BERLIN — The shadows deepen and lengthen, memories grow dim, and some of the survivors of the tragedies of World War II scramble to preserve the recollections before the colors fade to gray.
There’s no shortage of ghosts prowling the cities and countryside of Europe. Remembrances of monstrous evil lie all about. None have tried harder than the progeny of the Germans who started it all to learn from the past, and recall without flinching the scourge and stain on history that is still unfathomable three-quarters of a century later.
An exhibit of photographs of the Nazi era, with the faces of human evil so familiar to the fading generations is on view now in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate. Crowds of weekend strollers come to study the photographs and to admire the 40-foot Christmas tree and — in an irony der fuehrer would not appreciate — a large menorah and a Star of David in bright lights.
The Topography of Terror, a museum of the Hitler time built at what was once the most feared address in Berlin, the headquarters of the Gestapo, is one of the most popular sites with visitors to Germany. So, too, the Jewish Museum, with its history of the Jews. But none work with more dedication and enthusiasm for keeping the dark memories alive than a dwindling group of survivors of Hitler’s death camps. Some of them are well into their 90s now, leaning on canes or advancing slowly across a room on a walker, talking to young people to whom World War II is as distant as the Hundred Years War.
“Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” says Regina Sluszny, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child in Belgium, tells The Wall Street Journal. “But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.”
Mrs. Sluszny, 74, was a small child during the war, and there are few survivors who were adults during the war years. A prisoner who was 20 when Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and other death camps were liberated in 1945, would be 88 now. Very few prisoners survived the relentlessly efficient Nazi killing machine. Of 67 who survived at Treblinka, where 850,000 prisoners, nearly all Jews, were slain, only two survivors are alive today. Of the 250,000 scheduled for execution at Sobibor, only 50 survived and only four remain. Seven of the doomed 165,000 at Chelmo survived, but are no longer alive. Two of the 500,000 scheduled for extermination at Belzec survived, but none remains alive today. Death continues to take a toll in a time of deliverance and peace.
Once arrested, those marked by the Gestapo for death were doomed. Only in the rarest of circumstances was escape an option. Simon Gronowski, 82, a Belgian, tells how he was one of the “fortunate” exceptions. He was 12 when the Gestapo arrested him, his mother and his sister in a home where they were hiding. A month later, the three of them were put on a train bound for Auschwitz. When a resistance party raided the train, several prisoners forced open a door, and when the train resumed speed, his mother held him outside the boxcar and told him to jump. He did, and ran into the woods, and for 17 months he was hidden by another Christian family. He finally rejoined his father, who had escaped from a hospital. He never saw his mother and sister again.
Mr. Gronowski often tells his story to schoolchildren, who are mesmerized and can hardly believe the story. Mr. Gronowski usually shows them his identity number, a tattoo inside his forearm. This is important, he says, because Holocaust deniers insist the stories can’t be true.
The stories, and even the survivors telling them, will be replaced soon by time and technology. The Shoah Foundation, founded by the moviemaker Steven Spielberg to preserve this history, wants to create lifelike holograms of the survivors telling their stories. Some Jews think this, well-meaning as it is, trivializes the Holocaust. But the foundation wants to create a living history to tell the stories to generations who will grow up with technology. The holograms won’t be used while survivors are alive. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, tells The Journal: “We don’t want to pre-empt them and say, ‘Thanks very much, we’ll now replace you with a true lifelike version of you.’”
The Holocaust will need all the storytelling help it can get. It’s evil so unbelievable that it’s otherwise unbelievable.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.