I spent several days at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. It is the oldest museum of its kind in the United States. Free to the public, the museum houses a lot of information and artifacts as well as serving as a platform for survivors of the holocaust to tell their stories. In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg made a movie called Schindler’s List. Before then, for almost fifty years, holocaust survivors really did not talk all that much about their experiences during the war. Most were trying to make a new life in a new country, learn a new language, find work, and make meaning of what was left of their lives. The memories were just too painful. Steven Spielberg organized a worldwide search for survivors and managed to get about 52,000 personal stories of survival recorded for posterity. An impressive part of this LA Museum is the multiple television monitors called the Tree of Testimony that fill a room with the many interviews of the survivors from all over the world which are now shared with the public, a continuous storytelling event from the 52,000 involved in the the Spielberg project.
I wandered through the museum on my own the first day. Reading old Los Angeles newspapers that reported world events back in the day when the Nazis were planning and implementing their answer to the “the Jewish problem”. Artifacts like the following poster gripped my heart. After teaching elementary school for 28 years, this poster which was used in schools to help teachers differentiate the facial characteristics between Aryan and Jewish children left me stone cold.
Day two brought me back with the intentions of hearing a Holocaust survivor’s personal story. The museum offers presentations to groups several times a week. I arrived early, as I am prone to do, and immediately spotted an elderly gentleman sitting in the wings. I approached him and asked if he was the speaker of the day. Sol Berger, a 93-year-old holocaust survivor from Poland, stood up to greet me with a bright countenance and thus began a 40-minute private conversation between the two of us. To say that I was moved is an understatement. He spoke with such clarity and conviction. Sol has his own unique story. Each survivor does. He has been sharing his story with people for almost two decades. He lost his father and mother, brother and sisters to the holocaust. He and his brother Michael were eventually separated, both managing to survive the war. After the war, Sol and his new wife were sent to Italy and lived in a displacement camp until he got a job in London. From the beginning, he knew that he wanted to come to America. Finally able to get a visa for himself and his family, they immigrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. If you would like to read more about Sol Berger and his amazing story of survival during the German occupation of Poland, I have provided a link to an LA Times story published in 2009. Regardless of the horrid memories that Sol and his wife carry with them, they went on to find meaningful work, raise a family, and live a life of substance. All of their children are educated and are either attorneys, teachers, or professors. Sol went back to school, something he had always wanted to do, after his last child graduated from college. I received many words of hope and good will from my private talk with Sol and his presentation that followed.
Some of the youngest holocaust survivors are now in their 80s. Time will soon take the last of these courageous people from us. Their surviving stories will hopefully remain.