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February 24, 2023, auschwitz stories told by those who lived them, the director of the auschwitz-birkenau state museum in poland has collected hundreds of survivor testimonials, told with a rawness that no outsider could.

By Andrea Pitzer

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A photo of the entry gates into the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

The gate into the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII Nazi-occupied Poland. Translated, the words say "Work sets you free." Frederick Wallace via Unsplash

Hstorian Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland

Piotr Cywiński

“ Auschwitz: A Monograph on the Human ,” a 2022 book by Piotr Cywiński, tries to address that abyss. He does so not by working his way along the boundaries around Auschwitz — the dates and architecture of genocide that swallowed more than a million people , the overwhelming majority of them Jewish — but instead dives into the emptiness itself, gathering details from hundreds of memoirs and official testimonies, along with trial minutes and questionnaires. Chronology doesn’t serve as the organizing principle; instead, the book is divided into themes of human emotion and experience, such as “Decency,” “Hierarchy,” and “Fear” that emerged from looking at the survivors’ accounts as a whole.

Cywiński is a historian and has been the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland for more than 16 years. His polyphonic approach of bringing in hundreds of voices to tell one overarching story struck me as an answer to the question of how to write about something as vast as incomprehensible as Auschwitz.

This focus made me think of Pulitzer winner Katherine Boo who, in talking about her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” balked at the idea of the journalistic impulse to make an individual a symbol of a place or an event. In a 2012 interview Poynter.org, she warned of the    dangers of using one person’s story to represent a bigger concept:

“Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people. Making them representative loses sight of that.”

Cywiński’s Auschwitz monograph illustrates this idea elegantly, gathering related observations with care then ceding nearly all his book to camp prisoners themselves, letting their archival testimonies converse with one another, with minimal interpretation and explanation.

Last December, more than 80 years after Nazis first sent prisoners to the small town of Oświęcim in Poland, Cywiński sat for a public interview with me at the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York. We spoke about why some stories went untold for decades, why understanding life at Auschwitz remains almost impossible and why it’s important to include a multitude of perspectives to even begin to glimpse the real story of Auschwitz.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity:

The train tracks that led to the ovens at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

Train tracks that lead from the entry to the Birkenau concentration camp to the gas chambers. Birkenauwas an extension of the Auschwitz camp in WWII Nazi-occupied Poland. Andrea Pitzer

Y ou mention several times in the book the experience of prisoners entering a different world on arrival at Auschwitz. This is extremely important, and I think that this was maybe the main reason why so many survivors started to speak about Auschwitz so late. And still, 95 percent of survivors didn’t speak, didn’t give testimonials, didn’t write any memoirs. I think that they were afraid that using words from our normal world would never give the sense of the reality of the camp.

When I’m hungry, it doesn’t mean the same as when you are hungry in the camp. It’s completely different, and it’s like this with many other emotions, because they are at an extreme that we can’t imagine in our world. You’re put in a situation when the most important factors, like space and time, are completely different. You don’t know how long you will survive.  When you’re speaking about hope, it means some plans for the future, but in the camp it means to survive for the next five or ten minutes. And at every moment, somebody is dying around you. That means you will also die, perhaps in a few minutes or in one hour. It’s a completely different kind of time than we experience in normal life.

At the beginning, I was thinking that I would speak about death at the end of the book. This was an error. In Auschwitz death did not happen at the end; it was present at all times and everywhere.

One of the essays in the collection is on death. There’s a quote from a survivor: “not only is life and human dignity violated here but human death counts for nothing.” For us, death is so tragic. It’s a big mystery. We will arrive all of us at one moment to face our death, but it’s something that we consider with a religious or para-religious approach, with a philosophical approach, even if we if we don’t want to organize our lives according to this destination.

In the camp death was everywhere and could arrive at every moment. Maybe the only thing that they were sure of was death. It’s also completely different when it’s an inverse point to our way of thinking about death. If I ask what you’re sure about in the immediate future, you would tell me about how you will go back home and get dinner or do something with your family. But nobody would be thinking about death as something that we can be sure of happening in the present moment.

One quote from another testimony says: “Among the Auschwitz prisoners who wrote their memoirs none of them claims the camp ennobled people.” Yet it’s woven into a lot of fabric of society before and after Auschwitz that suffering brings a kind of nobility, that there is something inherent in suffering that makes us pure or better. I think it’s important that is not what’s reflected in most of these testimonies. Yes, this perspective is present in very few testimonies. What we consider as a moral system in our society was completely different when it was recreated inside the camp. I think it was also a factor in the incapacity to speak about Auschwitz for many survivors because they begin to justify themselves, and they don’t want to justify themselves. They knew that their choices inside the camp — daily choices, I do not speak about dramatic choices — the daily choices were how to survive, to have one or two or three or days more to stay alive.

The position where you stand at the queue in order to have your soup: If you go at the starting point of the distribution of the soup, you will receive only water; if you go at the end, you’ll be beaten by some very well-positioned prisoners, some kapo or some people from the blocks, because they know that at the end, there will be some potatoes. So you have to find your own position, not too quickly and not too late. But that means you will take this place from some other prisoner. And with every choice you made, that means somebody else did not get this choice.

You also address the Sonderkommando — these people who were drafted into being active participants in the murder of other prisoners at Auschwitz. It’s perhaps the most tragic history in the camp, the story of the Sonderkommando . They were in general young men taken from different transports and put to work around the gas chambers and the crematoria. They had to burn corpses, to make all this machinery function. A clear majority were Jews, and many of them were coming from Jewish Orthodox families, and cremation of course was something they couldn’t have imagined. For decades after the war, they were considered maybe not as perpetrators but as collaborators of perpetrators, except two or three, like Shlomo Venezia or Filip Müller . Many of them stayed silent for years.

We are all very proud of our culture, our education and our sense of values. We feel really prepared to confront difficulties. Those people also, certainly they were thinking like this. But a few days were enough to change a person arriving from a normal world to a person completely acting according to the camp rules, thinking in a different way, approaching other humans in a different way, considering himself as a completely different person.

Another example of a theme that we in our world might think of quite differently than the voices we hear in the book is this idea of sacrifice. I want to speak specifically about Father Kolbe , because many people have heard about this story, and he was canonized later for switching places with a condemned person. Here’s what one of the survivors said about him: “I must stress that what impressed us was not that he gave up his life for someone else, for life wasn’t worth much in the camp. We were impressed that in front of so many SS men and prisoner functionaries, he had broken discipline and dared to step out of rank.” It’s quite different than what we might think. I heard many words like this. “If you give your life for another, that does not mean you give your life. You give your last few days or a few weeks, it’s not something exceptional. But breaking the rules, it is something, yes.”

And there were, of course, different levels of sacrifice. You can share, for example, your bread. So you have some bread. Your kid or your friend for some reason has no more bread, and maybe he’s in deeper need. You can give him the half of your bread; it seems nothing. But what was the remark of the prisoners?  “Oh, look at him he’s starting to share his bread. He has no will to survive. He will be finished very quickly.” It’s not like a sacrifice, it’s like suicide. This is why I am speaking about an entire axiology that is completely different in the camp than in our perception.

A prisoners' room at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

A prisoners' room at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Auschwitz memorial, Poland.

You note that some of those people wo were most deeply tied into their communities actually were a tremendous disadvantage in the camp. Those who had the easiest time adapting to the camp were people coming from very low socioeconomic levels from big cities, people who had very hard childhoods with many problems in their lives. They’ve got ideas on how to adapt to those difficulties.

But at the opposite end, you get for example people from the countryside, normal people without any education, unable to understand or to speak German, unable to imagine a different world than their own, living all the time in cyclical time according to the seasons. They found themselves in the camp and were completely unable to adapt. In general they did not leave testimonies after the war, because if you finish two grades in the schools or even not two, you are unable to write your testimony.

But many other prisoners themselves tried to enter in contact with them and describe them, and this was something incredible. Many times you think it’s those people coming from very traditional settings with centuries of culture and systems of ethics who will be the strongest in a difficult time. Not really. Not really.

One of the things the general public forgets today about the enormity of the death camps and the Holocaust was that it took many years to frame even the basic understanding that we have today of what happened. It was not understood in the immediate postwar time, so survivors didn’t have that space to speak, because what they experienced was in some ways quite different than what was first said about what had happened in the camps. The situation of somebody captured in 1940 in Warsaw because he prepared some anti-Nazi, anti-German action, as a scout or something like this, was completely different than somebody who was taken from their house for nothing. The latter was unable to know why he was in this camp. It was difficult to create a definite narrative after the war if you were taken for no reason from your house or from the street and sent to the camp. If somebody was involved in some unusual actions, it was different. He was able afterward to say, “Yes I suffered a lot. It was inhuman, but I was fighting against something.”

This psychological difference was huge in the postwar narratives.

A question from the audience, from a woman whose father spent years in Auschwitz, asks about the difference between the reception of Christian and Jewish narratives. In Poland, especially after 1968, the camp narrative was more organized by Christian prisoners. In the Western world it was more organized by Jewish survivors. It was a very clear difference between the two narratives.

I remember in the ’90s when Communism ended, it became possible to travel to Poland to visit Auschwitz. The two communities of remembrance met in the same place and did not recognize each other. It was like they were speaking about some completely different history. There were different symbols, words, approaches. It created tensions, it created emotions.

It took time, even a whole generation — up until 2010 or later — for those different worlds not only to accept each other but to understand that, yes, they’re all attached to the same story, to the same place. It was very, very difficult.

And at the same time, in the late ’90s, some new history arrived. The genocide of the Roma and Sinti — so-called gypsies — was discovered by the larger public. Then Russia started to speak about the Soviet prisoners of war who were put in Auschwitz.

