Kristallnacht: 75 years later, survivors share experience as a way of warning, sharing values
Lesser came to America and worked hard to be the best at anything he tried. He married, raised a family and recently wrote "Living a Life that Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream." He wrote it in part to tell youths anything is possible. He got to America at 18 with no education, no language, no money, no friends and "I built a beautiful life. In this wonderful country, who's stopping you?"
Lesser and Wacs see their history as a warning and plea.
"It is important to tell the story so that people keep remembering what happened and what people are capable of doing. By remembering, they make sure it doesn't happen again," said Wacs, who will be featured in Kristallnacht remembrances in New York and Los Angeles this week.
Time has claimed most eyewitnesses. "In another five to 10 years, I don't think we will have survivors who saw it with their own eyes to tell us what happened," said Breitbart.
When the only tale-tellers are films and books and documentaries, it won't be the same, said Breitbart, who can rattle off dates and numbers and who did what during the Holocaust. "I cannot convey the horror of the Holocaust. That is why what these people have to say is extremely important. Some pseudo-academics like to say it never happened or is exaggerated. In this age when most of the players and eyewitness journalists and jurists are no longer there, it is important those who are tell us."
Experts say the yearning to share personal experience is universal.
"Telling your own story helps personalize the forces that produced you and the people who you care for, especially as the generations of the immediate survivors of the Holocaust pass away. The stories remain and help others understand where the Jewish people have been and where they are coming from in the 21st century," said Rabbi Frederick L. Wenger, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City.
"Hansen's Law" helps explain that need to pass history through generations, he said. It is the notion that what the second generation chooses to forget, the third chooses to remember.
Different faiths and cultures keep their histories alive in their own way. Some Mormon families encourage their youths to go on handcart expeditions that reenact the migration of Latter-day Saint pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. Across the world, the March of the Living program brings Jewish youths to Poland to study the Holocaust and how it was rooted in hatred and intolerance. A generation of Jews more than a half-century removed from it visit a concentration camp and pray there, then go to Israel and pray there as well.
The stories convey something else important, Breitbart said. "Don't forget that this did not start in some backwards, Third World country. It was a country technologically advanced in so many ways and responsible for some of the best forces in civilization including Bach and Beethoven. That it happened in one of the most modern countries in the world is a warning anything can happen and it can happen anywhere. Perhaps the liberties we have are not to be taken for granted."
Kristallnacht is particularly dramatic, amid all the violence of the Holocaust, Wenger said. The Nazis "struck out at all the visible signs they could find of Jewish accomplishment, both material and historical. It galvanized our community and remains a symbol of everything the Holocaust became.
"That kind of direct attack at the symbols of a culture's accomplishment is something we have to watch for."
It is also not, he noted, an isolated moment in world history.
Ignoring bigotry because it doesn't target you is a big mistake, Breitbart said. "Haters are generally equal opportunity bigots."
Lesser, who lives in Las Vegas, believes hatred in all forms needs to be confronted. "We have to keep the world from acquiring amnesia — or it will happen again and again. It all started with hate and propaganda. Bystanders did nothing. It starts as young as school age as bullying. This is where it begins. When you bully, you make an enemy for life. Why not help, why not love instead of hate. If you see someone being bullied, do something about it."
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