By Stephen Smith, MBE Executive Director, USC Shoah Foundation (University of Southern California)
“What will we do when there are no survivors?” This is a question I hear every week at the USC Shoah Foundation. It is a good question, but it is not the right question.
The question should be: “What can we do with our friends and colleagues who survived the Holocaust, while we still have time together?”
This issue of Jewish News shows that Holocaust survivors are still shaping the post-Holocaust debate. Guest editor Ben Helfgott recently showed me handwritten speeches he delivered at Yom HaShoah commemorations dating back to 1955.
Each year, his speech would address remembrance and relate it to a topic of relevance in the world. It is wrong to say survivors were silent, because in fact they have always been vocal and shaping the story.
Holocaust survivors are often wrongly portrayed as living artefacts whose sole role is to remember the past. Indeed, they do bear witness, but they are also commentators, educators, writers, broadcasters, mentors, interpreters of history, thought leaders in our world.
At a time when anti-Semitism is ever more vicious and virulent, it is Holocaust survivors who are in our schools and communities, warning, teaching, and combatting the seeds of hatred. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Recently, I spent three days with Kitty Hart-Moxon at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she braved the cold and the rigours of a punishing filming schedule for a new documentary, One Day in Auschwitz. She wanted to take two students to every corner of Birkenau to ensure that learners of the future could see through their eyes her struggle to survive there. As they asked question after question, she was right there, present in the present.
At the USC Shoah Foundation, the legacy of the survivors is secure. More than 53,000 witnesses who gave testimony have made sure their voice is inscribed in history. But we still have time to ask more questions.
The Shoah Foundation’s New Dimensions in Testimony programme gives survivors the opportunity to answer thousands of questions that students routinely ask in schools and museums, and captures them for the future.
The UK National Holocaust Centre is partnering the New Dimensions programme in the UK with a project called Interact.
Just this month, survivors Steven Frank and Rudi Oppenheimer are each documenting hundreds of questions in video for a generation that will never get to meet them, but will still be able to have their questions answered. Several hundred survivors will be present at Auschwitz 70 years on from the liberation. Standing in the very place intended to destroy them is their final victory.
Preserving Auschwitz is essential, being physically there is transformational, but the Holocaust is also a universal human story, which can and should be told everywhere, to everyone.
The survivors have given us that opportunity in the legacy of their words.
The future is now.
We have to work together quickly and with purpose.
Time may well be our enemy, but it can also be our friend, if only we use it wisely.