I think we are headed in a good direction. We are learning to understand each other and all these stories.

Andrea Pitzer is the author of three books of narrative nonfiction that explore untold histories. She was the editor of Nieman Storyboard from 2009-2012.

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Read these searing quotes from an Auschwitz survivor's essay on life in the camp

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A still from a Soviet film documenting the liberation of Auschwitz.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day — a day on which it's worth taking some time to actually understand what happened during the Nazi slaughter. One of the best ways to do that is to revisit the writing of Primo Levi,  a Jewish-Italian Auschwitz survivor and one of the camp's greatest and most insightful literary documentarians.

Of Levi's work, his essay "The Gray Zone" — from The Drowned and the Saved , his final book before his 1987 suicide — really stands out. It's remarkable both for its unforgettable depiction of the routine brutality of life in Auschwitz and for its penetrating psychological analysis of the camp's inner workings. Here are nine of the most insightful, terrifying, and powerful quotes from Levi's essay — ones that best exemplify the core of the piece.

1) Here's how Levi describes the experience of entering the camp:

Kicks and punches right away, often in the face; an orgy of orders screamed with true and simulated rage; complete nakedness after being stripped; the shaving off of all one's hair; the outfitting in rags.

2) For Levi, this spoke to an underlying purpose of the camps:

Remember that the concentration camp system even from its origins (which coincide with the rise to power of Nazism in Germany), had as its primary purpose shattering the adversaries' capacity to resist: for the camp management, the new arrival was by definition an adversary, whatever the label attached to him might be, and he must immediately be demolished to make sure that he did not become an example or a germ of organized resistance.

3) The camps didn't just break prisoners' will in order to prevent rebellion. They did so, Levi believes, as yet another form of cruel punishment for the crime of existing:

It is naïve, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims: On the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself, and this all the more when they are available, blank, and lacking a political and moral armature.

4) No group better exemplified the way camps degraded their victims than the Sonderkommando (Special Squad). These overwhelmingly Jewish prisoners were given enough to eat for some time, but their task was horrible:

With the duly vague definition, "Special Squad," the SS referred to the group of prisoners entrusted with running the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who were to be sent into the gas chambers, to extract the corpses from the chambers, to pull gold teeth from jaws, to cut women's hair, to sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the content of the luggage, to transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the operation of the ovens, to extract and eliminate the ashes. The Special Squad in Auschwitz numbered, depending on the moment, from seven hundred to one thousand active members. These Special Squads did not escape everyone else's fate. On the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling. Twelve squads succeeded each other for a few months, whereupon it was suppressed, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance. As its initiation, the next squad burnt the corpses of its predecessors.

auschwitz glasses

Eyeglasses, clothing, footwear and other personal effects taken from the prisoners before they were taken to the gas chamber, were found after the liberation piled up in the six remaining warehouses at the camp. ( United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , courtesy of Philip Vock)

5) Why assign Jews these tasks? For Levi, the answers have to do with the design of the camps itself.

Conceiving and organizing the squads was National Socialism's most demonic crime. Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on other others the most atrocious tasks)...the institution represented an attempt to shift onto others — specifically, the victims — the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence.

6) Levi recalls a soccer game between the Special Squad and their SS guards:

Nothing of this kind ever took place, nor would it have been conceivable, with other categories of prisoners; but with them, with the "crematorium ravens," the SS could enter the field on an equal footing, or almost. Behind this armistice one hears satanic laughter: it is consummated, we have succeeded, you no longer are the other race, the anti-race, the prime enemy of the millennial Reich; you are no longer the people who reject idols. We have embraced you, corrupted you, dragged you to the bottom with us. You are like us, you proud people: dirtied with your own blood, as we are. You too, like us and like Cain, have killed the brother. Come, we can play together.

7) Levi's intent is not to place the camp's inmates and guards on the same moral plane, or even to judge the Special Squad members thrown into an awful situation:

I do not know, and it does not much interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed, not only in Germany, and still exist, retired or on active duty, and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators or truth.

holocaust survivor essay

"Survivor," a portrait of Primo Levi by Jewish artist Larry Rivers. The painting superimposes the image of another survivor on Levi's forehead. (Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

8) Instead, Levi is attempting to explain how systems of domination corrupt even their victims — and to remind people to challenge them:

The ascent of the privileged, not only in the Lager but in all human coexistence, is an anguishing but unfailing phenomenon: only in utopias is it absent. It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end. Where power is exercised by few or only one against the many, privilege is born and proliferates, even against the will of the power itself.

9) The essay concludes with a stark reminder that while Nazism has been defeated, the psychological forces that enabled its rise are universal :

We too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all inside the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and close by the train is waiting.

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A family helped a Holocaust survivor escape death. Then they became his real family

Emma Bowman, photographed for NPR, 27 July 2019, in Washington DC.

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holocaust survivor essay

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, both Holocaust survivors, married over a decade after Ruth's mother saved him from a massacre, Philip said. The Lazowski family. hide caption

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, both Holocaust survivors, married over a decade after Ruth's mother saved him from a massacre, Philip said.

When Nazis invaded the Polish town of Bielica, Philip Lazowski and his family were among the Jewish residents who were sent to the Zhetel ghetto during Word War II.

One April morning in 1942, the Lazowski family caught wind that the Nazis were killing Jews in the ghetto, in what is now Belarus, and decided to go into hiding. Philip, then just 11 years old, helped his parents and siblings take shelter in a hideout they'd built in their apartment. He closed off the hiding spot so it wouldn't be discovered, telling his family he would find another place to hide.

But before he could, a German soldier spotted him.

Philip was then taken to the Zhetel marketplace, where German soldiers split people into two groups — those who could work and those who could not. As Nazis conducted the selection, Philip noticed that the killing squad members were sparing families with adults who had work papers.

About 1,000 Jews were killed in the massacre that day.

'We Were Lucky': Kids Of Holocaust Survivors Learned Their Parents' Life Philosophy

'We Were Lucky': Kids Of Holocaust Survivors Learned Their Parents' Life Philosophy

'Into The Forest' Tells Story Of One Family's Escape From Nazi-Created Zhetel Ghetto

Book Reviews

'into the forest' tells story of one family's escape from nazi-created zhetel ghetto.

Philip, now a 91-year-old rabbi, came to StoryCorps with his wife, Ruth, last month to remember how quick thinking and a woman's kindness in that moment had saved his life.

Searching the crowds frantically, the young Philip saw a woman with the documentation in hand, a nurse who stood with her two girls.

"I went over to her and I asked her, 'Would you be kind enough to take me as your son?' " Philip recalled. "She said, 'If they let me live with two children, maybe they'll let me live with three. Hold on to my dress,' " as he tells it.

That woman, Miriam Rabinowitz, was the mother of his future wife, Ruth.

holocaust survivor essay

Philip and Ruth Lazowski are pictured on their wedding day in 1955. The Lazowski family hide caption

Philip and Ruth Lazowski are pictured on their wedding day in 1955.

Years later, after Philip immigrated to the U.S., a strange happenstance would miraculously reconnect him with Ruth. Author Rebecca Frankel detailed their story in the book, Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival.

While attending a wedding, Philip struck up a conversation with a woman seated next to him.

"Sitting at the table I said, 'I come from the town of Bielica,' " he said. "She says, 'You know, a girlfriend told me a story, they saved a boy from Bielica. And we don't know if he's alive.' "

That's when Philip realized he was that boy. He then got in touch with Miriam and visited her and the rest of the family. In 1955, Philip and Ruth married.

"Your mother saved my life," Philip told Ruth, 86, at Storycorps. "That's how our family began."

The Lazowskis now have three children and seven grandchildren.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jo Corona.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

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The Holocaust

By: History.com Editors

Updated: April 11, 2023 | Original: October 14, 2009

Watch towers surrounded by high voltage fences at Auschwitz II-Birkenau which was built in March 1942. The camp was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945.

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of millions of European Jews, Romani people, the intellectually disabled, political dissidents and homosexuals by the German Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. The word “holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar.

After years of Nazi rule in Germany, dictator Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution”—now known as the Holocaust—came to fruition during World War II, with mass killing centers in concentration camps. About six million Jews and some five million others, targeted for racial, political, ideological and behavioral reasons, died in the Holocaust—more than one million of those who perished were children.

Historical Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler . Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust—even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine .

The Enlightenment , during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious tolerance, and in the 19th century Napoleon Bonaparte and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.

Did you know? Even in the early 21st century, the legacy of the Holocaust endures. Swiss government and banking institutions have in recent years acknowledged their complicity with the Nazis and established funds to aid Holocaust survivors and other victims of human rights abuses, genocide or other catastrophes.

Hitler's Rise to Power

The roots of Adolf Hitler’s particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitism are unclear. Born in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I . Like many anti-Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in 1918.

Soon after World War I ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers’ Party, which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), known to English speakers as the Nazis. While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote the memoir and propaganda tract “ Mein Kampf ” (or “my struggle”), in which he predicted a general European war that would result in “the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany.”

Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power.

On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler anointed himself Fuhrer , becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.

Concentration Camps

The twin goals of racial purity and territorial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy.

At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.

Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler , head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS) and later chief of the German police.

By July 1933, German concentration camps ( Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength and unity.

In 1933, Jews in Germany numbered around 525,000—just one percent of the total German population. During the next six years, Nazis undertook an “Aryanization” of Germany, dismissing non-Aryans from civil service, liquidating Jewish-owned businesses and stripping Jewish lawyers and doctors of their clients. 

Nuremberg Laws

Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew, while those with two Jewish grandparents were designated Mischlinge (half-breeds).

Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht , or the “Night of Broken Glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish home and shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested.

