Project History

“And They Will Ask if This is the Truth”

Written by: Vida “Sister” Goldman Prince
Chair, Oral History Project, St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center
2017

An anti-Semitic slight I experienced as a child stayed with me all my life. When I was in the third grade, I overheard a friend say, “My mother told me I can’t have Vida over to spend the night because she is Jewish.” In that one sentence, I learned I was not wanted; I didn’t measure up; there was something wrong with being Jewish.  However hurtful, these feelings propelled me to be keenly aware of and ultra-sensitive to others who experience prejudice that makes them feel less than they are.  This sensitivity turned out to be my blessing, and has impacted all my interviews, and my entire life.

In the 1960’s, I always noticed a special woman at the cash register whenever I purchased an item at the notions counter at Famous Barr, a department store in Clayton, Missouri.  She had a wonderful smile, a friendly hello and goodbye, and a number on her arm.  After I made my purchase, I would move away and stand next to a post, watch her give everyone the same cheery greeting, and wonder how she could do that with a number on her arm.  Somehow I knew that something about that number was indelibly sad and unforgiving.

Now I know Hilda Lebedun.  She and I are dear friends.  I knew her late husband, and I know her children.  I know about her family members who perished in the Holocaust.  I know where she went when she cried.

Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. From 1933 to 1945 the Nazis led a State Sponsored Systematic destruction for the sole purpose of eradicating the Jewish people from Europe and the Soviet Union. A few years later, in 1939, World War II had begun and later ended in 1945.

Over and above trying to understand and teach the Holocaust, there is the Holocaust itself and what it means in human suffering, endurance, and strength.  Our oral histories allow us to have some understanding of the human meaning of this horrific event.  Some survivors felt that the depth of their belief in God would carry them and their families through this sorrow.  Others simply stopped believing in God entirely.

Survivors haunted by their memories had an intense need to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. The most incredible personal achievement of their life, surviving the Holocaust, most often had to be denied because of their very deep sense of guilt because they did survive calling it survivor’s guilt. Most wanted no personal credit, giving it only to luck or the will of God.  “But how can it be the will of God for the children to live, and the will of God for their parents to die?”

The St. Louis Holocaust Center was established in 1977.  I became a volunteer in 1979. Two survivors, Leah Sjoberg from Poland, and Renate Vambery from Germany, became catalysts for our oral history project.  The director of the Center, Alex Grobman, had been tutoring me over a period of months about the Holocaust, giving me books and articles such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,”; “Why Didn’t The   Allies Bomb Auschwitz?”; “The Survivor,” by Terrance Des Pres.; “Survival in Auschwitz”, Primo Levi, and Night, by Elie Wiesel and films and lectures.

Alex invited me to become a member of the Holocaust Commission and asked me to take Renate and Leah to Francis Howell High School to speak to the students and faculty. I had not yet met a Holocaust survivor.  Because of what Alex told me they had been through during the Holocaust, I was nervous.  They seemed fragile to me. I felt totally in awe of them.  Little did I know then that the survivors’ lives would become so much a part of my life. And so it was, it has always been the survivors.

In the car, driving to the school, Leah and Renate spoke of their need to bear witness for their parents, families, and friends who were murdered by the Nazis.  Later, in the classroom, when I heard them speak about their memories and watched them interact with the students and so willingly answer their questions, I immediately became committed to documenting their memories. The children were spellbound as they listened to the words they were hearing from Renate and Leah.  Even though Alex Grobman and I had been to the school the week before to give them a background on the Holocaust, some of what the children were hearing now was almost too painful for them to bear.  I watched their faces and bent over shoulders and I did, indeed, ask Leah to give them a chance to breathe.  I learned to always meet with those who will be in the Outreach Program.

I made a silent commitment to the survivors themselves.  I knew I had found something I wanted to do for as long as I was able. During an initial conversation about survivors with Alex Grobman, the Director of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies in 1979 told me, “You will get to know them and love them and then you will go to their funerals.”

