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April 25, 2012

Living with Holocaust ghosts

http://www.jewishjournal.com/susan_freudenheim/article/opinion_living_with_holocaust_ghosts_20120425

From left: Ed Asner, Frances Fisher, Brenda Russell and Elliott Gould. Photo by Bill Dow

From left: Ed Asner, Frances Fisher, Brenda Russell and Elliott Gould. Photo by Bill Dow

Ed Asner, aka Lou Grant, walked slowly to the front of the stage at the Museum of Tolerance on Sunday night, and in his familiar growl — this time with a Latvian accent — he softly spoke: “Thank you for the help that is not only material, but also moral. A person lives through hope, and I hope it will get better.”

Asner was channeling the voice of a Holocaust survivor, one of what comedy actress-producer Zane Buzby, founder of the Survivor Mitzvah Project, calls “the unluckiest generation” — the now-elderly Jews of Eastern Europe who were born into pogroms, revolution and social upheaval, then lost their entire families during the Holocaust, went on to endure the strictures of communist rule only to face the depletion of social services of the post-Perestroika era and now are living out their final days destitute.

Despite all that, Asner’s words displayed how these survivors-beyond-reason have retained their dignity and, somehow, the ability to hope.

Via an all-star cast that also included Valerie Harper, Lainie Kazan, Frances Fisher, Elliott Gould, Alan Rosenberg and others, Buzby brought to life the letters she has received from hundreds of people the Survivor Mitzvah Project has helped — letters telling their stories, letters of gratitude for the small amounts of cash and gifts of Judaica and medicine and trinkets of love they’ve received from the project.

Through the Survivor Mitzvah Project, Buzby is also creating an archive of these once-forgotten lives that, in a small way, rivals the work of the much-wealthier Shoah Foundation. To hear these actors read memories of people whose mothers were buried alive, who hid from Nazis and lived only to find their world destroyed, whose thriving Jewish neighborhoods are now only a memory, the reality is overwhelming — but Buzby offered us all a way to help: “If everyone gives a little, and asks five others to do the same, we can do so much,” she said. At this moment, the Survivor Mitzvah Project is helping more than 1,500 Jews in seven countries, but there are many more in need.

I walked out of the museum’s theater with one searing question on my mind: How could a civilized world so brutally destroy so many lives, then leave these people with nothing — less than nothing, given the pain they still carry? And yet, in letter after letter, they offered not only gratitude but also gifts of dignity: “Yours are noble actions,” Rosenberg read from one letter.

If ever giving has its own rewards, this event, and the Survivor Mitzvah Project’s work, reminds us of that.

That the legacy of evil can take many forms was the message of a second Holocaust commemoration event at the same Museum of Tolerance the following night.

Claudia Sobral, a Brazilian-born Angeleno, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, traveled to Berlin to watch a soccer tournament with her family several years ago and found herself obsessed with the Germans around her. Who was once a Nazi? Who committed crimes and got away with it? How does the younger generation, her contemporaries, deal with the legacy? All these thoughts raced through her mind then, and she has attempted to answer those questions through her riveting new documentary, “The Ghosts of the Third Reich.”

Sobral’s film focuses on three descendants of Nazis, all of whom, though born after the end of the war and without any complicity in its horrors, have borne the guilt and shame of the Nazis by association.

Bettina Goering, one of the interviewees, is the great-niece of Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering, the architect of the “Final Solution.” Another, Ursula Boger, is the granddaughter of Wilhelm Boger, one of the most brutal overseers at Auschwitz. And a third, Bernd Wollschlaeger, is the son of a highly decorated Nazi tank commander. Each of these descendants’ bloodlines haunt them — and their painful attempts to describe their own disgust with their Nazi heritage is juxtaposed in the film with horrific images of the concentration camps and contrasted with loving family pictures. If the juxtaposition of humanity and its antithesis is chilling to us watching the film, how must it feel to be born into this history?

The film also includes stories of conciliation.

Wollschlaeger, for one, rejected his unrepentant father, traveled to Israel and converted to Judaism. He is now a doctor living in Florida, father to two Jewish children, and in the film is shown participating in the March of the Living at Auschwitz with his kids — still seeking resolution but also sharing his struggle as an offering of peace to others.

The film also shows the work of another Jewish doctor, Samson Munn, whose parents both survived the Holocaust, albeit with horrific stories. Munn now juggles his work as a leading radiologist in Boston with a project he’s established called The Austrian Encounter, which brings together descendants of survivors with descendants of the Nazis in an effort toward reconciliation. Wollschlaeger and Munn (the latter via Skype) joined Sobral for a Q-and-A at the museum after the screening.

With all these images of people trying to find existential peace in a post-Holocaust world swirling in my mind, I found myself overhearing a conversation outside the auditorium: “I’m not going to waste any of my time feeling sorry for them,” one woman confided to a friend about the Nazi’s descendents.

And it is those private words that worry me the most. If we don’t have it in us to feel sorry for these innocent descendants — born of evil, but with no history of evil of their own — how can we commit to seeing others, all others, as people?

Isn’t the lesson of the Holocaust that we need to value humanity first? To salvage and preserve hope, and to understand another’s hell?

Survivors come in many shapes.

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