May 29, 2023 - World

Saving the stories of the last Holocaust survivors

Holocaust survivors stand during the 2023 Days of Remembrance commemoration hosted by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 20, 2023.

Holocaust survivors stand during the 2023 Days of Remembrance commemoration hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on April 20. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Museums and libraries from London to Albuquerque are racing to record and digitize the oral histories of the last generation of Holocaust survivors, advocates say, as the horrors of the Holocaust slip from public memory.

The big picture: Fewer than 50,000 survivors remain in the U.S., according to the Anti-Defamation League. The very youngest survivors are now in their 80s, and some have spoken out against rising antisemitism — something they've seen before.

  • At a time of rising concern about antisemitism, the growing online video archives of survivors' testimonies are essential, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tells Axios.
  • "The need to teach the history and the universal lessons of the Holocaust couldn't be more urgent when you think about the rise of antisemitism, the rise of extremism."
  • "When I talk to Holocaust survivors, they are alarmed. And they are sounding the warning signs."

Zoom in: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is adding new testimonies to its nearly 90,000 recordings of firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors.

  • The museum is collecting stories in Europe and Central Asia and recently recorded its first oral history with a deaf Holocaust survivor, Ruth Stern, according to Alexandra Drakakis, the museum's chief acquisitions curator.
  • The University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation has launched its "Last Chance Testimony Collection Initiative" as "an urgent effort to give voice to survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust" through online video testimonies.
  • The Wiener Holocaust Library in London has digitized and translated hundreds of Holocaust testimonies and made them available online.
  • The University of Nebraska–Lincoln recently digitized stories of Holocaust survivors and liberators through letters, documents, photos, and interactive maps.

State of play: Museums and libraries for decades have been recording testimonies of Holocaust survivors. The pandemic led many institutions to put testimonies online.

  • The push to capture Holocaust survivors' stories is part of a broader effort to make sure the stories of World War II are told as the generations that experienced it fade away. Only about 160,000 World War II veterans are still alive.
  • The push also comes as antisemitism and white nationalism become an increasing part of the political landscape in several countries — including the United States. Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. jumped to a record level in 2022, up 36% from the year before, an annual audit by the Anti-Defamation League said.

The intrigue: Most U.S. states don't require public school students to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, according to an Axios analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

  • And recently, some schools have removed books about Anne Frank and the Holocaust amid conservative campaigns to limit what public schools teach about the history of racism and bigotry.
  • Samantha Abramson, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee, tells Axios that online lessons help teachers with Holocaust education in regions where resources may be limited.

Some Holocaust survivors today still may agree to record their stories then cancel at the last moment because of the pain of reliving the trauma, Drakakis said.

  • She said the museum works with survivors and tries to prepare them, sometimes months in advance, about what to expect.
  • "What I've noticed when I listened to a lot of these testimonies is that our interviewees are letting the authenticity of their experience of the Holocaust kind of speak for itself," she said.

What's next: Organizations are starting to train the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to tell the stories of their ancestors.

  • "It's never going to be the same because the children and grandchildren weren't out there. They are not eyewitnesses," said Abramson, whose organization works with families of Holocaust survivors.
  • "But they are a living connection to these stories."
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