In 1979 ours was one of the earlier oral history projects that interviewed Holocaust survivors.  In 1980 we felt like pioneers-that we were breaking new ground- at least in our eyes. After listening to the survivors speak to the students, I quickly related my thoughts to the meeting of our Holocaust Commission.  They also understood the importance of preserving the survivors’ testimonies. Our oral history project was established. I soon became chairman of the project. Even before 1977, in the planning of our Holocaust Center, the Commission was planning to establish an oral history project. We studied and defined what the project was to be; to understand what this project may mean to each individual survivor, to the interviewers and the educators.  And then, what were we to do with these audio-cassette tapes?

We were determined to interview survivors about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust; the liberators of Nazi concentration camps, labor camps, death camps and death marches; and survivors with diverse regional, historical and religious backgrounds; rounded out with those of different ages, those in ghettos, those who were deported, hiding in the forest or convents; those who worked in Displaced Person camps after the war; Righteous Gentiles, Jewish American prisoners of war and non-Jews that lived in Europe during World War II.  Let us enter their world graciously, with compassion, instinct and common sense.

For our initial training program, we drew our prospective interviewers from the Holocaust Commission.  Few of us, if any, had ever conducted an oral history interview before. There were twelve of us–dedicated and apprehensive with good reasons. We were deeply concerned about interviewing people that had suffered so much emotional and physical pain. When our training sessions began we found we were all worrying that our questions would open their wounds and that we wouldn’t know how to put them back together. We had no anesthetic.  But we were dedicated to this task of studying the Holocaust and learning to interview. We had a rich source of historical evidence to discover in the survivor’s world.

Our advisors were vital to our goals.  They educated us about the history of the Holocaust through lecturers and authors from out of town and from surrounding universities, films and books. The directors of the Holocaust Center, Alex Grobman and later Warren Green, were instrumental to this project as were Professors Shelly Bienfeld, Washington University; George Rawick, University of Missouri, St. Louis,  Professor and author who edited “From Sundown to Sunup”, a slave narrative; Harry James Cargas,  Professor and author from a Catholic perspective;  Rabbi Robert Jacobs, from Hillel-Washington University.  Dr. Moisy Shopper, a psychiatrist, helped us to understand the issues sensitive to conducting in depth interviews to those who had endured so much horror, pain and sadness.

The seminars became study groups and, in turn, our support group.  We met every seven weeks and often called each other to talk about what we were learning.  During each of the meetings that we attended, our “teachers” evaluated a transcript from one of our interviews from a historical, psychological and religious perspective. These tapes and transcripts will be used to supplement our own methods in teaching the Holocaust.  These memoirs are history, Jewish history and our own St. Louis history of immigrants who came here to begin new lives.

The meetings were well attended. One person wanted to have a meeting about dreams he had concerning what he was learning. A concern high on our agenda was the continual refinement of our skills as interviewers to meet the concerns of the people we were interviewing.  We needed to learn to listen to what they were saying and what they were not saying. Some survivors who came from Germany in the 1930’s came to our meetings to interview and just to be near the subject. It was difficult for them to ask the hard questions.  For some, they may have already known the answers so they didn’t ask the questions.

A special need was “matching up” a particular interviewee with the best interviewer for them as far as personality, compassion and the language of their homeland. Many lasting friendships were born under these circumstances. We were serious. Learning about survivors and learning about the Holocaust were two different things.

No one in the group rushed to interview.  We took our time hoping to learn all we could before we began to interview. And we were all different.  Each of us needed to wait until we felt reasonably able.  Remember, this was early in 1980. Today I am amazed how well we did in all aspects of our project.  We set high standards and did our best to maintain them.

One could not imagine the horror of how survivors lived day by day and the effort it took. It is impossible to imagine. But try anyway, as an interviewer.  Stand in your own home, i.e. the living room, and think of and look at the things you love that may have been handed down to you. Visualize them being smashed, taken away from you or someone else living in your home.   You may have been brutally marched to Union Station by Nazis to be deported alone, or horribly separated from parents or children. So, as you would interview them, watch their expressions, hear the confusion in their words of how they fear what was going to happen to them next. Along with their descriptions of their hunger, notice the movements of their hands, seeing tears in their eyes, hearing the breaking of their voice, and the intenseness of their feelings. Crying may be expected and can be a welcome release for them.

