Healing from History - Holland & the Holocaust 2017
Ep. 14 Healing from History
listen by clicking the play link above, downloading or through a podcasting site like itunes, soundcloud or stitcher.
Host Tagan Engel, and more than 40 members of her family traveled to Holland for a holocaust memorial in honor of her grandmother Selma Wynberg Engel and the Wynberg family, who lived there before most of them were murdered by the Nazi's during WWII. Guest Saul Fussiner joins Tagan to discuss their shared history as grandchildren of survivors, and how people and societies try and heal from genocide. Tagan tells her grandparent's story of revolt and survival, and Saul shares about teaching high school students about these issues using the Facing History & Ourselves curricula and techniques.
I grew up in the shadow of the Jewish Holocaust. The stories and images of my grandparents and other jews transported in cargo trains, sorting clothes in a death camps, entire families murdered, barbed wire, watch towers, all loom in my mind. My grandparent's participation in a successful uprising and revolt and their survival under horrible conditions after the war were known to me as a child and teenager, and have deeply influenced my perspective of what is possible in both human horror and human vibrancy. Over the course of my life I have grappled with this in various ways. On May 4th of this year, I traveled with more than 40 members of my close and extended family to Holland for a memorial in honor of my grandmother Selma Wynberg Engel and her family. This trip had a powerful impact on all of us.
My grandmother Selma Wynberg is Dutch, she was in hiding during the war, separated from her mother, brothers and extended family, most of whom went on to be killed in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At the age of 20 she was captured and sent to the top secret Nazi death camp Sobibor in Poland. Few people were kept alive at this camp, only enough workers to keep the camp functioning, everyone else was murdered. Shortly after arriving, the Ukranian guards made may grandparents and other jews dance with each other for the entertainment of the Nazi's. This is how my grandparents met and quickly fell in love. My grandfather, Chaim Engel was Polish and had been at Sobibor already for 6 months when Selma (then called Saartje) arrived. He had been working sorting clothes of people who had been murdered, and discovered that his father and brother were dead when he found a photo of his family tucked into the inside pocket of one of the jackets for safe keeping. The picture shows his father, his brother and himself at his mother's gravestone in the cemetery in Lodz (pronounced Woodge), Poland (see below left). I carried this photo with me to Poland in 1996 and found her grave (below right). It is one of the few Jewish cemeteries still standing after the war.
About six months after my grandmother arrived in Sobibor, some Russian soldiers were captured and they led the planning for an uprising, were 50 people, including my grandparents would successfully escape and survive Sobibor. In the podcast above, I give some more detail about this revolt and how Selma and Chaim, my Oma and Opa survived in hiding. The story of this revolt was first documented in the book Escape from Sobibor published in 1982, and in an ABC made for TV movie of the same name that came out in 1987, when I was 13 years old. Selma and Chaim spent over 30 years speaking in schools and community centers about their experience during the war, at Sobibor and as part of the uprising and escape. They were committed to being a living testament to the history of the Nazi extermination of Jews and other non-arian peoples.
In 2010 a Dutch team of historians and documentary makers visited my grandmother at her home in Branford, CT. They wanted to write a book about her story, and make a documentary about her life, including the previously undocumented story of what happened after the war when she and my grandfather returned to Holland. She was invited to Holland, and at first did not want to go, but my sister and I agreed to travel with her, and the Dutch crew were so compassionate, and cared so much about telling her story accurately, that she was eventually persuaded. This trip provided me with a first glimpse at the seriousness with which the dutch were trying to atone for the genocide and injustices during World War II. We were hosted by the national department on the war, Selma as knighted by the Queen, the book was published, the documentary aired and was heavily promoted on national television. Everywhere we went my Oma was recognized and Dutch people came up to her to express their horror at what had happened to her. Her personal story became a vehicle for people to relate to and in various ways try and apologize for what happened during the Holocaust. (photos from 2010 below)
While we were in Holland in 2010, we visited the Inn, called Hotel Wijnberg where my grandmother had grown up, and where my mom and her cousins were born and raised. Back then it was a kosher hotel across from a cattle market. By 2010, the building was falling apart, and artists were living in it (photos below). We were informed by the Mayor of the city of Zwolle, that the hotel was slatted for demolition. They did not have money to restore the building or turn it into a museum (as evidenced by the synagogue in the city center which people were struggling to maintain). The Mayor promised that the city would make a memorial to the hotel and the family when the building came down.
In the fall of 2016 I was contacted by a Dutch reporter who wanted to write about the impending demolition of the hotel and the unfulfilled promise to Selma of a family memorial. Shortly afterwards, our family received an invitation to travel to Holland for their war remembrance day on May 4, 2017. My grandmother is still alive, but physically and mentally unable to handle a trip of this magnitude at this point. I was grateful to have traveled with her there in 2010. What I found very profound this time around was to travel to the birth place of my mother and all of her cousins as a group, along with most of my generation and our children. We also were reunited with a few very kind family members that still live in Holland, descendants of my grandmother's, father's brother. All in all we were more than 40 people.
More of this story still to come, check back soon.....