From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.

holocaust survivor essay

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Euthanasia Program

In September 1939, Germany invaded the western half of Poland , starting World War II . German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles.

Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation and poor sanitation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.

Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or physical disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program.

After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.


'Final Solution'

Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Romani people, were transported to Polish ghettoes.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units of Himmler’s SS called Einsatzgruppen would murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.

A memorandum dated July 31, 1941, from Hitler’s top commander Hermann Goering to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD (the security service of the SS), referred to the need for an Endlösung ( Final Solution ) to “the Jewish question.”

Liberation of Auschwitz: Photos

Yellow Stars

Beginning in September 1941, every person designated as a Jew in German-held territory was marked with a yellow, six-pointed star, making them open targets. Tens of thousands were soon being deported to the Polish ghettoes and German-occupied cities in the USSR.

Since June 1941, experiments with mass killing methods had been ongoing at the concentration camp of Auschwitz , near Krakow, Poland. That August, 500 officials gassed 500 Soviet POWs to death with the pesticide Zyklon-B. The SS soon placed a huge order for the gas with a German pest-control firm, an ominous indicator of the coming Holocaust.

Holocaust Death Camps

Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young.

The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz.

From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Amid the deportations, disease and constant hunger, incarcerated people in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up in armed revolt.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from April 19-May 16, 1943, ended in the death of 7,000 Jews, with 50,000 survivors sent to extermination camps. But the resistance fighters had held off the Nazis for almost a month, and their revolt inspired revolts at camps and ghettos across German-occupied Europe.

Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of the camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter.

This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also partly a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.

'Angel of Death'

At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease.

In 1943, eugenics advocate Josef Mengele arrived in Auschwitz to begin his infamous experiments on Jewish prisoners. His special area of focus was conducting medical experiments on twins , injecting them with everything from petrol to chloroform under the guise of giving them medical treatment. His actions earned him the nickname “the Angel of Death.”

Nazi Rule Ends

By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power.

In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”—the Jews.

The following day, Hitler died by suicide . Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.

German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people.

In his classic book Survival in Auschwitz , the Italian-Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops liberated the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”

Legacy of the Holocaust

The wounds of the Holocaust—known in Hebrew as “Shoah,” or catastrophe—were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their entire family and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.

In an effort to punish the villains of the Holocaust, the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46, which brought Nazi atrocities to horrifying light. Increasing pressure on the Allied powers to create a homeland for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust would lead to a mandate for the creation of Israel in 1948.

Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years.

Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.

The Holocaust. The National WWII Museum . What Was The Holocaust? Imperial War Museums . Introduction to the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum . Holocaust Remembrance. Council of Europe . Outreach Programme on the Holocaust. United Nations .

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Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust

University of Illinois Medical Center Chicago

This article is only available in the PDF format. Download the PDF to view the article, as well as its associated figures and tables.

This book delineates the social setting and the process of organizing the extermination of millions according to National Socialist philosophy. As Hamburg notes in his foreword, the "level of sophistication in modern organization and technology" that the Germans brought to this work was unique—railway schedules, euphemisms for murder, classifications of Gypsies, Jews, Poles, and political prisoners, the architectural design and chemistry of mass murder. Also detailed are the use of inmates as cards for political negotiation and the resistance of some Italian Fascists and German clergymen.

There is a section on the victims, telling how survivors coped in the camps and afterwards, and about the psychotherapy of survivors and what happens to their children. A general model of stress and coping under extreme conditions is developed by Benner, Roskies, and Lazarus.

A final section deals with the perpetrators. There are diaries and autobiographical material from guards and prominent Nazis, as

Bernstein NR. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust. JAMA. 1982;247(22):3138. doi:10.1001/jama.1982.03320470078043

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Poetry, Essays, & Short Stories by Children of Survivors

This section is devoted to.

Poetry, Essays, & Short Stories by Children of Survivors and Our Parents.

From Maxine Shoshanna Persaud, Toronto, Canada:

Many years ago I wrote the following words into my diary on a night when my parents were having a particularly hard time coping with life. Life, not as we see it , but as seen through the eyes of Holocaust survivors. I could not comfort them that night and so I wrote this in the hope that I could absorb some of their pain, so that they might live again, not merely exist. I wanted to communicate what they could not. Since then, I have learned that words, even the words of the survivors themselves, pale when compared to the atrocities committed against them by the Nazis.

That time so long ago and yet, so near They gassed the beaten then, melted them Like the hot wax of a shabbos candle The blood stained ball of each rising sun, and I, formed only by G-d’s will not word, living only on the dreams of the two that would conceive me, cried out in anguish, lamented, in my invisible, outraged soul. For those whose earthly screams, were forever silenced, In a world where few can still hear their tortured echoes. Crimes against humanity never die, only the victims. And we all suffer the legacy. ——————————–

The following three poems are from Izzy Nelken:

Yom HaSho’a 1996

By izzy nelken.

Y om HaSho’a in Israel I remember it so well Going back twenty two years Re-living some of my worst fears We had to turn the TV off So my mom wouldn’t be reminded of…

Of what was she not supposed to be reminded? What was the secret that was so well guarded? My parents were with me at home but where were mom’s parents? how come she was alone? There were stories of a horrible train which mom told with a great deal of pain I knew that her parents came to a terrible fate That had something to do with bigotry and hate

As a kid I learned not to ask which was not always an easy task Until this very day, I’m missing details there are only a few, very sketchy tales

So I would go on to school dressed up like a fool In Khaki shorts and a white shirt which had so much starch that it actually hurt US kids took turns standing by a Yahrzeit candle each one for a little while back then, in Israel, that was the style I tried my best to look sad as I stood by the candle But my friends would tell jokes that were too funny to handle So I would start to smile but just for a while Pretty soon my shift was done and now it was time to really have some fun Some other kid took my place he stood by the candle and made a serious face So I tried to make him laugh by saying all sorts of funny stuff

Looking at all of this now I am beginning to see how The Nazis tried to destroy the flame and the spark and they almost managed to make it totally dark But somehow our parents managed to survive and they made it to the free world alive We were all kids of the second generation and our parents brought us to the Israeli nation I went to a Hebrew school with a Jewish “in crowd” And of that, we can all feel very proud Standing by a candle so many years later I feel the tears which were masked by laughter ============

Trying to grasp Elie Wiesel’s “Night” It’s an internal fight I read two pages, leave and come back imagine the gallows around someone’s neck

Elie’s father was well respected it didn’t help him when he was “selected” whatever they had was taken away and there was nothing you could do or say

My grandfather had a lot of clout but our entire family was wiped out he had a factory and property and bank accounts today, I am filled with doubts: a man works all his life to collect then, one day it is taken, so what’s the effect?

“Men to the left, women to the right” mother and sister are soon out of sight this happened to our parents but could have been us and yesterday, we made such a fuss should we eat Italian or Chinese? they survived on snow, so please…

sitting in Chicago, my belly is full they weren’t so lucky, under Nazi rule

you stand in a group of five barely alive and try to survive

A few days after Elie’s operation the Nazis announce an evacuation should they leave or should they stay? what’s the right answer, who can say? they must decide there is no place to hide

The other day I went for a run on the Lakeshore, under the sun with a Walkman and a bottle of Evian what can I say, it was a lot of fun But can you imagine running all night the SS guard has you in his sight the machine gun is fired if you get tired

Elie slept just above his dad the Nazi hit him on the head and the next day, he was dead

This is very real and also un-imaginable there’s a lesson here but it’s so intangible

What’s important in life? my family and my wife education, career and financial success who are we trying to impress?

But in times of extreme strife an extra blanket may save your life all you want is soup and bread and a place to rest your head

We live very good here and it won’t disappear This I try to believe so I can live a normal life with my wife =============

The ghosts of Auchwitz are chasing me again just like they did when I was ten I sat with in the kitchen with my mom trying to speak, I was quite dumb

Tried to listen to what she had to say wished it was just another regular day and now its midnight and I am drunk smoked a cigar and smell like a skunk what is the meaning of life, I try to figure with the skills of a mathematician and all its rigor

Menke Kalisch, Kopel Reich those are important figures in my psych I can feel them fight with all their might “Torah is important, everything else is fake” No! More dough you got to make

Mom would wake up every morning and sort of go into mourning Where is her family and Galanta, she tried to shout Do you know what this is about?

Lisa lies next to me. so innocent never had to deal with anything indecent wish I could be like her and think that life is fair But I think of my uncle, whom I never met but can’t seem to be able to forget and both of my grandparents and their families rolling in their grave whom no one wanted to save


From Jackie Ruben:

I am a psychology graduate student. My grandmother is Hungarian and, although she left Hungary right before the war, she lost many relatives including her parents and two siblings. I wrote the following personal essay at the beginning of this year. Would you pleasepost it in the Cybrary?

Jackie Ruben—-

In My Grandmother’s Kitchen

By jackie ruben.

What do we talk about, as my grandma chops the onions, the green peppers, the tomatoes, and starts to saute them at low heat?…. I have a mental picture of my beautiful grandmother, ever vigilant, making sure that the onions are translucent enough, yet not burnt. Everything’s all right….

“Mami, where are your parents?”

Something changes…Can my little child memories crystallize?

“They’re dead….,”a whisper,”…. they were killed….”

She sets her wooden spoon down and stares out the window, her left hand touching her cheek and covering her mouth, as I’ve often seen her do since that first memory, so many years ago.

“Were they killed with a sword?”

