Although Dr. Fred E. Katz has lived in Baltimore for more than four decades, the 90-year-old sociology professor’s story doesn’t begin here.
It begins more than 4,000 miles away in the German town of Oberlauringen, where Katz lived with his mother, father, stepbrother and sister until Kristallnacht, the infamous night of broken glass, in November of 1938.
Now, Katz’s story is one of 25 children’s stories featured in an exhibition called “Vergissmeinnicht (Forget-Me-Not): What Children’s Stories Can Teach Us about the Holocaust.”
On Nov. 13, approximately 150 visitors gathered at Towson University for the exhibition’s American debut. Created by a group of high school students from the Bavarian town of Ebern, “Vergissmeinnicht” focuses on the lives of 25 children from the Franconia region of Germany.
“Vergissmeinnicht” was installed on the main floor of Towson University’s Albert S. Cook Library and will be open to the public through Nov. 28.
“I think what’s been done is an extraordinary accomplishment,” said Dr. Katz. “It’s a valuable thing for the community to have some real awareness of these kinds of stories. This exhibit gives people a moving introduction to individual stories and personal histories.”
The German high school students started working on the exhibition last year with Cordula Kappner, their teacher and a local historian. Kappner spent her life researching Jewish families in the region and allowed the students to use her archives as primary sources for this project.
Nineteen of the children featured in the exhibition perished in the Holocaust, and six children — including Dr. Katz — managed to survive. (According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as many as 1.5 million children were killed in the Holocaust.)
“I’m one of the survivors whose lives Cordula brought to light,” said Dr. Katz, a Kol HaLev congregant and Towson resident, while delivering the keynote address at the exhibition opening. “This is gratifying to me — only so long as I remain aware that so many are not here, did not survive and did not have the length of days they surely deserved to be on this earth.”
In July 1939, Dr. Katz’s mother boarded him on a children’s train to escape Nazi Germany. He arrived in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, before taking a ferry to safety in England.
Eight years later, Dr. Katz moved to the United States to live with his aunt. His sister was already in this country, but his mother, father and stepbrother died in the Holocaust.
“I was in denial,” said Dr. Katz. “But when I awoke from my slumber and denial, I came to realize a different approach to learning about the Holocaust was needed. All the ghastly revelations about the Holocaust genocide were not preventing subsequent genocides. The mantra, ‘We must remember so it won’t happen again,’ was a powerful but sad myth.”
In response to “his awakening,” Dr. Katz wrote two books — “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil” and “Confronting Evil: Two Journals.” In those books, he said he “tries to demonstrate that the grossest horrors can be created and carried out by ordinary people. …
“My work runs counter to the thinking that only monsters can do the sort of thing that happened in the Holocaust,” said Dr. Katz. “This approach remains very unpopular, but I’m convinced the approach I’m wrestling with can give us the ability to understand how genocides can happen. It’s how I justify my own survival and how I try to make a difference.”
Funding for the exhibition in the U.S. was made possible by the Baltimore Towson University Initiative, the Baltimore Hebrew Institute of Towson University and the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
In an email, Tammy Heyman, chair of the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education at The Associated, called the exhibition “a perfect match for the mission of the fund –to support informal, innovative Jewish educational programming. The innovation in this exhibit lies in the way that it connects a modern day audience with families who lived during the Holocaust.”
The exhibition may eventually travel to other venues, such as schools and synagogues, to “ensure these stories and the Holocaust are never forgotten,” said Joyce Garczynski, Towson University’s assistant librarian for development and communications.
Garczynski organized the exhibition opening along with Ashley Todd-Diaz, the head of Towson University’s Social Collections and University Archives. The pair is now working on a curriculum to accompany the exhibition.
“One of my passions is helping connect people with the personal side of history through primary sources and critical thinking,” said Todd-Diaz. “I saw this exhibit as a great learning opportunity for students to relate to a challenging subject through the experiences of their peers.”
Educating future generations about the Holocaust is something Zachary Cohen, 9, who attended Monday’s opening with his mother, grandmother and grandfather, believes is crucial.
“I love that I’m a Jew and I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust,” said Zachary. “I feel like a lot of kids should learn about the Holocaust and what the reason is. Many kids in my school don’t know about the Holocaust and what happened during it.”
Reisterstown resident Marcie Lehnoff also attended the opening. “My maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and one of the things that caught my attention about this exhibit was the fact it was about children,” said Lehnoff, 29. “My grandmother lost her first child during the Holocaust and that was always something very hard for my family to really come to grips with.”
For information about the “Vergissmeinnicht” exhibition, visit towson.edu.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Top photo: People view a panel about Fred Katz, a Towson resident who escaped the Holocaust, that is part of the Vergissmeinnicht (Forget-Me-Not) exhibit at Towson University. (Photo by Steve Ruark)
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