Tag Archives: Midwest Center for Holocaust Education

Reflection and Tolerance from Holocaust Education

By Elizabeth Perry

In 1975, Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum was outside his home in Kansas City playing basketball with his family. A neighbor of theirs came over to chat – he was a nice guy, Jack remembered. He knew that Jack had survived the holocaust, had been in a concentration camp, and so asked, “What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camp?” Shocked, Jack looked back at him and said, “The sport was that the Nazis were trying to kill me and I was trying to stay alive.” Mandelbaum could not believe the lack of knowledge people had of what really happened, of the effects of the Holocaust. And so in 1993 he helped found the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHE) in order to spread this information. Ignorance, as Jack knew, was dangerous.

A couple of weeks ago, a story in the news brought Mandelbaum’s words back to me. On April 13, 2014, Frazier Glenn Cross drove to the Jewish Community Center, where the MCHE is located, and Village Shalom retirement community in Overland Park, where he shot and killed three people. The Overland Park police announced that this act is considered a hate crime, with Cross shouting “Heil Hitler” as he was arrested. His apparent intention in this attack was to kill Jews, but none of the three victims he shot were Jewish.

For the past three and a half months, I have been interning at the MCHE, transcribing testimonies of Holocaust survivors like Jack and helped correct transcripts of the interviews to make them available for the MCHE’s website. As I watched the news reports from the Jewish Community Center, I felt frustrated. I had spent my internship listening to survivors for whom the persecution and loss of their past is still present and haunting. Some of them are the only surviving members of their family. Each survivor interview I listened to had a standard format, ending each time with the question, “What can we learn from the Holocaust?” So many times, the interviewee said we must learn to be tolerant, respect others, and be compassionate, so that this kind of tragedy can never happen again. For a moment, as I watched the news of the shooting, I felt as if I had stepped backward and nothing had changed. But, perhaps it only proves how important it is to make the consequences of destructive hatred known. Continue reading

Reflecting on History

By Elizabeth Perry

I have been working on the survivor testimony transcripts for most of my time at MCHE, but last week I participated in something a little different. The MCHE hosts their yearly White Rose Student Essay Contest, which is open to students in 8th-12th grade in eastern Kansas and western Missouri. I got to help judge several of the essays for the contest at the 8th and 9th grade level. The specific topic of the essay changes each year, and this year the essay prompt asked students to describe the Nazis’ work at Auschwitz in preparation for the Jewish deportations from Hungary. The MCHE provides multiple sources for students to use for their essay, including survivor testimonies. The students are also required to relate the experience of a Jewish Hungarian individual or family to their research, as well as discuss how they can demonstrate what they have learned about the Holocaust.

I was impressed with the essays I got to read – successfully meeting the prompt requires a variety of historical research skills, including summarizing information comprehensively, citing sources, relating different sources to each other, and interpreting historical information. The prompt also asked the students to define an action they could take to demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Holocaust, a task that (I hope) makes them aware of how their actions can influence the world around them. The MCHE not only provides resources for Holocaust study, but also encourages discussions about the Holocaust and provides opportunities for students to learn how to use and talk about these resources.

This experience made me think about how we approach studying the Holocaust – often from either an historical or literary standpoint. The essay prompt asked for a little of both, requiring students to give historical context as well as reflect on its meanings. The first time I learned about the Holocaust, I learned about it from a literary perspective – probably like many other middle school students, I read Night by Elie Wiesel in my language arts class. About seven years later in college, I re-read Night for another class, and I was shocked at how little I remembered from such a striking book. Thinking back on it, I think that I did not have the proper historical context to understand the content of the book properly enough for the information to stick. As far as I remember, we had not yet talked about the Holocaust in my history classes, so Night was my introduction. I wish I had known more about the historical context, so maybe the book would have meant more to me at the time. I think the MCHE essay brings these together well, asking for students to research historical context as well as to reflect on the meaning of what they find.

Summer Internship Opportunity at the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education

The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education seeks a summer intern who will become familiar with local survivor testimony through the transcription of oral history videos. Additional tasks in support of the project may include conducting research to identify hard copy and web-based resources to contextualize and support each survivor story. The project requires a basic understanding of modern European and Holocaust history. A familiarity with European languages and accents is beneficial. Flexible scheduling of hours Monday-Thursday on a consistent schedule.

