Today’s post is written by our student Naomi Schuster, who earned her BA from Emory University, majoring in History and Jewish Studies with a particular focus on 20th Century Eastern European history. Naomi spent the summer between her Junior and Senior year working for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York City where she participated in a Holocaust Education seminar focusing on Holocaust Education in Public Schools. During her Senior year, she had the opportunity to work as a Teacher’s Assistant for Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies. Upon graduation, Naomi moved to Arizona where she worked with the BBYO Inc. Jewish youth group. She then continued on to become the Director of Jewish Student Life at The University of Arizona Hillel. Throughout her entire life Naomi has had a passion for Holocaust studies and education. Growing up as the grandchild of survivors in Birmingham, Alabama, she embraced her 3rd generation identity and yearned to one day move to Israel and follow her dream of pursuing a career in Holocaust Education. Naomi is looking forward to a meaningful year of personal and professional growth in this one of a kind program. Here is what Naomi has to say about the experience she had at the third day of our Yad Vashem seminar, and the impact it had on her personal connection to the Holocaust:
During an intensive four day academic seminar at Yad Vashem last week my fellow students and I had the opportunity to listen to Haim Gertner, the Head of the Archives Department. He shared with us how Yad Vashem’s mission of Holocaust documentation is not only linking the students in our program to the historical research currently being conducted at Yad Vashem, but to a greater extent is linking us, as future Holocaust scholars, to the discovery of memories of individuals and families who were formally thought of as “lost.” Mr. Gertner presented a striking quote written by Eliezer Gandverger in Mogilev, Belarus (formerly Belorussia) on January 30, 1944: “Memory is the only paradise from which a person cannot be expelled.” At its core, this quote embodies my desire to participate in such a uniquely important program such as the Weiss-Livnat MA in Holocaust Studies. It brilliantly justifies why we must continue learning everything we possibly can about this horrible epoch in humanity’s history. While we may have physically lost the bodies of millions of innocent people, we have not lost who these people were—how they lived, who they cared about, and what memories they carried with them until their last moments in the world as they knew it.
These memories are continuously being recaptured through the Virtual Personal File Project that the Archives department at Yad Vashem is currently conducting. It was Gertner’s presentation about this project that led me to the decision to make a phone call I have been hesitant to make for the past few months.
A few months ago I stumbled across a DAF-ED (Page of Testimony) submitted by a woman named Nina Merrick (formerly Nachama Szuster). This piece of documentation caught my interest because of the location of Nachama’s place of residence before the war: the shtetl of Rokitno in Poland. Knowing that my grandfather, a survivor from the neighboring shtetl of Sarny in the Volyhn region of Poland, also carried the name Szuster (which eventually evolved into my last name “Schuster”), I decided that maybe this woman and her family were long lost relatives of mine. As I continued to read the page, I noticed that Nachama had immigrated to the United States after the war and as of April 30, 1978, when she filled out the page of testimony, was living in Silver Spring, Maryland. There was no telephone number listed, but the page did contain an address. The following day I plugged her address into the Reverse Yellow Pages website and low and behold, the name Nina Merrick popped up on the screen alongside a telephone number. I immediately wrote the number down, but never made the phone call. I kept the page on my desk in my dorm room letting it get buried under piles of papers, only to resurface from time to time every few weeks. I would stare at it and say to myself, “I should call today…I have a few minutes…No, I really don’t have time…maybe tomorrow…or next week…or during the break…,” but I just couldn’t bring myself to actually pick up the phone. Perhaps, I was scared that nobody would answer, that it would be the wrong number, that the woman had passed away and some stranger that now lived in her home would answer. I was waiting for some strange reason unbeknownst to me and I couldn’t explain it.
That reason finally became clear last week when Haim Gertner showed us how a few surviving remnants from one man’s family, including a DAF-ED from one of his descendants, helped archivists identify not only this unique individual, but multiple generations of his family. This page of testimony was just one of many documents that enabled the archivists to successfully place all of the pieces together and create a virtual personal file. As I saw the map of his extended family appear on the screen, I knew what I had to do—I had to put my fears aside and call Nechama Szuster.
It only took two rings before she answered. I was in shock! This woman was not only alive and well, but was willing to take time on a Sunday afternoon to talk to me half way across the world. After introducing myself and explaining my purpose in calling, she gladly answered my questions and even pulled out the Rokitno Yizkor book while we spoke and read me off the names of all of the Szusters who once lived in the shtetl where she was born. Although she had never heard of my grandfather and the Szusters of Sarny, she didn’t hesitate to share bits and pieces of her story with me; it was not long before she invited me to come to her house the next time I am in the States and discuss more in person. I couldn’t believe it! While it is very unlikely we are in fact relatives, the goosebumps on my skin told me that maybe there is some connection still to be discovered. When I hung up the phone, I knew that this was only the beginning. We agreed to be in touch over Pesach and that I would either visit her in Maryland during the 2 weeks I am in the States, or, I may meet her in Tel Aviv this upcoming September when she will be attending her grandson’s wedding. In the meantime, I am planning on continuing my research through Yad Vashem’s Virtual Personal File Project. In the end, whether we are related or not is irrelevant—what matters is that the links have not been broken between past and present. We must use these links to identify, inform, educate, and engage future generations that will study the Holocaust.