No answer… What’s happened here? I’ve never seen my grandmother cry… herbright green-grey eyes become water as I approach her, wandering, fearing whatever it is, what the shadow, the terrible thing is…

And she hugs me and whispers in my ear, “No, my ‘muggetcita,’ my little flower, no…”

Later that day, my mother would explain that my grandmother’s parents, her sister Irenke, her brother Gyula, his wife Etush, their children and many more family members, had been “gassed,” whatever that meant, at a place called Auschwitz. I learned the meaning of that name way before I could spell…I also learned soon enough not to ask my grandmother about her family too often. She didn’t even talk with my mom and my aunt about those things. Although I was curious, I didn’t want my Mami to cry. Words floated in low, somber tones, though, and I heard them all…”Nazis…SS…Zyklon B…concentration camps….” And I remembered.

Holocaust… The word that symbolized my family’s taboo subject.To me, it is a word that encompasses it all, yet will never be enough. It is a word that has followed me throughout my life. It is also the wound of my heart that will never heal.It is, in short, my family legacy–one that, I have sworn to myself, I will pass down to the generations–the most important lesson to teach my kids.

The meaning of the word “Holocaust” embodies, more than anything, the biggest lesson, the most important present that my grandmother has given me. She has taught me, through her pain, that we must never forget. Sixty years have not eased the crack in her soul.When my grandmother thinks of her Hungarian family, she is my age again, timeless, finding out again and again and again that she will NEVER see her family again.

And I have turned my twenty-three years of learning on her. We went to Hungary last year, she and I, as well as my parents. For her, it was the first time she would return in close to sixty years.

We went to Mezocsat, the town of her youth. We found the Jewish Cemetery and there, amidst the overgrown weeds and fallen tombstones, we saw the wall with the names of the town’s Jews that had been taken. There are no tombs to visit… there are only names and ages on a wall, unchanging, like the faces on the photographs…

For the first time in my life, my dead family materialized… I saw then, that those names had belonged to REAL people. I felt their presence, our link… people who were not just my grandma’s family who had been murdered in the Holocaust, but MINE as well.

My family too had been murdered.

And although we had not tombstones, you see, we did put a little stone at the wall, for each of the “Schwarcz” listed and for the rest of the Mezocsat Jews, whose memories only survive as names on these hard, cold walls, and as memories in those old folks who knew them and those young folks who, like me, refuse to forget.

When I went back home to visit during the winter break, the few photos left of my family became oh-so-precious.I laser-copied them.

Irenke, my grandmother’s sister, you and I were born on the same date… I have your Yiddish name, Bluma… and, like you, I like to cook…

“Oh sons of Irenke,” I wrote in my photo album,” Oh, children of Gyula, where are your sweet little faces? Sweet Irenke and Etush, you’re frozen in time forever. Beautiful Jewish women. Innocent Jewish women. Where’s Hermina, my mother’s “Mami,”-your body wasn’t allowed to follow its natural course neither in life nor in death. Your spirits surround me, your eyes haunt me. I look at your hands in these old photos but can’t reach across death and time to touch them… I can see them becoming ashes… WHY?”

“Irenke, you haunt me, sister, grand-aunt…Twin: we were born years apart, yet on the same date. Who were you? What were your dreams? Beautiful photos don’t reveal the horror. Bluma, I didn’t know you but you won’t be forgotten. You weren’t given a chance to have your own children, my cousins too have been murdered. I give you my descendants. They’ll remember you, though it isn’t the same, is it?….Would you have taught your little ones how to make “kalacs” and recite the “Sh’ma” like my “Mami”-your “Margitka” taught me? We’ll never know….”

There are six empty pages in my photo album that will never be filled with the photos never taken of my murdered family’s descendants.

There are six million empty album pages that will never be filled.

From Jessica Hollander: I wrote this poem when I was in my first year of high school, at age 14. I submitted it in a poetry writing contest in southern California and won first place for it. there was a special ceremony and Mel Mermelstein was present to give my award. Here it goes….

There Lies Hope

By jessica hollander.

With one great swipe of his unmerciful hand, He led us destruction. With one great tear streaming from my eye, I send myself back in time to those painful years. A time when the world was ablaze with a burning hatred. A hatred so threatening and vicious, Against a humble people so full of innocence. Why?

I question myself, gazing above into the clear blue sky. Expecting an answer, but no answer comes. With each fresh tear, I struggle with my burden Until one night in my dream The answer is revealed.

I received the following poem from From Diane Schmolka:

In All Those Camps For every particle of dust there was a name Not only when the sunlight reveals their properties floating in air that it is a phase through which they energize It is in the pulse of non-perceived awareness that their power utters every word in the primeval language once spoken in time. There are those I love dearly who do not believe there is any gift created by suffering loss. It is only when they are ready to let their arms brush against minute mouldered remains settled on cot posts, door jambs hospital beds and barbed-wire fences; when they journey to places wherein loved ones embrace them they can know joy from severed attachment I have watched them in their sleep When they dream, I believe tortured relatives sprinkle symbolice speech in pantomimes denied any sense in mornings Like ash, feelings well up from any past time as dead loved ones create moments the way a cat quietly arrives on what you’re reading to claim you for their own. I know when I awake on nights wherein I see no moon that stars will always shine from bones pulverized in all those camps I know now I can sing Kaddish only when charoset has once stuck in my throat. by Diane Schmolka. first published in “The Ottawa Unitarian” Summer,1995

Poetry, Essays, & Short Stories by Children of Survivors

If you have art, poetry, short stories, plays, etc. by survivors in your family or inspired by the fact that you are a child of a holocaust survivor, please contact remember.org.

holocaust history at remember.org

Remember. Zachor. Sich erinnern.

Remember.org helps people find the best digital resources, connecting them through a collaborative learning structure since 1994. If you'd like to share your story on Remember.org, all we ask is that you give permission to students and teachers to use the materials in a non-commercial setting. Founded April 25, 1995 as a "Cybrary of the Holocaust". Content created by Community. THANKS FOR THE SUPPORT . History Channel ABC PBS CNET One World Live New York Times Apple Adobe Copyright 1995-2024 Remember.org. All Rights Reserved. Publisher: Dunn Simply

APA Citation

Dunn, M. D. (Ed.). (95, April 25). Remember.org - The Holocaust History - A People's and Survivors' History. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from remember.org

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Pik, Aron Diary 1941

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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Holocaust diaries.

Jewish diaries offer unique, personal accounts of the Holocaust. Motivated to record their experiences for a variety of reasons, these authors all had different identities, national traditions, education levels, faiths, politics, and ages. The sources collected here reflect this diversity and show the value of diaries for the study of the Holocaust.

Jewish diaries were not always recognized as critical sources for the study of the Holocaust . Due to an early focus on perpetrators and official documents when the field of Holocaust studies first began, researchers tended to dismiss Jewish diaries as subjective and unreliable. 1  But in recent decades, many scholars have shown how these concerns about personal diaries can be used to add valuable details to official accounts of events. The sources featured in this collection add personal details from a wide range of different Jewish experiences of the Holocaust. 2

Many different types of personal records that Jewish people kept under Nazi persecution can be considered to be forms of Holocaust diaries. Soon after the end of World War II , people's ideas of Holocaust diaries were shaped by the publication of Anne Frank’s diary—a personal account of a Jewish girl hiding with her family in occupied Amsterdam . 3 But the sources in this collection show that there are many other kinds of Holocaust diaries. The examples included here demonstrate that first-person writing from the period of the Holocaust takes different forms. 4

All of the authors in this collection were targeted by antisemitic Nazi racial laws for being Jewish. Whether or not they identified as Jewish or framed events in their diaries as Jewish experiences, their lives were threatened because they had been labeled Jewish by others. It is this common experience of persecution that links these very different sources. 5

Individual motivations for writing a diary—and the conditions of writing—varied considerably from case to case. Some authors kept a diary throughout their lives and started writing before the time of the Holocaust. Many others—from children like Peter Feigl to adults like Jechiel Górny —were inspired to write by the traumatic events they experienced. Some authors were driven to write by a desire to bear witness to the injustices and crimes commited against their communities. Other writers like  Moryc Brajtbart  wrote only for themselves with no other readers in mind. It is likely that many people recorded their experiences not only to document their persecution, but also to help work through their personal trauma.

Difficult and often deadly living conditions in camps and ghettos influenced the form these diaries took. During the Holocaust, very few Jewish people were able to note down events as they were happening. In the various camps in which Jews lived and died, writing was forbidden. The demands of work and survival also robbed the prisoners of the energy, time, and materials necessary to document their experiences.

Outside camps and ghettos, writing could still be extremely dangerous. If one was in hiding, anything that could give away a person’s true identity was an unnecessary risk. It took enormous courage and energy for many Jewish people to write. This means that many texts from the Holocaust that we think of as diaries actually represent an array of different writings on a wide range of forms and topics. Many diary writers went through periods in which they were not able to write. When they found the time and energy to do so—often after fleeing a ghetto to hide in a so-called  "Aryan" part of a town or village—what they wrote was more like a memoir in terms of style and narrative. 6

The authors of Holocaust diaries varied widely in terms of their personal biographies, religious traditions, and educations. The authors' motivations for writing were all different as well. The unique primary sources gathered here explore some of the wide variety of Jewish experiences of persecution during the Holocaust—and show how different kinds of Holocaust diaries can add to our understanding of these events.

Raul Hilberg, a founding contributor to the field of Holocaust studies and author of the first comprehensive study of the Holocaust, based his 1,000-page study exclusively on primary sources left by German agencies and institutions, as well as the occasional memoir by a high Nazi official. Hilberg's landmark study was published in 1961. For the authoritative edition, see Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

Many of the sources presented here are also featured in the book series, Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933–1946, published by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The first translation of Anne Frank's diary into English was published in 1952. For a revised critical edition, see Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

For more on Holocaust diaries as a genre of sources in scholarship, see the related online lecture from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

The definition of "Jewishness" in this context—often based on Nazi criteria—has been criticized and debated. See for example the essay by historian Isaac Deutscher, "Who Is a Jew?" in Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1981).