Interested applicants should send initial inquiries to Jessica Rockhold, Director of Education,  jessicar@mchekc.org and follow the instruction on the How to Apply page. Applications will be accepted until the position is filled.

Help and Rescue

By Elizabeth Perry

When I studied the Holocaust as an undergraduate, part of my class focused on rescuers – we particularly looked at the book Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman. While many of the survivors interviewed by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education state definitively that they received no help from non-Jews, others have some stories of receiving help. A Jewish family in Berlin received a warning from an officer just before their family was deported, enabling them to escape through Russia to Shanghai. A Hungarian Jewish family’s neighbor offered to take their daughter after the Germans invaded Hungary in order to protect her from deportation. The same family later escaped to Switzerland with 1,700 other Jews. Jewish-Hungarian lawyer Rudolf Kastner negotiated their freedom by bribing Nazi officials.

The most extensive rescue effort I found in the transcripts was a Jewish mother and son hidden for the entire war by an older Swedish man living in Berlin. The other accounts of going into hiding are less pleasant – some interviewees reported other Jews only being able to hide if they paid someone to hide them, and if they ran out of money they would be handed over to the Nazis. One survivor remembered being hidden in a tiny space under the floor of a barn with her sister – they almost drowned when the space flooded. Other events, which I would very much hesitate to call rescue efforts, affected survival. A young Polish Jew was taken out of a deportation transport group by a German officer who admired his skills as a plumber.

I can’t generalize about the attitudes of entire countries from the few survivor stories I’ve heard, but I see the fewest rescue stories in the interviews with Polish survivors. Poland indeed had one of the lowest rates of survival, despite having the highest Jewish population of any European country by far (see this graph for more info). Many of the survivors say the Poles did not want them there, that they were happy to see the Jews taken away and were irritated when a few of them tried to come home. While I am generalizing from limited sources, it’s hard not to see some connection between the attitudes of non-Jewish Poles and the survival rates of Polish Jews.

“Kitchka, kitchka”

IMG_1361After working on over a dozen transcripts of Holocaust survivor interviews, I have learned a lot of information that I did not expect to learn from this experience. I know more Hebrew and more about various Jewish holidays that I ever knew before. I’ve learned how to identify Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish words (to a certain extent). I’ve learned about branches of Zionist organizations in Eastern Europe. The context needed to accurately transcribe this information is sometimes daunting, but it is also fascinating to learn about the everyday life of pre-war Poland, Germany, and Hungary through the memories of the interviewees.

I have also learned when I am likely to have a more difficult time with a transcription. With my background in German, I am usually able to easily handle an interview full of German terms or place names. Polish, on the other hand, is not so familiar to me – often, however, the Polish mentioned in the interview is supplemented by Yiddish, which is more similar to German. Hungarian is, unfortunately, almost entirely foreign to me, but I have only worked on two interviews from Hungarian survivors. As I said before, Google Translate is a big help for identifying words or small phrases.

Sometimes, though, the path of researching a term or phrase is anything but straightforward. As I was working on an interview with a Polish survivor, he mentioned a game that he used to play when he was a child. “Kitchka,” he said – the interviewer was not sure what he meant, and as the interviewee described it, the interviewer decided it must be cricket. To check for spelling, I looked for the Polish word for cricket, and then the Yiddish word, but nothing matched. Eventually we contacted a historian Jessica knows to ask, and it turns out that “kitchka” is an obscure game particular to the area the survivor grew up in, with some similarities to cricket. No matter how much I may feel prepared for the next transcript, there is usually at least one curveball waiting for me.

Leaving Home Behind

By Elizabeth Perry

Tom Lewinsohn and his family did not try to leave their home in Berlin until January 1941, after Tom’s father received a tip from a policeman that their family would soon be deported. Very few places were open to Jewish refugees by 1941, so Tom and his family fled to one of the few places still open to them – Shanghai. For many German Jews, especially those emigrating after Kristallnacht in 1938, Shanghai was one of the very few places that did not limit Jewish immigration. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, there were 17,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai by 1939.

