Survivors’ Message Immortalized Through Storytelling

Posted on January 10, 2012 by


Leon Weinstein and his daughter Natalie Gold Lumer in a loving embrace. (photo by Clifford Lester/Jewish Journal)A 101 year-old man died on December 28th, 2011 in his bedroom in the early hours of the morning. His daughter, a phone call away, expected the inevitable. This man was Leon Weinstein, the oldest survivor of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, and he was a hero.

Weinstein was a ghetto fighter who participated in an act of revolt against Nazi Germany that few people survived. After participating in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943, he managed to escape through a sewer tunnel, and embarked on the journey to rescue his infant daughter from life as an orphan.

Before entering the Warsaw Ghetto, Weinstein and his wife Sima set their eighteen-month-old daughter on the doorstep of a lawyer and his wife with a cross around her neck and a note falsifying her Christian heritage. After the war, Weinstein found out that his wife and all extended family had been murdered; his only hope lay with his small daughter.

After six months of searching, Weinstein passed a convent, catching a glimpse of a bony four-year-old being carried by a nun, and recognized the child as his own. Ultimately, Weinstein achieved what tragically so few managed: to reunite with his child after the war.

In an interview with Los Angeles Times journalist Kurt Streeter, Weinstein whispered, “Thank you for telling my story. Nobody should forget what happened. Thank you.”

Weinstein expressed his gratitude that someone cared about the story of his struggle, his life, and the life of his daughter for whom he fought so determinedly to preserve. And it was Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation that first gave Weinstein, among countless other Holocaust survivors, the opportunity to share and preserve the stories of their experiences. In fact, during his lifetime, Weinstein donated a considerable amount to the Shoah Foundation for the purpose of documenting the stories of child survivors, so close to his own heart.

Former Shoah Foundation Holocaust historian Christian Nath observed, “To [survivors] personally, [telling their story] matters a lot; their own personal survival is an act of resistance and defiance — or at least to many. Most survivors who shared their stories were only able to do so after a significant amount of time, only after decades had passed.”

Nath goes on to recognize some of the factors that may have contributed to survivors finally sharing their tales in the late nineties.

“It seemed a combination of the fact that they were in the later stages of their lives, the sudden public interest in the U.S. in the Holocaust after Schindler’s List, and the opportunity provided by Spielberg to give testimony primarily for their own families which led many to speak about their experiences for the first time since the war. Many children of survivors only learned about their parents’ experience through the testimonies.”

A common trend Nath noticed was that one of survivors’ main purposes was to speak for those who could not speak anymore.

“There is always the generic scene of a handful of prisoners and one who manages to escape and survive,” Nath remembers. “The others will encourage him to do so knowing that they won’t escape, but at least there is someone to tell others what happened.”

Nath recalls Weinstein’s story in particular.

“What was special about [Leon Weinstein] was his sheer willpower, and when you listened to him you had to feel that he survived because he had wanted to survive.”

Weinstein’s drive was fueled by the hope that somehow his baby girl would manage to live against all odds, the same struggle for survival he was hoping to win.

In light of Weinstein’s dramatic story of reunification with his daughter, Nath advises people to “take a moment to learn about their experience and then turn around and cherish the relationships we have and look at them with different eyes of appreciation.”

Although the survivors’ stories were received with open arms of anticipation, each of the historians who participated in compiling the archives carries deep emotional scars from the terrifying truth survivors had to share.

“They say the more you know about the Holocaust the lonelier you are. That is the common fate of Holocaust historians. It changes your outlook on everything — in a positive sense though: you become more introverted,” Nath reflects. “If you also know what survivors went through and what tragedies they had to experience — true tragedies of loss and death and separation and you see their resolve and strength today you have to take that as an example for the sheer source of energy for humans who want to be active and achieve something.”

As is the case with many survivors in the Shoah Foundation, they wanted to participate in the spread of education.

“A good friend of mine, Sidonia Lax, likes to teach people about her experiences, and it’s the first time some Latino or black kids would hear about the Holocaust at all,” Nath ruminates. “Many survivors have a mission to inform the world of their experience and teaching tolerance.”

The hope of the Shoah Foundation archives was that one day they could be used in classrooms to teach children of corresponding ages what survivors’ experiences had been as children, teenagers, or young adults during the Holocaust, so that contemporary students could better relate to their plights.

Pictured above is an image of one of USC’s Shoah Foundation interfaces, allowing students to interact geographically with survivors’ testimonials.

“What this shows very strongly, what any teacher can teach in the context of the archives, is that this is what humans do to humans and only humans can prevent it,” Nath states. “That’s what this archive lends: the human face to the utmost horror.”

In keeping with the original hopes of participating historians, the archives are now housed at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, providing opportunities for students to interact with the material and learn from the testimonials.

One opportunity given to students is participation in the Student Voices Master Class, sponsored by HBO as an introduction into the work of the foundation and as a tool to help students obtain the skills necessary for creating a film for the Student Voices Short Film Contest “shaping the conversation about genocide and human rights.”

First-year USC Creative Writing major and USC Shoah Foundation Institute intern Orli Robin comments on how “the film competition was called ‘Student Voices;’ it wasn’t called ‘Survivor Voices.'”

“What I loved most about that name is that the purpose of the film competition is for students to not only learn about survivors but to hear their stories and form a connection and a bond and retell their stories in a film. One of most amazing things about preservation is that a spark is lit within students. I think that is one of the sure-fire ways to preserve survivor voices since as they pass on their stories can still remain alive.”

Each semester the USC Shoah Foundation Institute accepts around 15 to 20 interns who complete a variety of tasks: from translating testimonies into secondary school curricula to working with survivors to transcribing Holocaust or genocide related lectures.

