My mother was 15 years old when the Nazis invaded her village of Gorzkowice in Poland. When the war ended, she was the only surviving member of her family.
Last Thursday, on August 25th, she passed away.
She was 92.
“You can’t study the Holocaust – you can only experience it” were her words when three years ago I was accepted to the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies. It was during that time that she slowly started to share her experiences from the war. I grew up very much with the sense that this was a subject we did not talk about. Like many other survivors’ children, I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust – “The conspiracy of silence”.
Once I was accepted to the International MA Program in Holocaust Studies, I realized that it was my personal privilege and duty at the same time to get together all the pieces of my family’s history and to put it in the wide context of the Holocaust and within the wider context of WWII. This program provided me with the adequate tools to conduct research and document my family’s story.
Being a student in the Holocaust Studies Program, as well as a “Second Generation Survivor,” got me engaged in a never ending struggle.
Should my mother’s personal history, intervene with my studies or would it be too emotional for me? Should I choose her personal history for my various essay topics in the different courses? Did her personal narrative correlate with the historical events as we know them? Does her or anyone else’s personal narrative, which is remembered and told from a very personal and narrow angle, after so many years, really reflect the historical events? To what extent can we consider their narratives as historical evidence? Can we learn about history from personal stories?
History is not just about facts; it is about human lives and human faces. And yet I am still struggling with these dilemmas.
I would like to share a story with you.
My mother arrived in the Haifa Port on board an immigrant ship just a few days before Israel’s Declaration of Independence, at the end of April 1948. The ship, carrying about 750 legal as well as 250 illegal immigrants anchored off of the Haifa port. British and Arab officers were expected to come onboard and prevent the illegal immigrants from disembarking. The ship’s captain asked my mother, who was at that time young, good looking with fluent English, to keep the British and Arab officers busy, offering them drinks at the bar and chatting with them. So, while she was distracting their attention, all 250 illegal immigrants got off the ship into boats waiting for them and got safely to Haifa. The officers completely forgot the reason for their being on board the ship, and eventually all legal immigrants got off the boat as well.
This story is so witty and outrageous, I wonder if this is how it really happened, is this a reliable story?
Not having a definite answer, makes it even more difficult for me to decide whether we can base historical events on personal stories.
Each Holocaust survivor seems to have a unique and individual story. We are obliged to find out how Holocaust survivors reconstruct their life experience in their narratives, which events they choose to share, and which they choose not to share, what are the personal experiences they remember and, which are those they forget, or even choose to forget. Their recollections contribute to our understanding of how these events during the Holocaust affected their new post-war lives, and how those experiences are imprinted into their ability to rebuild their lives after the Holocaust. When survivors tell their life stories so many years after the actual events, we have to question the extent to which these personal stories correlate with the historical events as we know them.
As my mother said – to study the holocaust is not to experience it. She was absolutely right and yet studying the holocaust in the Weiss-Livnat program was a unique experience by all means.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/