Most of the testimony I have transcribed thus far featured the experiences of those that survived the war in Europe in concentration camps, but some of the testimonies feature survivors that escaped Germany before they were deported. Many of them followed a long, tangled route to safety. Klaus Frank and his father were arrested after Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen, but his family managed to pay for their release, and afterwards they made it to the Dominican Republic. Reggie Goldberg’s family managed to board a French ship to Cuba, but like the famous St. Louis, they were turned back. The family later obtained fake papers and escaped on a flight to the United States from Portugal.

Having studied the Holocaust, and taught it to high school students, one of the questions I often hear is why more of the Jews in Europe, particularly Germany, did not leave. In retrospect it seems like an easy choice, but in reality this was a very difficult decision. These families had often lived in their hometowns for generations, they had homes, businesses, friends, and extended family nearby. Most did not have the money to emigrate. How many could actually imagine what the Nazis planned? Reggie remembers that her father was convinced it would blow over, up until the day that Reggie was picked up at school by the police and sent to a ghetto in Poland with her parents. Klaus’ father dismissed Hitler in 1933, figuring that he “wouldn’t last the next week.” Tom’s father fought in World War I and received the Iron Cross – all his friends told him that no one would touch him because of his service. There were many logical reasons why they didn’t want to leave, and not least of those was the fact that they would be leaving their lives behind. Tom remembers that they left their apartment in the middle of the night, taking only what they could pack and carry with them.

Compounding these problems was the fact that, particularly after 1938, it was difficult to find a place to go. After the war, Tom found out that his father, who worked as a doctor, tried to obtain papers for his family to go to England. He received a reply stating that England did not need any more doctors. Only a few places, like Shanghai, were still available for Jewish refugees, and these were difficult to reach. For most, by the time they realized what was happening, it was already too late.

“Wait ’til Hitler Comes”

By Elizabeth Perry

A unique aspect of the interviews that I am helping transcribe is that they devote a lot of time to discussing the pre-war and post-war experiences of Holocaust survivors. One of the most interesting parts of hearing this information is the pre-war details, particularly the diversity of these experiences. This makes the testimony a great resource for researchers studying everyday life. Some survivors recalled having a very Orthodox upbringing, and had very little interaction with non-Jews, whereas others remember attending public school, listening to other students learn the Catechism, and their parents having non-Jewish guests over for dinner.

The level of anti-Semitism the survivors remember also varies. One survivor played on a soccer team that competed against non-Jewish schools, and he remembered that if they won, it usually meant a fight afterwards. Another said that when he played outside with other Jewish children, they had few options because the gentile children would chase them away if they saw them. A few others recall very little discrimination, particularly those whose families were not Orthodox. Many survivors remember anti-Semitism only becoming prevalent just before the war started. One survivor remembered that, when she was a child, a non-Jewish friend of hers became angry with her and told her, “Wait ’til Hitler comes! He’s going to send all the Jews to Palestine!” The survivor remembers that she had no idea what the girl was talking about.

Eastern Europe 2010 406

Synagogue in Krakow, Poland

Some survivors stress that anti-Semitism in places like Poland did not end with the war. When one survivor went back to her hometown with her sister after being liberated, they were not welcomed. A non-Jewish woman she knew before the war saw her and remarked in surprise, “You’re still alive?” All of the survivors interviewed did not, of course, go back to their hometowns, moving instead to the United States. Most of them mentioned that they did not want to go back because, among other reasons, they felt that they were not wanted. I visited Krakow in 2010, and our guide took us on a tour of four historic synagogues in the city. Only one of them was active, our guide told us, because Krakow simply did not have the Jewish population to support that many synagogues.   

National Archives at KC Seeks Interns for New Exhibit

Beginning this summer, the National Archives at Kansas City will host a new traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. The exhibit is presented by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and will be on display form June 24 through October 25, 2014. The archives are accepting intern applications for all or part of this time period. Training by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum the week of June 16 will start the internship, and interns will learn about museum education, outreach, and how to use social media to advance the work of history throughout their time with the exhibit. Potential activities include:

  • assisting with primary source related workshops for students;
  • leading visitors in hands-on museum activities;
  • helping develop family programming;
  • conducting research to identify documents for educational materials and programs;
  • working with DocsTeach, the National Archives’ lesson-plan building website;
  • supporting teacher workshop activities;
  • writing blog posts;
  • leading tours for special groups

Students majoring in history, education, political science, American studies, public history, museum studies, or a related field are a good match for this internship. Interns must enjoy working with people, understand historical methods, have excellent interpersonal skills, have strong writing skills, and be able to work in teams and independently.

