finalizing its future plans and wants to include input from the local survivor community.
“Ultimately, it will be our responsibility to make the most of what we have, which is many recorded testimonies,” she said. “We have resources to keep telling the story, and it will be our responsibility, but I think it is the right thing to see what their wishes are while they are here.”
For his part, Moshe Taube, cantor emeritus at Beth Shalom Congregation and one of the more than 1,000 people saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust, said that he is not worried about a future devoid of survivors like himself.
“I trust in the Jewish people,” he said. “I trust their sense of perpetuating the memory of tragic events.”
Tsipy Gur, executive director of Classrooms Without Borders, is not so optimistic.
“I think that in 20, 30 years it won’t be relevant,” said Gur, whose organization connects teachers and learners through experiential, extended term professional growth programs. “I just don’t see it being relevant. … The second generation will be 90, and their kids won’t care; there will be other tragedies. Look in Syria now, they are using chemical weapons — the whole world is quiet; nothing happens.”
Gur aims to teach “bigger values from the Holocaust,” such as the power of reconciliation. She cited an upcoming program in which the son of a Nazi will discuss dealing with his family’s history as an example of her push.
Bairnsfather agrees that Holocaust education must appeal to larger and more diverse audiences but for now believes that dealing with the survivors themselves is paramount.
“While we still have them we are going to honor and value every survivor that we come into contact with, and when the time comes that we need to move on in a new way, we will because our mission is so important,” she said. “And one way that we will do that is to keep their stories alive after they are gone.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.