College of Arts and Sciences senior Evelyn Liberman said that it wasn’t until she heard the stories of survivors at the Holocaust Survivors Conference on Sunday that she learned how unique each survivor’s experience is.
“Listening to the stories of the survivors helped gave me a better understanding of what it really means to be a Holocaust survivor,” Liberman said.
More than 100 students attended to listen as Holocaust survivors recounted their experiences at the conference, which ran from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday at the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University. The conference was sponsored by the BU School of Law and School of Public Health, in addition to the Hillel House.
Robert Berger, a doctor at Boston Medical Center, commenced the reception and called survivors “witnesses” of history for the younger generation.
Psychiatrist Robert Krell gave the keynote speech on “The Resiliency of the Survivor.”
“Doctor Krell talked about teaching that survivors need to review their memories but not relive them,” said Rabbi Joseph Polak, who works at the Hillel House and moderated the panel. “[Krell] said there is no therapy for the trauma of the Holocaust. It is always with the survivor and it transfers to the survivor’s family. But, there is also an amazing resilience so people do have great lives, great careers and great families.”
The conference held panels throughout the day, including “Care for the Aging Holocaust Survivor & Subsequent Generations,” “The Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Swiss Bank Accounts and the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims” and “Existential Threats to Jewish Survival Today,” among other discussions. The conference also presented a screening of “Fateless,” a film based on the novel by Hungarian Nobel Literature Prize winner Imre Kertez.
SPH professor Michael Grodin, director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Elie Wiesel Center of Judaic Studies, gave a lecture called “Care for the Aging Holocaust Survivor & Subsequent Generations.” It is important, he said, to consider how the survivors’ experiences are defined by who they are as people.
“There are as many stories as there are survivors,” Grodin said. “Every experience is unique and different.”
Some survivors shared their stories in a panel.
“At the age of 14, I was declared a slave,” said survivor panelist Israel Arbeiter, president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston. “My only sin was being born from Jewish parents.”
Arbeiter said he understands if students do not believe all of his stories, considering that his experiences may sound indescribable and unimaginable.
Gunda Trepp, the widow of Rabbi Leo Trepp, traveled from California to speak on behalf of her husband.
“He spoke seldom about his own story,” Trepp said. “He taught in a physiological way and talked about the beauty of Judaism.”
A German Jew, Leo Trepp set up a congregation and a synagogue in Germany for the few Jewish people remaining, which had the world’s first female rabbi, she said. He returned to Germany every year to teach young people about Judaism.
“He did not want to give victory to Hitler,” Trepp said. “Hitler was the first to say the Jews don’t have German blood and my husband did not want one man to define this.”
Freida Grazyel, another panelist, said that she was five when the Germans captured Poland. Her sister was born six days later.
“People did not want to hear our stories or could not comprehend what happened, so the survivors went to each other,” Grayzel said. “Children learned early that we had to keep our feelings, thoughts and memories to ourselves. Child survivors were left feeling alone, very alone.”
Grayzel started a self-support group for child survivors in 1983, one of the first in the world, she said. The group is now an international federation with annual conferences.
“I still think that when the survivors speak, that is a priceless moment for students,”
Polak said. “The survivors desperately want their stories to be remembered so they are not repeated. When the survivors speak, they take you right into their experience.”
School of Public Health graduate Jamie Merrill said he was particularly struck by the idea of “assigning a monetary value to human life and human suffering.”
“What a burden performing this unimaginable calculus and writing a check knowing there is a debt that cannot be paid since there exists no amount of compensation for what these survivors endured,” Merill said. “We are all truly blessed that we are able to hear their stories and learn from their remembering of the deepest scar in humanity’s history.”