Students who wish to apply should submit 1) a cover letter, 2) a resume, 3) two letters of recommendation, and 3) college transcripts (does not need to be official). Materials should be sent to:

Mickey Ebert | 400 West Pershing Road | Kansas City, MO 64108
mickey.ebert@nara.gov | 816-268-8013

Applications will be received until the positions are full. Applications received by May 15 are guaranteed consideration; applications received after that date are accepted if space is available.

Transcript Detective

IMG_1362Jessica Rockhold, Director of School Programs and Teacher Education at the MCHE, looked up at me from her desk. “You have a word?” she asked. Usually the reason I go find her is so she can help me figure out a word that I can’t decipher. “Well…” I said. “It’s actually a sentence.” We sat down next to the boom box and I played the five-second indecipherable sentence. I rewound it and played it again. We stared at each other and Jessica started to laugh. The only words we could make out were Czechoslovakia somewhere in the middle of the sentence and Stuttgart at the end. It was, ironically, the English in between that we couldn’t make out. Eventually we figured out the words and entered them in the transcription.

Before I started working at this internship, I became quite familiar with transcribing from a series of German letters as part of the online project at trugundschein.org. The palaeography skills I used for the letters are quite different from the skills I am learning now. With the letters, I had to study the old German script, and once I knew how the letters were formed, I could read the whole collection with few difficulties. With the interviews, I have to learn a new “script” each time I start with a new interview. Each person has their own cadence, different accents, and different ways of pronouncing certain sounds. While the letters are almost entirely in neat, full sentences, the interviewees pause, start and restart sentences, and change direction mid-sentence or even mid-word.

Sometimes working on these transcripts makes me feel like a detective. Unlike the letters, when the interviewee mentions a Polish town, I don’t have the spelling available, and so I need to find the town to confirm the spelling. Sometimes, if it’s an option, we can simply contact the interviewee. Other times the interviewees will drop words in German (or Yiddish, or Hungarian, or Polish, or Hebrew). Have I mentioned that Google Translate is quite useful? My background in 1930s German history has also been very useful because of the many Holocaust-related terms mentioned in the interviews. I am now well acquainted with how much knowledge and work goes into creating accessible documents for researchers. Unfortunately, despite all of our successes, some spots simply have to be labeled [UNCLEAR] in the transcript.

Welcome to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education

By Elizabeth Perry

In 1975, Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum was outside his home in Kansas City playing basketball with his family. A neighbor of theirs came over to chat – he was a nice guy, Jack remembered. He knew that Jack had been in a concentration camp, and he asked, “What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camp?” Jack looked back at him and said, “The sport was that the Nazis were trying to kill me and I was trying to stay alive.”

IMG_1363Jack had never spoken in depth about his experience during the war, but at that moment he realized that people did not know anything about what had really happened. Fearing that no one was being educated about the truth, Jack partnered with fellow survivor Isak Federman to found the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHE) at the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park.

IMG_1365The Center’s goal is to “teach the  history of the Holocaust, applying its lessons to counter indifference, intolerance, and genocide.” To accomplish this goal, the Center has lesson planning resources for various ages, sponsors special exhibits, and maintains a resource center for teachers and researchers, including a collection of dozens of Holocaust survivor testimonies. The MCHE and their website provide an excellent resource for anyone researching or teaching the Holocaust.

My name is Elizabeth Perry and I am a master’s student in history at UMKC with a concentration in modern Germany. I first encountered the MCHE when I visited a traveling exhibit they helped organize, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, at the Kansas City National Archives. I am proud to help them continue providing resources and education about the Holocaust. One of the MCHE’s current projects is to provide eyewitness testimony online, and my task is to check transcriptions against the recorded testimony so that we can make post the transcripts to the MCHE website. This is how I learned Jack’s story, which reminded me that if this history is not taught and these stories are not told, then they could easily be lost. I am looking forward to learning more of these compelling stories and helping to make them available to the public.