As Firsthand Memories Fade, the Guilt Remains

As a young child, my father told me that my grandfather served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II on Okinawa. He also told me that my grandfather was quiet about it, granted he did not see any action during his stay as an occupying force on the island. So, I along with much of my family took that as a cue to not directly ask him. It did not seem unusual to me, as many of my friends had the same experience with their family members from that generation. Now, as the years go by, these WWII veterans are dwindling and with them, their personal stories.

The same can be said of the men, women, and children who survived the Holocaust. Stories—if even told—are losing their firsthand authority. The memories are too painful, and it took many years for these people to open up and share their experiences. The pain is obvious, as common themes of guilt and shame come out through these accounts and recollections. Guilt for surviving. Shame for doing what had to be done to survive. As with Art Spiegelman, the guilt often permeates the family life and now it resides on the faces of the survivors’ children.[1]

Despite these obstacles, the stories are out there and many are now willing to share to ensure that the memories and the lessons of the Holocaust will never fade.

Photograph by Mark Seliger. Used in "When They Came To Take My Father" travelling exhibit.

Mark Seliger has chosen to preserve the faces of the Holocaust through his specialized medium of black and white photography.  Growing up in Texas, Seliger had few, yet powerful encounters with the Holocaust and Jewish survivors. In particular, the young man remembered the Auschwitz tattoos on the arms of three brothers who owned a local bakery and a trip to notorious camp when he was a teenager.[2] Inspired by the legacy of these survivors, Seliger travelled around the country capturing the images of over fifty men and women who had firsthand accounts of the atrocities occurring in the ghettos and the camps. These poignant portraitures would later motivate the photographer to write a book entitled When They Came To Take My Father: Voices of the Holocaust which supplements his visual displays with his subjects’ experiences during and following the Holocaust.

Seliger’s reputation and the emotional power of his images sparked a travelling exhibition organized by the Holocaust Museum Houston named “When They Came To Take My Father” after Seliger’s book.  Out of his collection, twenty-two black and white photographs were selected to display the lives and dark memories of survivors.[3] The images are so emotional and honest that the audience cannot help but be greatly moved by the mixture of strength and guilt shown.

Vladek beginning to share his story with Art, with his Auschwitz tattoo exposed. (Art Spiegelman, Maus, p. 12)

Vladek Spiegelman, like the survivors in the “When They Came To Take My Father,” is an exception that Art acknowledges.[4] Vladek is willing to share his accounts in order to spend time with his son. Others share in order to vent. Many share because they do not want such an event to occur again. People like Art Spiegelman, Mark Seliger, and Yaffa Eliach recognize the importance of telling the stories of the lives of survivors, as well as representing the Jewish culture as a living entity. There must be a balance, or else these people will only be defined by the Holocaust.[5] The people are still out there, and museums can help preserve the memories and the cultures of survivors.

I am not convinced that we should write off the general silence of people who witnessed the war and the Holocaust as being just a characteristic of that generation. So, maybe my grandfather was uncomfortable talking about the war. Maybe he wasn’t. I never asked him. Now, much of his story is lost because nobody gave him the authority to share.

[1] Art Spiegelman, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), p. 102.

[2] Mark Seliger, “When They Came To Take My Father,” Travelling Exhibit through Holocaust Museum Houston.

[3] Mark Seliger, “When They Came To Take My Father,” Travelling Exhibit though Holocaust Museum Houston.

[4] “Art Spiegelman and the Making of Maus,” PBS, 1993.

[5] Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 183-184.

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