More than seven decades had passed since the end of World War II, but Gina never sat down with her children and grandchildren to share her wartime experiences in depth.
“I never had a conversation about it with my kids,” explains the 96-year-old New Jersey resident (see accompanying video clip). “I couldn’t start a conversation, and they never asked me questions. Maybe they were afraid to touch something.”
It’s true, her children were reluctant to ask questions because they didn’t want to cause their mother pain by opening old wounds. Conversely, for Gina, finding the emotional strength to initiate such a conversation felt impossible. So, when her family asked me to interview their mother and record the conversation for posterity in the form of a legacy film, I was beyond moved.
This was not the first time I had asked difficult questions of a Holocaust survivor. Having now interviewed many survivors of the Shoah, World War II and other traumatic experiences, I’ve seen how talking about one’s traumas is often cathartic, even therapeutic for the speaker. As Gina explains in her mixed German-Israeli accent, “I did it for me too. And it gave me a relief to talk about it. I never knew … how to ask.”
This year in the United States, Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom HaShoah, will begin at sundown on April 11. The annual observance commemorates the lives and heroism of all the people who died in the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945. Conservative estimates say that by the year 2020, the number of Jewish survivors in the United States will sit at roughly 67,000.
But this number can be misleading, because many “survivors” were born in the final years of the war. A 75-year-old today was born in 1942. They would have been three at the end of the war and may have no direct memory of their experiences.
On the other hand, a large number of older survivors have now lost the capacity to speak about their experiences, whether due to memory loss, post-traumatic stress disorder or the natural aging process. In actuality, the number of survivors who can offer first-hand accounts of their experiences, starting before the war, is small indeed.
Before my first interview with a Shoah survivor, I called my friend and mentor Mike O’Krent, a fellow life story documentarian and a veteran interviewer of Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation. He told me this: “These conversations are not going to be easy, nor should they be. In some cases, you’ll be asking loved ones to recall events and memories that have long been dormant. That’s OK. Don’t shy away from asking the hard questions.”
He was right. When you venture into the darkness, the sense of relief seems even greater when you emerge.
As we approach Yom HaShoah, I would encourage anyone who knows a survivor to invite them to have a conversation. For survivors who have memories of life in Europe before World War II, I recommend beginning the conversation by revisiting early childhood – hopefully during happier times. As a rule of thumb, spend about one-third of the conversation on pre-war events, one-third on the war itself, and one third covering everything else: post-war events and further reflections.
Here are 10 questions to help frame your discussion:
- What was your family life like before the Holocaust?
- How did life change when the Nazis came to power (or invaded your country)?
- Did your family try to emigrate in the 1930s? (If so, tell the story. If not, why?)
- How did you cope emotionally with your day-to-day Holocaust experiences (in the ghetto, camp or other place you lived)?
- How did the Holocaust influence your faith?
- Did you encounter Nazis, Germans or other people who tried to help you?
- Were you with your family throughout the Holocaust or were you separated?
- How did you start your life again after the Holocaust?
- Did your Holocaust experience change your view of humanity? (If so, how? If not, why?)
- Why is it important to record the stories and learn the lessons of the Holocaust?
In addition, I strongly encourage you to document or record these conversations for posterity. These stories will provide future generations with a poignant window into your family’s past. Even more, these conversations will contribute to the tapestry of accounts that undergird the collective truth of this unthinkable past.
Rich Polt helps families celebrate, preserve, and share their legacies. His company, Acknowledge Media (acknowledgemedia.com), produces documentary-style life story films, built upon recorded conversations with loved ones.