The most important part of our oral history project are the people we interview. They are more important than their story. Learning to interview takes time and dedication.  We are asking them to remember the parts of their lives that they have put most of their energies into forgetting. So this begins a combined effort of both interviewer and interviewee of time, patience, caring, courage and often love. It takes listening, really listening, and trying to understand not only what they are saying but what they really mean and what they are feeling. It means entering their lives, giving them our full attention with good eye contact.

Anna Gruber, from Poland, who had escaped to Russia during the war, became a school teacher when she came to America.  Anna, president of the Habonim Society, also named “The Builders,” came to my home with pages of names, phone numbers and addresses of survivors from Eastern Europe. We sat together on my couch, while Anna cried and cried as she told me about each person on the list. She knew what country they came from, what concentration camp they had been in before they came to the United States.

Anna invited me to come to a meeting of the Habonim Society. The survivors were mostly from Poland and had endured the Holocaust. After liberation and finding themselves alone without their families they were bonded by the horrifying events of the planned destruction of European Jewry by Germany.  Once in America they became each other’s families; aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, grandparents, cousins, and friends.

As chairman of the Oral History Project I wanted to meet the survivors and talk with them about the project and get to know them. After their questions were answered some seemed interested. It was a social evening. They played cards and visited with each other. I wasn’t present at their business meetings. They were a tight group of people.

If I heard someone in a department store or Schnucks speaking with an accent I engaged them in conversation. When the Holocaust Center took us in busses to Jefferson City to commemorate Yom HaShoah, I explained the project to the survivors again about being interviewed and told them about our outreach program, speaking at schools and organizations, and asked them to put their names and phone numbers on a signup sheet so I could call them. Rudy Oppenheim helped us get to know the German Jews. Everyone in our group of interviewers offered names of survivors they knew; their seamstress, their shoemaker, a doctor, a professor or a social friend.

All of us in our group of interviewers were concerned with the welfare of the survivors so a great deal of thought was given to what would be the best time of day to contact them for an interview. Since most of these people had never been interviewed before I felt recalling their past would be disturbing to them. During the day, they could be at work, then the wife may be worried about the call. Should I call before or after dinner? Too close to bedtime?

When I did call I introduced myself and told them how I got their name and quietly and slowly introduced the reason for the call; then listened for the pause before they responded to me, like drawing in their breath. I always heard it. I carefully elicited a framework of their life on a form designed to give to the interviewer and told them they would be called within a week. I answered their questions and listened to what they were thinking. I felt sleep would not come easily for them that evening.

I gave them my phone number so if they had questions or if they changed their minds, which I told them they could do at any time, even in the middle of their interview. They did not have to feel trapped or helpless by this experience.

The oral history project was intertwined with the Speakers Bureau.  A survivor who was interviewed found their histories invaluable in preparing their speech for a particular school, i.e. picking out the portion of their interview of the Warsaw Ghetto and condensing it into 20 minutes for John Burroughs School.

The survivors I interviewed had a mission to tell their stories so the Holocaust would “never happen again” and a responsibility to those who died. We knew the survivors would be our teachers.  We became their students.

After the war, when people heard that a survivor had not been deported to a camp or hadn’t been deported to a ghetto, he may have felt he had to play down his own experiences. He may have been in hiding, as he was then “one of the fortunate ones,” or “my story is not very interesting,” though it’s possible that he may have had to live with the fear of “what we gonna eat tomorrow?” or “they’re coming and taking,” “die in the oven.” If he was deported in a closed cattle car then, “there was often no food bucket for our needs.” There was exhaustion, they were mentally weary, not functioning properly, maybe not even now.

Some who had survived felt when they came to America that people may suspect they had done something terrible because they had survived. Many people did not want to hear their stories. In desperate last moments parents asked their oldest to take care of their brother or sister. Not always able to pull them through, the oldest had to live with his or her sadness and guilt. Each survivor found their own personal way to live with their past.

Asking them to be interviewed, to have their memories preserved, this was their sole drive to survive. When I asked a survivor what being interviewed meant to her she replied, “That someone else would learn what happened to me when I was gone. It wasn’t the first chance I had to talk, but it was the first chance I had for someone to really listen. It was getting something out of my gut.” Now, finally someone cared. They felt their suffering, their loss and their agony will not be forgotten.

