As the generation of Holocaust survivors passes, writers and researchers acknowledge the urgent need to ask probing questions and preserve fading memories. Moving forward, in the absence of firsthand accounts survivors’ descendants will need to assume responsibility for educating future generations about the genocide.
In the modern era of self-publishing, the market for Holocaust literature has been glutted with personal accounts of horror, survival, hope, and despair, establishing a complicated legacy. Yet not every survivor finds the words or strength necessary to tell his or her story publicly. Likewise, many children of survivors struggle throughout their lives to understand their parents’ scars.
“Most grew up with the Holocaust as a silent, dark mystery,” said Dr. Jerry Jennings, a clinical psychologist who has published three Holocaust memoirs on behalf of survivors. “They were denied the truth of what deeply shaped their parents’ and their own upbringing and they have strong emotions about touching a subject that was explicitly or implicitly forbidden by the parent.”
This communication gap may inhibit future generations from embracing and understanding Holocaust history. With so little time left, Jennings encourages younger generations to record their aging relatives’ stories. “There is untold value in getting the names and hometowns of family and friends in the ‘old world’ – uncles, cousins, grandparents, et cetera,” he explained.
The methodology Jennings utilizes to transcribe his subject’s memoirs underscores the importance of meticulously collecting all available evidence. Jennings interviewed survivors Stella Yollin, Sol and Goldie Finkelstein, and Ida Hoffmann for his trilogy of books – Stella’s Secret, I Choose Life and Darkness Hides the Flowers.
“The goal of research,” he noted, “is not to confirm or verify [survivor] stories, but rather to put their individual stories in the broader historical context.”
The task of correlating oral testimony with existing records requires patient listening and careful attention to specific names, dates, and places. Inconsistencies in a survivor’s story are not roadblocks. On the contrary, Jennings’s work reveals that the process of inquiry can lead to exciting discoveries, almost always resulting in a clearer picture of events.
“Sol insisted that during his time at Mauthausen Concentration Camp, he was a forced laborer in a cave that built [V2] rockets,” Jennings says, recounting one instance when the oral record he was transcribing did not match up with known facts. “For Sol’s story to be true, he would have been 500 miles away in a different camp and [working in] a different year.”
To reach into Sol’s murky memory for the missing clues, Jennings employed a unique strategy. He asked simple yet detailed questions like “How did you get from here to there?” and “What was the weather like that day?”
That technique prompted the speaker to enlarge upon the day-to-day reality of his situation and experience. “Ultimately, Sol’s story was completely accurate,” Jennings said. “We found the subterranean sub-camp in the location and year that he said, but it was under a different name than the one used by Sol and the prisoners.”
Jennings’s trilogy is comprehensive. Instead of only relating his subject’s survival stories, he prompts them to reflect on their lives before and after the war. Omitting this information “was a disservice and even a distortion of the complete truth,” said the author.
“We need to know how the survivors lived before the war in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what they lost, and we need to know how they rebuilt their lives after the war to appreciate the compassion and hope that rose from the ashes of the crematoriums,” he said.
Reflecting on these grim stories induced an emotional healing process for Jennings’s subjects, one he says was challenging at first but immensely rewarding in its culmination. Finally, publication of the series provided a permanent record of each survivor’s personal triumph.