Learning Joy from Survivors

Liberation of Buchenwald, 1945, by Margaret Bourke-White.

It has been twenty years since I first got the call asking if I would try out to be an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah project. 

I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to listen to stories of human beings who witnessed and then survived pure human evil. Would I be able to hear survivors tell of torture and death without crying? Would I then be able to ask the follow-up questions to elicit memories long repressed that could contribute to the testimony of that era that even then was fading into history?

The only way to know for certain was to try. So I joined a group of Minnesotans that traveled to Chicago where Foundation leaders observed us as part of their selection process. We interviewed each other, then met with volunteers who had experienced death camps and ghettos. The task was to ask questions, listen, and then ask the next question while being observed.

The first to be dismissed were those experts on the Holocaust who argued with the memories of survivors.

“Oh no, that couldn’t have happened as you described it,” said one expert. “I know because I have studied that history.”

The testimonies, the memories, the remembered experiences of those who actually lived through human evil were never to be discounted or “corrected”. Memories, as imperfect as they can be, are just that. And with 50,000-some collected, there’s strong credibility built from the repeated memories of experience that garners the truth.

It turned out that my background as a TV journalist had taught me what I needed to know to serve as an interviewer. It gave me the curiosity license to ask questions, follow up to get clarity, and ultimately support nearly 30 testimonies overall from survivors and a few liberators.

I learned about the strength of the human spirit to withstand deeply damaging horror and persist to live with joy in spite of that, or even because of it. Each of those I met had lived a life of meaning and purpose, excelling through education, business pursuits, by building families and civic institutions as if to say, “See! We still matter after all.”

As one survivor said to me, “They took my mother, they took my father and my little brother, but I’m still here. And since I’m here, I’m going to live life with purpose and on purpose.”

This week’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz coming as it does amidst international news of continued events of pure human evil is a reminder that we need to remember what humans are capable of being to avoid repeating those same evils because, indeed, each life matters. 

Note: Today testimonies from survivors can be found at the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation.  https://sfi.usc.edu/