Harry Lenga told students at Mehlville High School in 1984 that “I want you to tell my memories to your children, then they would be the eye witnesses to tell future generations that things like this happened and never again should this happen.”

Gathering Photographs and Significant Documentation

Information from the initial talk with your prospective interviewee to see what research would be helpful for the forthcoming interview could be a map; Encyclopedia Judaica; Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; names of towns, villages, ghettos, camps; Zionist Organizations.

Record the interviewees’ words as they talk about their photos and documentation they are sharing with you. If there have been no previous interviews with them, then their photos will help them begin to tell their stories. The “needs to know,” for every photo if possible, are names, dates, a place for captions and reasons for the photo. Then allow them the time to choose the photos that will help us learn more about the interviewee’s life, chronologically, by age; slowly, carefully and thoughtfully, remembering that their photos, especially if they are fortunate to have prewar pictures, are their most precious possessions.

You may be talking about a family photo with an adult child, grandchild, brother, sister, etc. whose dear ones were deported then murdered by the Nazis.  They may not know where the photo was taken or even anyone’s name.

Hopefully you will be taking some of their photos to be scanned and then returned to them. Leaving their other photos on the table having just gone back in time and seeing the faces that look so much like the friends and family they lost can cause them pain and loneliness.  The need for understanding is great. Do not underestimate the impact this is also having on the interviewer.

What we learned from our training sessions and ultimately from interviewing was that the survivors’ silences could mean they were fearful of what they might reveal and how it would affect them and/or the interviewer.  So, though they live with the painful memories every day, Oskar Jakob said, “Hardly a day goes by I don’t remember I was in a concentration camp.”  Ann Lenga once told me, “For you, it was 50 years ago; for me it was yesterday.” Bringing their painful memories to the surface, to be heard, and maybe examined or judged by the interviewer, was a risk to both the interviewee and the interviewer. e.g.,

“What it felt like to see the smoke.”

 

“I never drank my own urine.”
-Hilda Lebedun

 

“I gave a guard a watch to take my name off a list and put someone else’s name on the list for deportation.”
-Harry Lenga

Silences also mean they might be waiting for our responses of affirmation that what they revealed is okay-understood and accepted and we are not thrown by it.

They cannot feel they are talking to a wall.

Sometimes they just plunged ahead, as if to say, “I’m going to tell you anyhow whether you can take it or not.  I couldn’t take it either, so get a taste of it.”

We learned to respect their defenses- and if possible, for the moment, to try and enter their world- in that time and place where they are, even though we knew that we could not.  We also needed to be aware of our own feelings. If we couldn’t take it, then don’t conduct these kinds of interviews.

With so many memories they would often hesitate and wonder which path to take to help us feel how it really was for them. They needed time to think and remember.  Give them this time. It will probably only last a matter of seconds, but sometimes as an interviewer it seems longer and we often try to fill the void. We learned that during their pauses they could be searching their English vocabularies for some English word that might possibly express their pain and longing for their losses. Together we felt sorrow that there were no words in any language that could do that

Don’t let periods of silence fluster you; the interviewee can and is using the time to think and be sad while trying to put himself physically and mentally back into a place where he last saw his mother.

My Talk Given to Honor the Survivors – June 2, 2002

“My dear friends,

 

I wanted to be here today to honor you for who you are and for your deep commitment to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.  You are an integral part of everything that has been accomplished here. For me, you are family. It has been 23 years since I first met you. Little did I know then that your lives and memories would be so much a part of my life.

 

It took courage for you to begin to speak in schools. I watched you interact with the students and it wasn’t easy to fit your life story into the time allowed for a class. It was hard to know what to tell them. Were you telling too much? Too little? Would they listen? Would they believe you? Would they judge you? What could they really understand? How could they possibly understand? With great emotional cost to yourselves and with concern for the students, you carefully drew them into your world. They responded with warmth and respect. Your determination to talk was as apparent in all of your actions.

 

Your outreach was the catalyst for our oral history project and from the beginning you said “yes” to my request for you to speak. You became our educators; our historians. You have seen and experienced cruelties unsurpassed in history and who else but You could tell us of that life on the planet of hell? You have told us of fleeing your homelands to find havens in other countries; you have told us of suffering the separation and loss of your families. You spoke of ghettos, deportations, forced labor camps, death camps, death marches, hiding in the forest, holes in the ground and being hidden in convents.

