‘Critical moment’ in preserving memories of Shoah’s survivors

Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock was speaking at a conference for the charity's youth ambassadors


The chief executive of the Holocaust Education Trust (HET) has warned we face a “critical moment” in preserving the memory of the Shoah as its last survivors begin to disappear.

Karen Pollock told a conference for the charity’s network of youth ambassadors: “Holocaust survivors are the bravest people I know. They survived the unimaginable and share their darkest memories for the benefit of all humanity, but they know they cannot do this for ever.

“The Holocaust will soon fade from living memory and become history. It is up to all of us to ensure that the Holocaust is not just another page in a textbook.”

The campaigner addressed more than 100 largely non-Jewish sixth-form and university students who had taken part in HET educational programmes and signed up to share their knowledge. Many had visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in person, while others had learnt about the site virtually during the pandemic.

On the agenda was how the memory and lessons of the Holocaust could be shared once those who has experienced it directly are gone.

Dov Forman —whose viral TikTok videos sharing the viewpoint of his Auschwitz surviving great-grandmother, Lily Ebert, have garnered millions of followers online — said it was “more important than ever” to listen to those survivors still left.

“Being a part of the fourth generation [of Holocaust survivor descendants] is a huge part of my identity… it is hard to comprehend all that she went through,” he said.

“It is now more important than ever to listen,” he added. “To listen but at the same time to be part of something bigger: to become a witness.”

Rabbi Daniel Epstein of Western Marble Arch Synagogue said those who had met survivors themselves could say: “I have heard from those survivors and they told me this happened to them in this place… This is a story I have heard and it has become personal.”

He added: “You don’t need to tell people the entire narrative of the Holocaust, you just need the story of one victim to pass on with love.”

One of those attending last Thursday’s event was Harry Olmer, 95. Born in southern Poland in 1927, he survived a mass killing in his village, before being deported and used as a forced-labourer at a string of concentration camps.

Speaking to the JC, he said: “If you listen to a Holocaust survivor as a witness, you can become a witness yourself.”

Shoah education was important, he added, because “unless you talk about it, people will forget”.

Mr Olmer arrived in Britain with a group of child survivors known as “the Boys”, who in 1963 set up the 45 Aid Society to assist one another. He was confident the memory of what he experienced would be kept alive, he said, because his generation’s descendants had now taken over the charity.

HET regional ambassador Jonathan Semugooma, who represents the Thames Valley and Chilterns, said meeting survivors in person was vital to preserving the memory of the Shoah.

“I spoke to Manfred [Goldberg] today and he was so passionate about everything,” he said.

“I look at him and I look at how he’s approaching this situation, how he’s fighting through potential trauma to share it with us and it inspires me to do more.”

Evie Robinson, an HET ambassador from London, said: “I think as a really key part of our work is drawing that connection between the Holocaust and modern-day antisemitism. I do think that as we’re continuing with this work more and more people are realising that there is a connection there… if we emphasise that connection to today people take a bit more notice.”

One advantage of the pandemic is that it means an increasing amount of survivor testimony has been recorded, Ms Robinson continued.

“In that way we’re using our digital age and maximising that to preserve their stories even further… The more people hear from survivors, the more they can literally pass it on and I think it’s now more important than ever that they’re getting older and they’re not going to be here forever.”

Mr Semugooma added: “Learning about the Holocaust is more than just learning about the Holocaust. It’s learning about the evils of men and how we can tackle it and avoid it.”

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