As director of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous for some 24 years, Mordecai Paldiel learned firsthand that many survivors have not yet told their stories.
Now a professor of Holocaust and modern European history at Stern College in New York, Paldiel says he still encounters such people every day.
“When the rabbi [at Chabad of Fort Lee] said we have among us someone from Yad Vashem, people approached me with their stories,” said the Bergen County resident. Many had never before shared their wartime experiences.
It is for these people, and the history they represent, that Paldiel and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly are launching a project to collect Holocaust memorabilia and record the stories that surround them.
“I know Rabbi [Steve] Golden [JCC Judaic director] because I gave a few presentations on the Holocaust at the JCC and spoke there on Yom HaShoah,” said Paldiel, describing the genesis of the Holocaust collection initiative.
“I told him I knew of people with all kinds of memorabilia – photos, documents, anything having to do with that sad period – that they are keeping to themselves and don’t know how to dispense with. Each of these items has a story behind it.”
Paldiel suggested to Golden that they invite Holocaust survivors and their families to “bring whatever they have in some shoebox.” Noting that many of these survivors have not spoken with their own families about their experiences during the Shoah, Paldiel said he will sit down for an hour or so with all who come in.
“We’ll look at their items and talk about what they mean to them, tell their story,” he said. “Then maybe we can have an exhibit of some of these items and have these people talk about them.”
After that, the artifacts will either be returned to their owners or, perhaps, dispatched to places like the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The items might also be used for educational purposes in schools and colleges.
“One of the Judaic Department’s goals is to engender more opportunities for Holocaust education,” said Golden. “Eliciting previously untold stories of survival via these artifacts is a creative way to hear the voices of Shoah survivors.”
|The father of Avi Lewinson, JCC executive director, wore this jacket in Dachau.|
Announcing the project, the JCC issued a statement suggesting that items might include documents such as passports, visas, work permits, travel permits, as well as authentic and false identification cards; photos of survivors or lost loved ones; religious artifacts such as siddurim, mezuzot, tefillin, and prayer shawls; and various personal items, such as clothing, books, diaries, utensils, “or other objects linked to this terrible time in history.”
One object comes from JCC Executive Director Avi Lewinson himself: the prison jacket worn in Dachau by his father, Yakov Chaim Lewinson.
“If you see how light it is and think how cold the winters were and know that it was basically all he had on his body, it speaks to the brutality of the cold,” said Lewinson.
Lewinson said his father spoke of the hunger as being even worse than the cold, and that too is manifest in the jacket. “Look at the size of the shirt. It looks like it was for a 10-year-old. My father was in his early 20s as this was going on. I just can’t picture my dad that emaciated,” he said.
Paldiel cited the green sweater worn by a retired New York dentist, Krystyna Chiger, who had not spoken with her family about her wartime experiences. In 2008 she wrote a book, “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” chronicling the year and a half she spent hiding from the Nazis in the sewers of Lvov, Poland, wearing a green sweater to keep her warm.
“She held on to that sweater, which is now dilapidated,” said Paldiel. “It was the most precious item she kept. Now her family knows about it. Maybe we can encourage other people to come forward and show their artifacts, and maybe there are extraordinary stories they will tell.”
Recounting Holocaust experiences is very difficult for some, said Paldiel.
“There was a girl who was on a train to Auschwitz with her family, and she was sent on a labor detail and the rest of the family went to the gas chamber. How does she speak with her children about that? People would rather tell nice things, not horror stories, to their children and grandchildren. They see enough of that on TV.”
As a result, he said, survivors “hint” at their stories, so that children may know that their parents or grandparents are survivors, but they don’t know any further details.
Still, he said, if survivors are hesitant to speak in front of their families, “maybe they will do it in front of others with a similar background.”
His plan is to meet individually with survivors at the JCC.
“We’ll say bring in what you have and we’ll see if it’s worthwhile,” he said. The hope is that survivors will tell their stories and Paldiel will write them down.
The project is important because “time is passing,” he said. “The memory is fizzling but [survivors] still remember some of the important details. If we wait too long, it will be too late.”
Paldiel believes that for those who now tell their stories, “it will be like a release. What they fear is that once they pass, their stories will be buried and no one will know. It concerns them, but they don’t know how to present it. Now they know that their stories will be on the record.”
For others, “It’s a great tool to learn about these people in their community who passed through that horrible experience, started a new life, raised families, and got over it. It’s very encouraging,” he said. “To be able to cope is a very optimistic thing.”
To schedule a meeting with Paldiel, call Golden at (201) 408-1426.
Larry Yudelson contributed to this report.