Memoirs are typically written after the events they depict, while diaries are generally written about current events. For an introduction to the many aspects of Jewish diary writing during the Holocaust, see Alexandra Garbarini, Numbered Days: Diaries and the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). 

All 21 Items in the Holocaust Diaries Collection

Rajs, Đura Diary 1941

Diary of Đura Rajs

tags: aging & the elderly belongings children & youth deportations forced labor health & hygiene

type: Diary

Feigl, Peter Diary 1942

Diary of Peter Feigl

tags: belongings children & youth family health & hygiene hope money refugees & immigration religious life

Hilsenrath, Susi Diary 1941

Diary of Susi Hilsenrath

tags: children & youth children's diaries family health & hygiene refugees & immigration religious life

Ornstein, Elisabeth Diary 1939

Diary of Elisabeth Ornstein

tags: belongings children & youth children's diaries family homesickness religious life

Berenholc, Jacques Diary 1942

Diary of Jacques Berenholc

tags: children & youth depression food & hunger friendship health & hygiene refugees & immigration

Pik, Aron Diary 1941

Diary of Aharon Pick

tags: fear & intimidation ghettos health & hygiene humiliation

Górny, Jechiel Diary 1942

Diary of Jechiel Górny

tags: black market deportations forced labor ghettos group violence

Korber, Mirjam Diary 1942

Diary of Mirjam Korber

tags: depression Displaced Persons friendship ghettos health & hygiene homesickness letters & correspondence money

Kohn, Elvira Diary 1943

Diary of Elvira Kohn

tags: food & hunger health & hygiene hope liberation women's experiences

Wijnberg, Saartje Diary 1943

Diary of Saartje Wijnberg

tags: family gender health & hygiene liberation living underground loneliness women's experiences

Anonymous, Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto 1943

Anonymous Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto

tags: children & youth community food & hunger health & hygiene living underground

Burshteyn, Pesakh Deposition 1945

Deposition of Pesakh Burshteyn

tags: aging & the elderly children & youth deportations family fear & intimidation forced labor ghettos

type: Report

Mazia, Herzl Diary 1943

Diary of Herzl Mazia

tags: food & hunger leisure & recreation letters & correspondence

Frieder, Abraham Diary 1942

Diary of Abraham Frieder

tags: bureaucracy community deportations depression fear & intimidation

Guttentag, Adolf Diary 1942

Diary of Adolf Guttentag

tags: aging & the elderly deportations family ghettos health & hygiene suicide Theresienstadt

Brajtbart, Moryc Diary 1943

Diary of Moryc Brajtbart

tags: children & youth deportations depression family homesickness living underground loneliness

Winnykamien, Fryderyk Diary 1944

Memoir of Fryderyk Winnykamień

tags: children & youth family fear & intimidation ghettos hope humiliation living underground

type: Memoir

Kraus, Michal memoir 1947

Diary of Michal Kraus

tags: children & youth family

Memoir of Calel Perechodnik

Memoir of Calel Perechodnik

tags: antisemitism ghettos Judaism law enforcement religious life Zionism

Hauser Diary

Diary of Irene Hauser

tags: children & youth depression family food & hunger gender health & hygiene women's experiences

A featured selection from the diary of Dr. Janusz Korczak describes his efforts to treat sick children in the Warsaw ghetto.

Diary of Janusz Korczak

tags: children & youth deportations depression health & hygiene

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Primary Sources The Holocaust at Gelman Library

  • Kiev Judaica Collection: The I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection has numerous books, pamphlets, and graphic materials related to the Holocaust, including yizkor books. These are memorial books that were published by Holocaust survivors commemorating their destroyed towns and those who died there. Many are in foreign languages, but some have English translations as well and photos/drawings that can be easily interpreted.

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  • Kiev Family Trust Graphic Arts Collection,1493-1969 Has prints, posters, cartoons, postcards and other Judaica, primarily related to antisemitism.
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  • Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust Learn about everyday Jewish life during the Holocaust by engaging with a variety of Jewish sources from the period. Discover and analyze a diary, a letter, a newspaper article, a policy paper by an international Jewish organization, see a photograph, or watch film footage. Produced by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Joel Citron, chair of the USC Shoah Foundation Board of Councilors; USC President Carol Folt; USC Life Trustee Steven Spielberg; and Holocaust survivor Celina Biniaz (from left) attend the presentation of the University Medallion to the survivors who have shared their stories with the foundation. (USC Photo/Sydney Livingston)

University Medallion recognizes Holocaust survivors who entrusted testimonies to USC Shoah Foundation

USC Life Trustee Steven Spielberg created the foundation three decades ago to preserve the stories of genocide survivors.

For nearly five decades, Celina Biniaz didn’t speak about her experiences during the Holocaust — even with her children. As a girl, Biniaz survived the Krakow Ghetto, the Plaszow concentration camp and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp before she and her family were saved by German businessman Oskar Schindler when Biniaz was 13.

But after seeing Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List — which tells the story of how Schindler rescued more than 1,000 Jews from death in concentration camps — Biniaz was inspired to come forward to share her eyewitness account of the Holocaust and experiences as one of the youngest people on that list.

This week, 92-year-old Biniaz linked arms with Spielberg to accept USC’s highest honor, the University Medallion, from USC President Carol Folt on behalf of all the survivors whose testimonies have been preserved by USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg established in 1994.

“I believe the human voice speaks louder than history books,” Biniaz said. “We must always remember the power each individual has to transform the lives of others.”

About 265 faculty, university leaders and supporters of USC Shoah Foundation — including more than 30 Holocaust survivors and their families — gathered on Monday at Town and Gown on the University Park Campus for the historic ceremony.

Holocaust survivors join USC President Carol Folt, Steven Spielberg and other attendees at Town and Gown on Monday. (USC Photo/Sydney Livingston)

Holocaust survivor Celina Biniaz watches the proceedings. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

“Stories are one of our strongest weapons in the fight against antisemitism and racial and religious hatred,” Shoah Foundation creator Steven Spielberg told the audience. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Robert Williams, left, talks with student-athlete Rae-Anne Serville and Holocaust survivor Shaul Ladany, who attended remotely. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

The University Medallion is displayed next to a certificate describing the award. (USC Photo/Sean Dube)

Steven Spielberg and Celina Biniaz share a moment with Joel Citron, chair of the USC Shoah Foundation Board of Councilors. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

The intergenerational event was at turns joyous and pensive as survivors, Shoah Foundation staff and volunteers reflected on 30 years of the foundation’s accomplishments. USC students embraced survivors and posed for cellphone photos with Spielberg, a life trustee of USC. Leslie Goldberg, a cantorial student at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, performed “Ani Ma’amin,” a soaring Hebrew hymn that translates to “I Believe.” One survivor wiped tears from her eyes as another survivor related his story.

“Your testimonies are an irreplaceable record of a dark time in history that the world must never forget,” Folt said, addressing the survivors present at the event and alluding to the Nazi atrocities that killed millions of Jews. “One survivor told me, ‘It’s my duty to speak for 6 million.’ And I say, ‘It’s our duty to ensure your voices are heard by 6 billion.’”

Given only three other times in the university’s history, the gold University Medallion is bestowed upon those who have made a major contribution to society and USC. The previous recipients include Walter Annenberg (1994), Dana and David Dornsife (2011) and Wallis Annenberg (2017).

One survivor told me, ‘It’s my duty to speak for 6 million.’ And I say, ‘It’s our duty to ensure your voices are heard by 6 billion.’ USC President Carol Folt

“The University Medallion is a symbol of USC’s lasting commitment to use these visual and oral histories to educate, enlighten and shape a future without hate,” Folt said.

Using stories as a tool of tolerance

The granting of the University Medallion comes at a time when antisemitism is on the rise globally in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent war in Gaza.

“I am increasingly alarmed that we may be condemned to repeat history — to once again have to fight for the very right to be Jewish,” Spielberg said. “In the face of brutality and persecution, we have always been a resilient and compassionate people who understand the power of empathy to combat fear.

“We can rage against the heinous acts committed by the terrorists of Oct. 7 and also decry the killing of innocent women and children in Gaza,” Spielberg added. “This makes us a unique force for good in the world and is why we are here today to celebrate the work of the Shoah Foundation, which is more crucial now than it was in 1994.”

Spielberg, who is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust, spoke about his own experiences as a target of antisemitism, recounting how he was physically and verbally harassed as one of the only Jewish students in his high school in California. He shared that he was inspired to create the foundation when filming Schindler’s List in Krakow, Poland, after a group of Holocaust survivors visited the set. To date, the institute has recorded more than 56,000 survivor testimonies from 65 countries and in 44 languages.

Spielberg entrusted USC with the stewardship of the foundation and its audiovisual archive in 2006. Since then, USC has invested $50 million in the foundation, providing the necessary infrastructure to ensure the permanence of the collection and its use for education and research purposes.

“It is USC’s mission to preserve and protect these eyewitness accounts in perpetuity,” Folt said. “Awarding the University Medallion is one way that we do it. It will forever be a public display of our commitment to ensuring the testimonies from the survivors will be preserved for generations to come. And it honors individuals whose testimonies are preserved in the Shoah Foundation for bringing light in times of darkness.”

While countering antisemitism lies at the core of USC Shoah Foundation’s mission, Spielberg emphasized that the foundation endeavors to inoculate the world from hatred in all its forms. The foundation’s visual history archive contains testimonies from survivors of other mass-atrocity crimes and genocides, including the Armenian genocide, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and the killing and expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

Shaping tomorrow’s leaders

USC Shoah Foundation’s visual history archive serves as an educational tool for middle and high school students and those enrolled at USC. Last summer, the foundation sponsored the first Stronger Than Hate Leadership Summit , which sent a group of USC student-athletes to Europe to tour the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and experience Jewish culture in Poland.

