(from left) Marty Tuzman, Dr. Stephen Luckert, Rochelle Tuzman Sauber, and Dr. Paul Finkelman enjoyed a pre-event lunch with members of the Tuzman family, program sponsors, and special guests.
Holocaust survivors won’t be around forever, but artifacts will continue to tell stories long after eyewitnesses are gone. Attendees at the Holocaust Teach-In last November learned how to tease these stories out.
Since its inception, Holocaust studies has relied on first-person survivor testimony, but as these bearers of history disappear, educators are turning to another source of data: artifacts.
That’s the message Dr. Steven Luckert, senior program curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, delivered November 11 during his keynote address at the biennial Arnold and Esther Tuzman Memorial Holocaust Teach-In. The daylong event, held on the Gratz College campus, drew a crowd of nearly 300 students, attorneys, educators and community members.
“We will not always have survivors to tell their stories, but we will always have artifacts,” said Luckert, who curates the museum’s permanent exhibition. “The challenge today is making Holocaust education relevant by using artifacts.”
For example, the permanent exhibition includes the display of 4,000 individual shoes – a fraction of what liberators found when they entered concentration camps in the final stages of the war. The image stayed with liberators, Luckert said, and it stays with museum visitors, many of whom point to the shoes as the most striking part of the exhibition.
“There’s something deeply personal about shoes,” he said. “Soldiers encountered hundreds of thousands of shoes, but few prisoners. They had to ask who had been wearing the shoes. Visitors at the museum ask the same question, and this personalizes the story.”
Much of what Luckert does at the museum is tease out the stories within artifacts and restore identities to the masses. Stories of individuals can personalize the horrors of the Holocaust and make the numbers easier to comprehend.
“It’s important to remember that this was six million individuals, each with families and histories,” he said. “If we can take that number and transform it back into people, that’s powerful.”
These stories, intensely personal and heartbreaking, engage visitors more than any other tool at the museum, Luckert said. Some of the artifacts contain layers of history, revealing narratives that strike at the heart of what it means to be human.
For example, a wedding dress on display now at the museum holds the stories of about 20 individual women who got married in a displaced persons camp. Fashioned from a German parachute, the dress was hemmed to fit each bride, Luckert said.
Besides telling the stories of 20 weddings, the dress also reveals the larger narrative of a devastated population eager to marry and procreate, Luckert said. Between 1946 and 1948, the highest birthrate in the world occurred in displaced persons camps.
“In the dress, you can see how many times the hemline was changed,” Luckert said. “Visitors fall in love with this object because of its layers of history and what it tells us about people’s lives after the war.”
Artifacts like the wedding dress survived by chance, while others, like the documents Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum collected in the Warsaw Ghetto and buried in milk cans, were intentionally preserved. Whatever the origin, the artifacts will continue to tell stories even after the eyewitnesses are gone.
“With the passing of survivors, we’re seeing a growth of distortion and denial,” Luckert said. “Today, it’s especially important to address the legacy of the Holocaust and how hate speech can lead to persecution and genocide.”
The Holocaust Teach-In is named for Arnold and Esther Tuzman, survivors who fled their homes as teens to escape the Nazis. Esther was hidden by a Polish Catholic farmer. After imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp, Arnold served in the Polish-Russian army. They married in 1946 and immigrated to the United States in 1947. The Tuzman family endowed the Holocaust Teach-In after Esther’s (z”l) death in 2009. Arnold (z”l) died in 2013.
This year’s Teach-In, the fifth of its kind, fell on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night German Nazis destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burned Jewish religious artifacts and murdered 91 Jews. It also took place just two weeks after a gunman opened fire on a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people and injuring seven others in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
“Would that our discussions today were artifacts and memories, long buried in the past,” Marty Tuzman, son of Arnold and Esther, said during the Holocaust Teach-In. “Would that we could feel sure that we have learned all the messages and heard all the stories that we needed, to be sure we would never allow it to be re-lived.”
Of his parents, Tuzman said that his father could not speak enough about the horrors he experienced. His mother, however, could never speak of it at all.
“As the son of survivors, I always felt this amazing weight and responsibility to preserve the memories,” Tuzman said. “My job is to share these stories and let them magnify and reverberate.”
Artifacts and memories should serve as guideposts to the future, Tuzman said. They should be warning signs and teaching moments.
“It would be great if all this was history,” he said. “Even today, we’re still feeling hatred and divisiveness. It’s never felt more important to teach about the Holocaust than it does now.”
— JANUARY 2019