David Marwell once hunted Nazis for the United States government.
Now, he is working to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in a future in which there will be no surviving survivors to tell their first-person stories.
A former investigator for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), since 2000 Marwell has headed the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
He will be speaking at community-wide Yom Hashoah event Wednesday night at Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn.
His topic will be “Memory and Hope.”
“I’ll talk about how we approach history at the museum, what makes museums as a medium important, and what sets the museum apart from other media,” he says.
|Dr. David Marwell Melanie Einzig|
“What we do in the museum, as an institution of public history and education, is to communicate what happened [during the Shoah] and to try to distill from it useful lessons that can help people in understanding their responsibilities and guide their actions,” he says.
“We don’t believe this is history that should be sealed off and never used; it should be useful history. There are a lot of lessons that can be distilled from it; it can be used as a way of helping us guide our actions.”
The effort of Nazi hunting is winding down. The OSI, tasked with tracking and prosecuting Holocaust war criminals, has been folded into a broader section of the United States Department of Justice.
And as the recent death of John Demjanuk, the concentration camp guard, highlighted, “there is a kind of biological statute of limitations” on Holocaust crimes. “If you just do the math, anyone who played a role has to be quite old at this time.”
While the perpetrators were adults, however, “the difference between survivors and perpetrators is there are children who survived. The survivors will outlive the perpetrators by a margin of some years.”
Still, it is not too soon to start answering the question of how to maintain the memory of the Shoah when there are no longer survivors to tell their experiences.
“From an educational point of view, there’s no way to replace the impact of a survivor speaking to a school group, or talking about their experiences,” he says. “That is irreplacable.
One answer, says Marwell, lies in the videotaping of testimonies of survivors. That effort has been underway for some time, most notably Steven Spielberg’s visual history project, which recorded more than 50,000 interviews with survivors. Now, says Marwell, “There’s a whole new effort of having the children of survivors tell their parents’ stories using the videotaped testimony as a tool, so you still have this personal connection. They’ll talk about their own experience with their parents, and then introduce the video testimony.”
Meanwhile, six survivors will be lighting candles at the community Holocaust gathering in Fair Lawn (see the opposite page). The community gathering, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, is the oldest commemoration of the Shoah in the country. Its origins lie in a 1943 Paterson commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“It’s important to set aside one day where a focus can be placed,” explains Marwell.
For those with a personal loss in the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah “provides an opportunity to mourn. Many people have no detailed understanding of when their relatives were murdered so they don’t have a date that can serve as a yarzheit.”
Why is it important to remember the Shoah?
“It’s an extreme example of human behavior,” he says. “It’s a useful warning of what human beings are capable of.”