One of the survivors who participated in the summit was Shaul Ladany, who joined Monday’s medallion ceremony at USC virtually via Zoom from his home in Israel. The 88-year-old Olympic athlete and world-record holding speed-walker, who gave his testimony to USC Shoah Foundation in 2023, is a survivor of both the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Ladany spoke to those at the medallion ceremony about how he was able to survive the Holocaust, emigrate to Israel and become a professional athlete and academic. Afterward, USC fourth-year track and field athlete Rae-Anne Serville, who first met Ladany as part of the Stronger Than Hate summit group, had a poignant question for him.

“How did you find the strength to go through all [your] experiences while still having such a positive outlook?” Serville asked.

“I was born as an optimist,” Ladany replied.

Serville also spoke about the profound impact the trip had on her. Seeing the gas chambers where Jews perished and adjacent towns where Jews’ suffering was ignored drove home the role that bystanders can play in genocide.

“The main takeaway for me is that indifference is just as dangerous as being a perpetrator of hate,” Serville said. “Being indifferent allows hate to continue.”

Visualizing the future

Sponsoring educational trips such as the leadership summit is one way USC Shoah Foundation is evolving.

Robert Williams, the Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, noted that while the foundation is rooted in the model of survivor documentation established by Spielberg 30 years ago, the day when no living Holocaust survivors remain is drawing close.

“Today, we live in a world where there are less than 245,000 Holocaust survivors still with us to share their stories,” Williams said. “And at an average age of 86, I’m sorry to say, the sun is soon setting.”

The foundation is now working to build a collection on antisemitic violence after 1945 that will be used for scholarly pursuits and investigative journalism. It recently launched an initiative to add 10,000 testimonies to its Contemporary Antisemitism collection and has plans for a Countering Antisemitism Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research center. In partnership with schools across USC, the foundation will leverage pioneering technology to tackle online antisemitism.

Today, we live in a world where there are less than 245,000 Holocaust survivors still with us to share their stories. And at an average age of 86, I’m sorry to say, the sun is soon setting. USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Robert Williams

“The fact that we are doing this at a world-class research university, with campuses here in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C., means that we can reach the leaders of tomorrow while engaging with the leaders of today,” Williams said.

As the event concluded, Folt gathered survivors, USC Shoah Foundation staff and the day’s speakers to pose for a group photo on the staircase at the west end of the banquet room. Smiles abounded as each person found their place within the frame and bumped elbows with those standing next to them, demonstrating the web of connections USC Shoah Foundation has fostered during its three decades.

That spirit of connectedness remained even after the room had nearly emptied. Several USC student journalists and survivors lingered, locked in conversation as the survivors shared their stories. As Spielberg had said during his talk, stories are the foundation of history — and they can be unforgettable.

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Helma Goldmark, Holocaust refugee who joined resistance, dies at 98

She fled her native austria and made her way to italy, where as a teen she helped secure supplies for an operation that produced false documents for jewish refugees.

holocaust survivor essay

Helma Goldmark, an Austrian-born Jew, turned 12 in 1938, the year it became evident that she was no longer safe in her homeland.

In March, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in an event known as the Anschluss. In November, during the antisemitic rampaging of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, SS officers abducted her father from his bed at their home in Graz. They took him to the local Jewish cemetery and beat him, knocking all the teeth from his mouth, breaking both his legs and leaving him facedown in a creek, the imprint of their boots still visible on his body. He lay there in agony until a passing milkman carried him home on a horse-drawn cart.

Mrs. Goldmark had lost her mother to cancer before the Anschluss, and her only sibling, a sister 19 years her senior, lived in Italy. With her father — and then alone, after he was taken to a concentration camp and murdered — she set out on a perilous journey that took her to fascist Croatia and Nazi-occupied Rome. As a teenager on her own in the Italian capital, she joined a resistance cell that aided Jews by furnishing them with false documents and ration cards.

Mrs. Goldmark, who moved after World War II to the United States, where she used her prodigious language skills to assist fellow immigrants as a paralegal, died March 15 at an assisted-living center in Bethesda, Md. She was 98. The cause was cerebrovascular disease, said her daughter, Susan Goldmark.

Mrs. Goldmark’s Holocaust survival story was documented in the 2010 book “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” a memoir by her son-in-law, Kai Bird, who is also the co-author of “American Prometheus” (2005), the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

She was born Helma Blühweis in Graz, the second-largest city in Austria, on Feb. 8, 1926. Her father, Alois, who was Jewish, ran a tannery, leather factory and leather store. Her mother, the former Hermine Jassniger, a Catholic who converted to Judaism, was an accomplished pianist.

Helma and her parents lived in an elegant apartment above her father’s store and enjoyed the services of a cook, a housekeeper, a nanny and a chauffeur. They attended religious services only on the High Holy Days and felt entirely integrated into Austrian society, Mrs. Goldmark recalled.

But immediately after the Anschluss, her teacher instructed students that instead of saying good morning at the start of class, they would raise their right hand and make the “Heil Hitler” salute.

“She then turned to me and said that I was not allowed to say ‘Heil Hitler’ and would be barred from attending school starting immediately,” Mrs. Goldmark wrote in an account provided to the Austrian Heritage Collection at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. “That was the last day I attended regular school in Graz.”

Later that year, a member of the Nazi Party claimed ownership of her father’s business, as well as the family home, but permitted Helma and her father to sleep in the kitchen pantry.

Her father resolved to leave Austria but, having been stripped of his livelihood, lacked the funds to cover the exit fee charged by the Nazi regime. He went to the man who had confiscated his home and business and, at gunpoint, signed away all his property in exchange for enough money to cover the cost of leaving, Bird wrote.

In January 1939, Helma and her father left Austria for Yugoslavia, where his brother was publisher of a newspaper in the Croatian city of Zagreb. They made part of the journey by train and part by foot, with Helma’s father, still suffering from the injuries he sustained on Kristallnacht, hobbling on crutches over a snowy no man’s land at the border.

They enjoyed relative safety until April 1941, when the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia and a Nazi puppet government was established in Croatia under Ante Pavelic, leader of the fascist Ustasha regime.

As conditions deteriorated for Jews, Mrs. Goldmark’s father began making plans to flee to Italy and then send for his daughter.

To celebrate her 16th birthday on Feb. 8, 1942, he delayed his departure until the following morning. Two hours before the train left, Bird wrote, the Ustasha arrested him. He was taken to the Jasenovac concentration camp south of Zagreb, where, a survivor later told Mrs. Goldmark, he was bludgeoned to death by Ustasha guards.

Mrs. Goldmark soon left for Italy, where she lived for a period in Bressanone, a town in the German-speaking north, with her sister and brother-in-law, an Italian agricultural inspector who belonged to the fascist party.

Made to feel that her “presence was a burden,” Bird wrote, and warned by her sister that she was in danger of deportation, she left in August 1943. She began traveling south, at times walking alone through the Italian countryside, and arrived in Rome days before the Germans occupied the city that September.

Finding shelter in Catholic convents and with fellow Jewish refugees, she managed to avoid arrest, even amid the infamous roundup of Roman Jews that took place Oct. 16, 1943.

In early 1944, she met a Jewish man who introduced himself as Giuseppe Levi. Noting her blond hair and blue eyes — features that might allow her to “pass” as an Aryan — he recruited her to a resistance operation led by Pierre-Marie Benoit, a French priest who had overseen the printing of thousands of false papers for Jews in France before undertaking similar work in Rome.

“I was stupid enough to say yes,” Mrs. Goldmark told Bird. “I just thought it was an adventure.”

Under the alias Elena Bianchi, Mrs. Goldmark, then 17, obtained a job as a clerical worker at a Luftwaffe command post. When a German lieutenant confided in her that he wished to desert, she carried out a trade: civilian clothes and a safe apartment for him in exchange for German letterhead, stamps and seals for the forgery operation.

As the Allies advanced from Southern Italy, she feigned a broken leg to avoid moving north with her Luftwaffe office and remained in Rome until the city was liberated in June 1944.

“We couldn’t believe that this was the end,” Bird quoted her as saying. “That evening was the first and last time that I got drunk. We feasted on a bottle of wine.”

In 1966, Benoit was recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, as Righteous Among the Nations , an honor bestowed on Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.

After the liberation of Rome, Mrs. Goldmark worked for the American military government as a translator and later for the American Joint Distribution Committee.

She immigrated in 1947 to the United States, where she changed her maiden name to Bliss, and where she married Victor “Willy” Goldmark, a Viennese Holocaust survivor she had met in Rome. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Besides her daughter, of Washington, Manhattan and Miami Beach, survivors include a grandson.

Mrs. Goldmark lived for decades in New York before moving in 1991 to the Washington area. Until late in her life, she worked in legal offices translating documents from German, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, French and Spanish.

Long after she came to the United States, she kept in her closet a suitcase — whether packed or simply ready to be packed — in the event that she would need to flee. It was, her son-in-law observed, a “symbol of her trauma.”

holocaust survivor essay

holocaust survivor essay

The True Story Behind Hulu's Holocaust Drama We Were the Lucky Ones

T he author Georgia Hunter grew up hearing that her granduncle kept a fake penis foreskin on hand in case he had to show proof that he wasn’t Jewish in Warsaw during the Holocaust .

As the story was told to Hunter, her relative, an architect named Adam, was so desperate not to be discovered as Jewish that he stuck a bandage on his member with an egg white and water mixture. When a landlord’s wife confronted him, accusing him of hiding his real identity, he dropped his pants in front of her. The getup fooled her. The woman apologized profusely and hurried out of the apartment.  

