The maxim “Of writing books there is no end,” from Ecclesiastes 12:12, seems to apply to the genre of Holocaust literature.
Every year we see new works of Holocaust fiction, history, narratives, politics, philosophy, and theology. It is a rich field to mine, and every volume sheds a bit more light on this transformative period in Jewish history.
A new book, “Witness,” by Eli Rubinstein with March of the Living, artfully tackles the issue of transmitting the fact and lessons of the Holocaust into the future, when there will be no more survivors left to tell the story, and to say definitively “I was there.” The March of the Living is an educational program that brings students from all over the world to Poland every year. There, the students study the history of the Holocaust firsthand, and examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. Since the first March of the Living was held in 1988, more than 250,000 participants from 35 countries have marched down the path leading from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Participation in this international program, which brings together leaders from around the world, aging survivors, liberators, and students from very diverse backgrounds, empowers March of the Living participants to become ambassadors in their communities and on their campuses, combating Holocaust denial, promoting Holocaust education, and fighting anti-Semitism.
This richly illustrated volume is based on a recent United Nations exhibit called “Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations,” prepared by the International March of the Living. It will be displayed in Auschwitz-Birkenau this year. In 2016, the exhibit will appear in Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, as well as in many other locations.
The book features stories, quotes, and poems from survivors, going back over 25 years. An interactive feature in the book allows readers to point their smart devices toward the image of the featured survivors, righteous Gentiles, and liberators, and thus to gain access to their testimonies on the USC Shoah Foundation or March of the Living websites. This novel feature very well could presage a new direction in historical publications.
Holocaust material often can be unsettling, traumatic, depressing, and generally disturbing. This book is uplifting — and that is not something anyone would say about most Holocaust books. The narratives of young people from every country, race, religion, and ethnicity gives us hope for the future. The stories told by aging survivors and liberators will be passed on. The horrors of the Holocaust are not sugar-coated, but they presented honestly, in a way that affects the next generation, who will continue to tell the story.
The witnesses to the witnesses become witnesses themselves, especially when standing in a barracks, gas chamber, cemetery, or killing field.
The tapestry of Holocaust history is well thought out, condensed, and skillfully woven into this collection of narratives. First-person accounts and the reactions of young people to these events, told by those who experienced them, is a powerful force to blunt Holocaust denial. One of the results of creating a new cadre of witnesses to the Holocaust is their commitment to fostering tolerance and combating prejudice.
The compiler of this work, Eli Rubenstein, for 27 years the national director of March of the Living, is a key figure in the planning and execution of the March in Poland. He has chosen stories and photographs carefully to graphically convey in print what every March participant has felt viscerally during and after this powerful experience. Death camps, crematoria, gas chambers, destroyed synagogues, and cemeteries can be gloomy. This presentation — from Pope Francis’ introduction to interviews with Elie Wiesel, liberators, survivors, and young people from all over the world — give us hope for the future.
It is a book that should be owned and shared by all who believe that the lessons learned from the Holocaust must be disseminated in order to create a world of peace and harmony.
Wallace Greene of Fair Lawn has taught Jewish history, including Holocaust studies, at Yeshiva University, Queens College, and Upsala College.