 

Then you spoke of liberation and displaced persons’ camps and trying to find your loved ones often realizing that you were alone. You also shared your earliest memories of your parents, your grandparents, sisters and brothers. You spoke of your schools, your kheyder, your friends and if not for you how would we know how lovingly Harry Lenga remembers the songs his family sang on Shabbat and that people stood outside his home to listen. Your histories are treasures that tell of a lifetime that will never be again and therefore cannot be forgotten. You have allowed your early life and your families to live now in our memories. We listened and we cried inside ourselves and were proud and privileged that you could talk with us. Deep and lasting bonds were formed. Gradually, gently, step by step you learned to live again, to love again, to rebuild your lives. You came to America and learned a new language. You worked hard, with dignity and hope, raising money for your families. The impact of your testimonies will not end with the final interview of the last survivors. And the 8th or 9th graders 20 years from now will not be the last person to hear your words. The words you have spoken are a living legacy and will be passed on.”

 

Harry Lenga once said to students at Mehlville High School that “I hope you will repeat my stories to your children then they would be eyewitnesses to tell future generations that things like this happened and that never again should something like this happen.”

Toby Cymber Gutterman, from Poland.  Her friends asked her why she spoke English to her children at home. “Because I want my children to talk like an American.”

When Toby’s husband, Morry Cymber died, Toby shared an oral history interview about his life and how he saved Toby’s life.

On November 23, 1986, at the suggestion of Toby Cymber Gutterman, a survivor and friend, the Center honored all of the people who generously gave us their memories, along with the transcriber, Ruth Jordan, with certificates and a reception thanking them for their participation in the Oral History Project. Without them, the St. Louis story would not be told. Interviewers and interviewees had worked as a team and deep and lasting friendships were formed. It was a very special evening.

I first met Anna Gruber, a survivor from Poland, after watching a disturbing film called “Night and Fog,” at Webster Theater.  When we were introduced to each other I gave her a hug and said, “My name is ‘Sister’ Prince. It’s a nickname, I’m not a nun.  My real name is Vida.” Either she didn’t hear me or she didn’t understand my words, because when Anna hugged me back she said, “It’s a wonderful country where you can kiss a nun.”  Now, Anna and I often smile about this story—and hug.

It took great strength for survivors to build new lives. Think of their feelings, wanting to remember and wanting to forget while preparing for you to come to their homes to be interviewed. Even after liberation, “we were all sick, if not on the inside, now outside we looked normal, inside we are grieving.”

Returning to life held new and different traumas for survivors, they had nothing.  They were alone and unwanted.  Other countries came to collect their survivors; none came to take the Jews home to their different countries.

How does it happen that I should go to their homes and hear their stories about their lives, their lovely childhood memories, their torments and their nightmares?  How did I learn to listen to their fears, their tortured souls, their losses and above all the last time they saw their mother? The last time they saw their mother!  It needs to be repeated over and over and over again.

Their mothers became ashes and smoke along with their fathers, sisters, brothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, teachers, doctors and friends and everyone else who meant something to them. GONE.  ELIMINATED.  MURDERED. KILLED. STARVED TO DEATH. THE FINAL SOLUTION. CHOOSE YOUR OWN WORDS!!!

And where did all of their words I heard go–into my mind and heart, into my very being.  Some days my eyes fill with tears and my throat closes up with my thoughts and the visions I see.

There is a tower on highway 40, hair on the floor from a haircut, an incinerator in my son’s basement, my husband’s Lionel trains, waiting for the train to go to Kansas City, a J on the identity card for the JCCA, women’s naked bodies in the sauna at the Health Club. Football Stadium—fans shouting “Defense!  Defense!” turned into “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!”; a man watching the football game thrusting his right arm out yelling, “GO! GO!” looked like a Nazi salute. The golf course I play on had a sign on the 6th hole—GUR, GROUND UNDER REPAIR reminding me of the holding camp in Gurs, France.

And then seeing a small piece of bread alone on a small plate.