That moment, depicted in Hunter’s 2017 novel We Were the Lucky Ones , appears in an episode of the TV adaptation of the same name , out Mar. 28 on Hulu. Adam (played by Sam Woolf) and Hunter’s grandaunt Halina (Joey King) collapse in giggles afterwards at the great lengths he went to hide his Jewish identity. But it was just one of many life or death situations that Adam and his family faced trying to stay alive during the Holocaust .

The novel and Hulu show are inspired by the Kurc family, Hunter’s real great-grandparents and their five children who got separated when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. The eight-episode series is all about their efforts to come back together, and how they manage to survive and reunite after the war. Showrunners got to work off of a decade of research that Hunter, a co-executive producer, did for the novel, like oral histories available via USC’s Shoah Foundation. And several scenes in the movie are recreated from family photographs that Hunter tracked down over the years across the globe.

Hunter first learned that her grandfather Addy (Logan Lerman), a composer and engineer who lived in France when the war first broke out, came from a long line of Holocaust survivors while doing a family history assignment in high school. She then assumed the role of the family’s historian, trying to learn as much about this dark chapter in her relatives’ lives. Sheet music for her grandfather’s first big hit “The List” still exists, and Lerman plays an excerpt in the Hulu show (plus there’s a 1930s recording of it on SoundCloud.)

Through her research, Hunter learned that her granduncle Geneck had a baby with his wife in a gulag in Siberia. Hunter found handwritten descriptions of his time in Siberia at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. 

Adam, who kept the fake foreskin, made fake IDs for members of the underground resistance movement. His wife Halina, tried to protect her parents by getting them jobs at a gunpowder factory and then found them a family they could hide with during the duration of the war. 

Hunter’s grandaunt Mila, her grandfather’s sister, had to manage hiding her Jewish identity in Warsaw and hiding her toddler named Felicia. She put her in a convent, dyed her hair blonde and changed her name to Barbara. During the day, she worked a series of brutal jobs, and as one devastating scene in episode six shows, a housewife that Mila is working for throws a vase at her head—a story Hunter says got passed down in her family. Mila donated some of the wartime dresses that Felicia wore to Yad Vashem , the Holocaust history museum in Israel, and a replica of a dress Felicia wore with the fake name “Barbara” stitched on it appears in the show.

On Mar. 26, Hunter and her family members gathered in Washington, D.C. to donate the family archive to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum so it can inform future scholarship. Among the notable artifacts are family photos, the fake IDs and papers that Adam and Halina used to pretend they were married , and Hunter’s grandfather Addy’s snakeskin wallet, where he kept declined visas, military papers, health records—various documents he used to try and get out of France and immigrate somewhere safer.

Hunter hopes learning about the Holocaust through the story of one ordinary family’s extraordinary journey will make a vast, complicated history more relatable. The series, she says, “allows us just that.” The episodes “shed light on what's happening across borders today,” she says, adding that she hopes viewers will come away with more empathy for refugees.

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at We Were the Lucky Ones &body=https%3A%2F%2Ftime.com%2F6961284%2Fwe-were-the-lucky-ones-true-story-hulu%2F" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank" data-t="{"n":"destination","t":13,"b":1,"c.t":7}">[email protected] .

Actor Logan Lerman plays author Georgia Hunter's Holocaust survivor grandfather in the Hulu adaptation of her 2017 novel We Were The Lucky Ones.

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Martin Greenfield, Tailor to Sinatra, Obama, Trump and Shaq, Dies at 95

He dressed six presidents, coached designers and made thousands of suits for TV shows and movies. But his beginnings were dismal: He learned to sew at Auschwitz.

A close-up photo of a smiling Mr. Greenfield as he reaches up with his left hand to a gray business suit hanging on a rack. He has a round face and gray hair and wears a gray suit vest over a necktie and a blue pinstriped shirt with a white color. Eyeglasses hang from a chain around his neck.

By Alex Traub

Defying boundaries of taste and time, Martin Greenfield made suits for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the gangster Meyer Lansky, Leonardo DiCaprio and LeBron James. Men skilled in the arts of power projection — along with fashion writers and designers — considered him the nation’s greatest men’s tailor.

For years, none of them knew the origins of his expertise: a beating in Auschwitz.

As a teenager, Mr. Greenfield was Maximilian Grünfeld, a skinny Jewish prisoner whose job was to wash the clothes of Nazi guards at the concentration camp. In the laundry room one day, he accidentally ripped the collar of a guard’s shirt. The man whipped Max in response, then hurled the garment back at the boy.

After a fellow prisoner taught Max how to sew, he mended the collar, but then decided to keep the shirt, sliding it under the striped shirt of his prison uniform.

The garment transformed his life. Other prisoners thought it signified that Max enjoyed special privileges. Guards allowed him to roam around the grounds of Auschwitz, and when he worked at a hospital kitchen, they assumed that he was authorized to take extra food.

Max ripped another guard’s uniform. This time, it was deliberate. He was creating a clandestine wardrobe that would help him survive the Holocaust.

“The day I first wore that shirt,” Mr. Greenfield wrote seven decades later, “was the day I learned clothes possess power.”

He never forgot the lesson. “Two ripped Nazi shirts,” he continued, “helped this Jew build America’s most famous and successful custom-suit company.”

Mr. Greenfield died on Wednesday at a hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, his son Tod said. He was 95.

The miseries and triumphs of Mr. Greenfield’s life exemplified the classic tale of immigration to America. He faced agony abroad, then penury in his adopted home. With workaholic energy, he built a business and made a name for himself, gaining fortune and esteem. Late in life, he finally reckoned with the tragedies of his youth that he had tried to leave behind.

The culmination of his hopes and efforts was his business, Martin Greenfield Clothiers. It managed the improbable feat of thriving by doing the opposite of the rest of its industry.

Local garment manufacturing had been declining for decades by the late 1970s, when Mr. Greenfield set up shop in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in a four-story building that had housed clothiers since at least 1917. He refused to manufacture overseas and never changed his standards.

As a result, Greenfield Clothiers was able to offer services that New York’s designers and wealthy suit-wearers could hardly find anywhere else. It is now New York City’s last surviving union clothing factory, Tod Greenfield said in an interview for this obituary in March last year.

There, some 50 garment workers, each with a particular expertise, put together a single suit over about 10 hours. They operate machinery manually, allowing them to customize every press and fold of fabric; to align patterns over suit jacket pockets flawlessly; and to render fabric stitching invisible.

The traditionalism of the shop’s techniques is embodied by several century-old buttonhole-cutting machines still in use. A year ago this month, a rusted dial on one of the contraptions indicated that it had cut about 1,074,000,000 buttonholes.

The old factory became a congenial setting for political, artistic and athletic patriarchs. The acknowledgments section of Mr. Greenfield’s 2014 memoir, “Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor,” enumerates the people “we have had the privilege of working alongside”: Gerald R. Ford, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, Joseph R. Biden, Colin Powell, Ed Koch, Michael R. Bloomberg, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Martin Scorsese, Denzel Washington, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony — among many, many others.

A hand-sewn Greenfield suit became a low-frequency status signal most of all in New York City. The former police commissioners Raymond Kelly and William J. Bratton have both been Greenfield patrons.

Proximity to power gave Mr. Greenfield a stock of quips and anecdotes. Making a suit for the 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal, he wrote in his memoir, “required enough suit fabric to make a small tent.” When The New York Post in 2016 asked him about Mr. Lansky’s tastes, Mr. Greenfield recalled that mobster’s orders exactly: 40-short, navy, single-breasted suits.

But he knew when to be discreet. “I met him once at the hotel,” Mr. Greenfield said of Mr. Lansky. “He was a very nice guy to me, and I knew he was in charge. That’s all I’m saying!”

Initially, Greenfield Clothiers’ main business was manufacturing ready-to-wear suits for department stores like Neiman Marcus and for brands like Brooks Brothers and Donna Karan. Mr. Greenfield worked directly with designers, including Ms. Karan, who confessed to The Times that he had taught her garment terminology like “drop,” “gorge” and “button stance.” She added, “His genius is in interpreting my vision.”

The business changed direction after Mr. Greenfield agreed to make 1920s-style outfits for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014). His shop produced more than 600 suits for 173 characters.

Other film and TV projects followed, including for the Showtime series “Billions” (2016-2023); and the movies “The Great Gatsby” (2013), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and “Joker” (2019). The latter featured what might be Greenfield’s most recognizable creation: the crisp red suit and mismatched orange vest worn by Joaquin Phoenix, who played the title character, the Batman nemesis.

In a testament to his longevity, Mr. Greenfield dressed the early 20th-century comedian Eddie Cantor as well as the actor playing him decades later on “Boardwalk Empire.”

Maximilian Grünfeld was born on Aug. 9, 1928, in the village of Pavlovo, which was then in Czechoslovakia and is now in western Ukraine. His family was prosperous: His father, Joseph, was an industrial engineer; his mother, Tzyvia (Berger) Grünfeld, ran the home.

When Max was about 12, the German Army occupied towns around Pavlovo, and he was sent to live with relatives in Budapest. Sensing he was not wanted, he fled the night he arrived and spent about three years living in a brothel — the women there sympathetically took him in — and earning a living as a junior car mechanic.

But after sustaining a hand injury that made it difficult for him to work, he returned to Pavlovo. Before long, the Nazis forced him and his family onto a train to Auschwitz. On arrival, he was separated from his mother; his sisters, Rivka and Simcha; and his brother, Sruel Baer. He remained with his father only briefly. All of them died in the Holocaust.

He witnessed many horrors. Building a brick wall once, he worked alongside another boy who was randomly used for target practice and killed.

