An explicit act of remembrance occurred at Yale on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Sami Steigmann, Holocaust survivor and a victim of Nazi medical experimentation as a child, prompted his audience to repeat after him: “Auschwitz-Birkenau. Treblinka. Belzec. Sobibor. Chelmno. Majdanek.” The names of the six Nazi death camps echoed in the 53 Wall St. auditorium, amidst a background of profound silence. This moment truly shook me to my core and served as a grounding experience towards the end of yet another pretty hectic week on campus.
Growing up in a Jewish household, I have been constantly reminded of the immeasurable suffering and unfathomable tragedy that was the Holocaust. Through exposure to films and memoirs, I was aware from a young age of the deliberate and industrialized genocide that took place during the Nazi expansion. I vividly remember watching “Schindler’s List” and recognizing the lifeless young girl still wrapped in her indelible red coat and thinking to myself that she was one amongst 6 million Jews and at least 5 million members of other minorities and ethnic groups murdered. But my most vivid memories of learning about this period of irreparable loss come from my conversations with my great-grandmother, Eva Friedler.
Eva, just like Sami Steigmann, was born in the region of Transylvania, now Romania. While their stories are distinct, they share some similarities. First off, both Eva and Sami encountered moments of hardship and torment. When the evacuation of Jewish citizens was ordered at Eva’s hometown, Oradea, she fled to Budapest with her family using falsified documents. There, her family lived undercover and separated, in frequently precarious conditions during bombings. Sami’s family, on the other hand, was in the labor camp Mogilev-Podolski from 1941 to 1944, where Sami, at 18 months old, underwent Nazi medical experimentation. In his talk at Yale, he revealed still feeling the resulting side effects and unbearable pain to this day.
Both Sami and Eva lost family members and beloved friends, who were murdered in Auschwitz or sent to the ghetto during the war. What ties Sami and Eva’s stories together is the suffering they endured, and the tremendous luck they had in composing a small group of exceptions: the survivors.
After going through a period of trauma and pain, it is quite common for people to reject the idea of looking back at the past. Fortunately, that is not the case with Sami and Eva. Sami’s life mission is synthesized by him in the acronym EMET (אמת, which means truth in Hebrew), and stands for Educate, Motivate, Empower, Tolerance. During the talk on Thursday, he declared in an emotional tone: “This is what you are experiencing: living history. That prompted me to recognize myself as a Holocaust survivor.” Sami revealed that, when he first shared his experiences, he received a letter from a sixth grader saying she had found his story overwhelming, and she’d be sure to pass it on to her kids one day. Now, his goal is to make sure people learn from history to prevent future prejudice.
My great-grandmother’s life is eternalized in “The Story of Eva,” a yet unpublished book by my grandmother, Lia Golombek. Opening the book, I see my family tree. I locate my parents, my sisters and myself. I realize that the lines connecting Eva to us are built off of the memories, lessons and advice that she proclaims to future generations while sitting at Rosh Hashanah tables and family dinners. I reflect on the countless branches of family trees that were made impossible due to the cruelty and inhumanity that persisted during the Holocaust, and I feel instantly responsible for learning about each individual’s particular journey.
In Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” an internationally acclaimed memoir based on his experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel states that the survivor “has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Sami and Eva are embodiments of why we must forever talk about the Holocaust. And, while they are fulfilling their function of sharing, we should all be acknowledging ours — to listen.
LAURA WAGNER is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.