Three hundred survivors came from seventeen countries to begin their lives in St. Louis:

Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Bulgaria, Luxemburg, Latvia Romania, France, Holland, Hungary, Russia, Poland, Germany, United States, England, Lithuania

There is a presumption that the survivor had an immediate reaction or response after the liberation or the end of the war.  There were a number of times for the survivor to reorient or reestablish him/ or herself; immediate recognition when he learned he/she was liberated or free, out of danger; physical recovery, hospital or sanitarium; return to one’s birthplace.

They recognized that there was no future in Soviet Occupied Europe. Wandering around in Europe and escape to the West, DP camps; the journey and “homes” before coming to St. Louis; then learning the language, finding a job and a place to live to make a home and leaving University City for the western suburbs. They joined their own place of worship, raised their children and lived their lives as well as possible under the circumstances. And they remembered.

Blending the oral histories, photographs and words written on the back of the photographs, the videos, the written words in letters, poetry, diaries, the piano; their singing; memoirs, their published autobiographies and their significant documentation will give a special depth and scholarship to each person’s testimony and ultimately to our Oral History Archives.

There are still and always will be deniers. Saving these interviews allows these precious voices and their memories to bear witness to cruelties impossible to believe. These tapes will be preserved so that students, scholars and other interested individuals can listen, learn, research, write about and teach others about the horror of the Holocaust. These voices are the heart and soul of all our efforts.

The following excerpts are from survivors in their own words:

Ludwig Scheinbrum, Austria:  “I saw people that killed, people that were lame…you kill them, you know, kick them…kick them…kick them…for no reason.  He was going too slow, he was going too fast…or he smiled at something, you never know and a father and son in the camp, they have to spit in each other in the face… from a lousy SS man…a young punk, you know…you do it…look, you stay on the side and what do you do? And the son can…the SS man says beat him up, beat up your father…the father beat up his son.”

Kenneth Wilde, Germany, Kristallnacht: “Through this disaster, this debris, was I guess was one of the most unforgettable days that I can remember.  All of the synagogues were on fire, and it was something you just couldn’t imagine even after all the things that we had already experienced and heard about before.  I guess this is the culmination of it all.”

Hana Pinkus, Poland: “When we arrived in Auschwitz the train stopped and it was very high to jump out.  There wasn’t any steps and we had to jump out.  So my husband took me up.  I weighed maybe about 85 pounds at this time.  He took me up and behind him two gestapo started hitting him so hard, and kicking with those special white rubber sticks.  They beat him as much as they could.  I started screaming and they gave me a few and they grabbed him away.  On the way he said in Polish, ‘Anja, we meet each other in Wielun, and take care to survive’. After that, I didn’t see him anymore.  That’s it.  This was the last thing.”

John Brawley, United States Army Liberator, Nordhausen Concentration Camp: “We went inside the camp and I really couldn’t believe my eyes.  There was a row of buildings on each side and down in the center like an army barracks…there are these rows of people lying stretched out—if you call them people—dead people—they were literally skin and bones.  They were just…I couldn’t believe it, there were stacks of them—they were piled up like cordwood.  The smell was awful…the smell was worse than anything…the smell was probably worse than seeing what I was seeing. It didn’t happen overnight-they starved to death over a long period of time and they’d been worked to death and starved. So then, I went down below…down some stairs into a place which was almost like the other room except that there…there are bodies down there now and among them there are live people and they’re almost dead.  You could hear them now moaning …I wasn’t able to know what they were saying, they were just barely alive.”

“If the echo of their voice fades, we will perish.”
-Paul Eluard, French poet

“AND THEY WILL ASK IF THIS IS THE TRUTH. I WILL ANSWER IN ADVANCE: NO, THIS IS NOT THE TRUTH. IT IS ONLY A SMALL PART, A FRACTION OF THE TRUTH. THE ESSENTIAL TRUTH, THE REAL TRUTH, CANNOT BE DESCRIBED EVEN WITH THE MOST POWERFUL PEN.”
-from the account of Stefan Ernest

From the book “WORDS TO OUTLIVE US: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto”
Edited By Michal Grynberg, Translated with an Introduction by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan Books,Henry Holt & Company, New York