After a harrowing death march from Auschwitz, followed by a freezing train transfer to Buchenwald, Max was finally freed in the spring of 1945. General Eisenhower himself toured the camp, unaware that a teenage prisoner there would one day become his tailor. In his memoir, Mr. Greenfield recalled thinking that Eisenhower, an ordinary 5-foot-10, was 10 feet tall.

He immigrated to the United States in 1947, arriving in New York as a refugee with no family, no knowledge of English and $10 in his pocket. Within weeks, he changed his name to Martin Greenfield — an attempt to sound “all-American,” he wrote — and a boyhood friend, also a refugee, got him a job at a clothier called GGG in Brooklyn.

He started as a “floor boy,” ferrying unfinished garments from one worker to another. He studied every job in the factory: darting, piping, lining, stitching, pressing, hand basting, blind armhole work and finishing.

“If the Nazis taught me anything, it was that a laborer with indispensable skills is less likely to be discarded,” he wrote.

Over time, Mr. Greenfield became a confidant of GGG’s founder and president, William P. Goldman, who introduced him to the firm’s clients, including some of the leading tuxedo-wearers of postwar America. He got to pal around with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1977, 30 years after he had started, he bought the factory and renamed GGG after himself.

Decades later, he began discussing his experience of the Holocaust more widely, culminating with the publication of his memoir. Around the same time, he found himself labeled America’s best tailor by GQ , Vanity Fair and CNN .

In recent years he handed off the business to his son Tod and another son, Jay.

In addition to them, Mr. Greenfield is survived by his wife, Arlene (Bergen) Greenfield, and four grandchildren. He lived in North Hills, a Nassau County village on Long Island’s North Shore.

On his first day in Auschwitz, Max’s father, Joseph, told him that he was more likely to survive if they separated, Mr. Greenfield wrote in his memoir. The next day, the camp guards asked which prisoners had skills. Joseph grabbed Max’s wrist, thrust the boy’s hand in the air and announced, “A4406” — Max’s tattooed inmate number. “He is a mechanic. Very skilled.”

Two German soldiers hauled Max away. He did not see his father again.

Before they parted, Joseph said to Max, “If you survive, you live for us.”

The rest of Mr. Greenfield’s life was an attempt to follow that commandment, his son Tod said: “And that’s what he did.”

Alex Traub works on the Obituaries desk and occasionally reports on New York City for other sections of the paper. More about Alex Traub

holocaust survivor essay

Behind Every Name, Stories from the Holocaust

By examining true personal stories, told through short animations , students learn about unique individual experiences within the historical context of the Holocaust. This activity contains an extension to examine the role of artifacts in understanding history.

Grade level:  Adaptable for grades 7-12 Subject:  Multidisciplinary Time required:  20 minutes, with optional artifact extension Languages : English, Español

For Learning Management Systems

This online lesson plan is compatible with learning management systems or web browsers for students to complete individually or as a class. You can use the PDF of the original lesson plan above as a guide. To use with your LMS, download the files below and follow your system’s instructions for importing files.

Online lesson link (for web browsers)


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This lesson is also available in Spanish.

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<p>Jews from <a href="/narrative/10727">Subcarpathian Rus</a> get off the deportation train and assemble on the ramp at the <a href="/narrative/3673">Auschwitz-Birkenau</a> killing center in occupied Poland. May 1944. </p>

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Organized by theme, these discussion questions examine how and why the Holocaust happened. They are designed to help teachers, students, and all citizens create discussion and encourage reflection about the Holocaust.

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What made it possible.

How and why did ordinary people across Europe contribute to the persecution of their Jewish neighbors?

Discussion Question How and why did ordinary people across Europe contribute to the persecution of their Jewish neighbors?

How did German professionals and civil leaders contribute to the persecution of Jews and other groups?

Discussion Question How did German professionals and civil leaders contribute to the persecution of Jews and other groups?

What conditions, ideologies, and ideas made the Holocaust possible?

Discussion Question What conditions, ideologies, and ideas made the Holocaust possible?

How did the Nazis and their collaborators implement the Holocaust?

Discussion Question How did the Nazis and their collaborators implement the Holocaust?

What does war make possible?

Discussion Question What does war make possible?

Which organizations and individuals aided and protected Jews from persecution between 1933 and 1945?

Discussion Question Which organizations and individuals aided and protected Jews from persecution between 1933 and 1945?

How did leaders, diplomats, and citizens around the world respond to the events of the Holocaust?

Discussion Question How did leaders, diplomats, and citizens around the world respond to the events of the Holocaust?

How did the United States government and American people respond to Nazism?

Discussion Question How did the United States government and American people respond to Nazism?

After the war.

What have we learned about the risk factors and warning signs of genocide?

Discussion Question What have we learned about the risk factors and warning signs of genocide?

How did postwar trials shape approaches to international justice?

Discussion Question How did postwar trials shape approaches to international justice?

Other topics.

How did the shared foundational element of eugenics contribute to the growth of racism in Europe and the United States?

Discussion Question How did the shared foundational element of eugenics contribute to the growth of racism in Europe and the United States?

What were some similarities between racism in Nazi Germany and in the United States, 1920s-1940s?

Discussion Question What were some similarities between racism in Nazi Germany and in the United States, 1920s-1940s?

How did different goals and political systems shape racism in Nazi Germany and the United States?

Discussion Question How did different goals and political systems shape racism in Nazi Germany and the United States?

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  1. Behind Every Name a Story

    Share. Behind Every Name a Story consists of essays describing survivors' experiences during the Holocaust, written by survivors or their families. The essays, accompanying photographs, and other materials, including submissions that we are unable to feature on our website, will become a permanent part of the Museum's records.

  2. Survivor Reflections and Testimonies

    Connect with Survivors. Survivor Reflections and Testimonies. Identification Cards. Days of Remembrance. International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Database of Holocaust Survivor and Victim Names. Listen to or read Holocaust survivors' experiences, told in their own words through oral histories, written testimony, and public programs.

  3. Holocaust Survivors Essay

    Essay On Holocaust Survivors. Jewish Holocaust survivors enduring horrendous treatment of the Holocaust, and it impacted the aftermath of the event as well. Because of the emotional and physical trauma after liberation, Jewish Holocaust survivors struggled with rebuilding their lives and adapting to live a "normal life". 525 Words.

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    The Holocaust and Its Survivors: Critical Essay. This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples. Holocaust survivor Lydia Tischler mentioned in her interview that she had never felt like giving up and only wanted to know what it would feel like to ...

  10. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust

    Our websites may be periodically unavailable between 7:00 pm CT March 2, 2024 and 1:00 am CT March 3, 2024 for regularly scheduled maintenance. This book delineates the social setting and the process of organizing the extermination of millions according to National Socialist philosophy. As Hamburg notes.

  11. Poetry, Essays, & Short Stories by Children of Survivors

    This section is devoted to Poetry, Essays, & Short Stories by Children of Survivors and Our Parents. From Maxine Shoshanna Persaud, Toronto, Canada: Many years ago I wrote the following words into my diary on a night when my parents were having a particularly hard time coping with life. Life, not as we see it […]

  12. Holocaust Survivors Essay

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  16. Home

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  17. Series: In Their Own Words: Holocaust Survivor Testimonies

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  18. Research Guides: Holocaust: Find Primary Sources

    "The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive exists to maintain a collection of oral testimonies of those who survived the Holocaust and make these widely accessible for educational purposes. Through interlibrary loan, the Internet and community outreach, we make the oral testimonies and transcriptions available to researchers ...

  19. University Medallion recognizes Holocaust survivors who entrusted

    Joel Citron, chair of the USC Shoah Foundation Board of Councilors; USC President Carol Folt; USC Life Trustee Steven Spielberg; and Holocaust survivor Celina Biniaz (from left) attend the presentation of the University Medallion to the survivors who have shared their stories with the foundation.

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    Mrs. Goldmark, who moved after World War II to the United States, where she used her prodigious language skills to assist fellow immigrants as a paralegal, died March 15 at an assisted-living ...

  21. The True Story Behind Hulu's Holocaust Drama We Were the Lucky Ones

    Adam (played by Sam Woolf) and Hunter's grandaunt Halina (Joey King) collapse in giggles afterwards at the great lengths he went to hide his Jewish identity. But it was just one of many life or ...

  22. Judith Hemmendinger, headmistress of an orphanage for boys liberated

    Judith Hemmendinger, who has died aged 100, dedicated her life to the child survivors of the Holocaust, first as a hands-on social worker during the war, helping hidden Jewish children while ...

  23. Martin Greenfield, Tailor to Sinatra, Obama, Trump and Shaq, Dies at 95

    The acknowledgments section of Mr. Greenfield's 2014 memoir, "Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents' Tailor," enumerates the people "we have had the privilege of ...

  24. Effects and Aftermath of the Holocaust

    Many feared to return to their former homes. Key Facts. 1. Following the liberation of Nazi camps, many survivors found themselves living in displaced persons camps where they often had to wait years before emigrating to new homes. 2. Many feared returning to their former homes due to postwar violence and antisemitism. 3.

  25. Behind Every Name, Stories from the Holocaust

    Explore lesson plans and training materials organized by theme to use in your classroom. By examining true personal stories, told through short animations, students learn about unique individual experiences within the historical context of the Holocaust. This activity contains an extension to examine the role of artifacts in understanding history.

  26. Introduction to the Holocaust

    What was the Holocaust? The Holocaust (1933-1945) was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators. 1 The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the years of the Holocaust as 1933-1945. The Holocaust era began in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany.

  27. Discussion Questions

    Media Essay Oral History Photo Series Song ... these discussion questions examine how and why the Holocaust happened. They are designed to help teachers, students, and all citizens create discussion and encourage reflection about the Holocaust. ... Holocaust Encyclopedia Collections Search Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center History ...