Robin says of her experience: “It’s more than what I expected. I’m not only working on what we think of as stereotypical Holocaust material, we are working on Rwandan genocide material, there’s a Lithuanian DVD project, etc. It’s a global job.”

When questioned about the personal significance of the Holocaust as opposed to other yet frequently bundled together genocides, Robin responds: “To me as a Jew and as a Jew with a lot of family that passed away in the Holocaust, I can most closely relate to the Holocaust and in my mind it has somewhat of a more elevated status. That is not to say it’s more important than other genocides. Genocide is genocide.”

In 2007, at a benefit dinner featuring Spielberg, among other Shoah Foundation notables, Douglas Greenberg, executive director of the Shoah Foundation Institute at USC, announced a similar goal.

“Our work on the Holocaust will continue. But we plan to join it now to work with others around the world. Our commitment is to combat (violence and racism) wherever and however we can — no matter who the victims are.”

From a historical perspective, Nath disagrees slightly as to the flattening of global significance when it comes to the Holocaust compared to other genocides.

“What marks the Holocaust’s significance is the fact that it erupted in the middle of civilized and educated Europe, solely promoted and executed based on political calculation.” Nath elaborates: “It was executed in a seemingly seamless fashion by a highly organized technological country, Germany at the time, which made the outcome so comprehensively devastating. The significance of the Holocaust is based on the fact that German occupying forces led and initiated a widespread disease that spread over the entire European continent, producing collaborators and perpetrators in almost every country. Thus, an entire continent ended the European Jewish epoch. The disease is antisemitism, or the more generic version: ethnic or religious hatred, which is the common denominator of all genocides.”

Nath agrees that genocide is genocide, and that there is no ranking or judging genocides. Nevertheless, he asserts that “the combination of the fact that all European Jews were persecuted and in all territories occupied by Nazi Germany all Jews were killed, that is why historians speak of not just two theaters in WWII (the Pacific and European) but the war against the Jews as well. That is the war Germany wanted to win the most, and they did. In the sense of the shear scale of an entire industrial nation allocating resources, energy and effort to eradicate who they had defined as Jews, marked a completely different scale in comparison to any other mass killing based on ethnic hatred. Due to its sheer magnitude the Holocaust should always be referred to as a unique event.”

Nonetheless, it is also valuable to incorporate people from different cultures so that they may too share in the remembrance of humanity’s horrid past.

Robin repeats the commonly upheld notion that “all Jews have a responsibly to care. The Holocaust is an integral part of every Jew, every Israeli, every Zionist and we have a responsibility to care because it happened to the Jewish people.”

She goes on to explain that “part of the reason why the Shoah Foundation is expanding their coverage of genocides is to develop new emotional connections to people who share those particular national and religious identities, as well as families and survivors of these events. It’s so that greater and larger groups of people can feel the way that I do [about remembering genocides].”

Robin remembers a Shoah Foundation sponsored film screening of The Mexican Suitcase about the Jewish photographers who were at the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War.

She asserts, “There were people in the audience who truly cared who did not have any national or religious relationship with the people involved.”

This idea of pure compassion for others is similar to the legend of the Lamed-Vov from the time of the prophet Isaiah. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, acclaimed pioneer in the mind/body holistic health movement and Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine, wrote in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: “In this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is a part of the human condition. These thirty-six are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.”

The Lamed-Vov are like the compassionate people who care even when it isn’t expected or required of them. Such people make the world possible, both physically and metaphorically. Thirty-six is the minimum number of compassionate individuals, and the Shoah Foundation’s efforts to include diverse people in the learning experience are an attempt to cultivate even more.

The stories of these survivors help to tie people together with the most basic feelings of human compassion. Narratives are all that tie generations together, not the raw history of facts on a page.

Nath ponders how “as historians, we were most intrigued and enthused to implement the groundbreaking approach of combining the two schools of history: oral history and traditional, research and document based history. We developed a cataloging system by which catalogers applied precise documented historical context to a very personal memory of a Holocaust survivor. As a result, the sum of the oral statements did not just fit into the documented context but also filled it with all the emotions of a human experience over and over again in each testimony.”

This is precisely what is happening today — the integration of historical media to preserve the human experience.

“Now it’s more about what we do with the testimonies that’s important,” Robin acknowledges. “Part of the film competition is for students to directly interact with survivors’ stories and preserve them in new ways in new digital mediums. Without human interaction, the testimonials are nothing; they’re like books on a shelf.”

It is most important to develop an emotional connection with the material, to realize that each person has a unique story to share with the world. The Shoah Foundation performed a mitzvah by giving survivors the means to tell their stories and express their pain, but also to reinforce their steadfast Jewish connection. Not only is it about the survivors leaving an archive for research about the events; more importantly, the men and women (like Leon Weinstein) got to tell their stories. Stories are all we have to bind us to one another.

“It’s an overused topic, but what is six million?” Robin asks rhetorically. “We become lost in the numbers, but if you watch testimonials you become overwhelmed with the need to tell this person’s story. There are no words. It’s something quite incredible. The whole purpose is to de-generalize, to create a greater emotional experience and to create a spark in students who realize that these stories need to live on. It’s all about creating a passion for preservation.”

To get an idea of what true heroism and human spirit involves, go to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and gain access to testimonies like Boris Brauer, Leon Weinstein or Peter Hersch, Darius Gabbai, Henry Rosmarin, and Sidonia Lax to name a few. Their testimonies carry the combination of the unbelievable depth of their experience, the multitude of confrontations or places of incarceration, and insurmountable situations that they not only survived but they are able to describe in such detailed pictures that they bring these moments back to life.

For a more personal experience, check out UCLA’s Bearing Witness program at

For more information on Leon Weinstein’s unique story, visit

Posted in: Education, History