When Clark University Rose Professor of Holocaust History Debórah Dwork addressed an audience on Nov. 15 about Jews’ search for loved ones after the Holocaust, she took note of the timing of her talk.
“We are now coming to the end of the November pogrom commemorative week, also known as Kristallnacht,” she said of the Nazis’ November 9-10, 1938, attacks on Jewish homes, stores and synagogues that left European streets littered with broken glass. In the immediate aftermath, some 30,000 Jewish men and boys were sent to prisons and concentration camps. “The timing of this (lecture) is also marked by the bombing in Paris two days ago,” said Dwork, director of Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
The current violence and strife prompted Dwork to tell her 91-year-old mother that “I cannot remember living in such a fraught and difficult time. It is the worst that I can remember.” Her mother’s response? “The worst in your lifetime, darling, not mine.”
That perspective, Dwork said, “does give us some sense there is a way forward.” Dwork’s talk at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass., was titled “ ‘Where are You?’ Looking for Loved Ones After the War.” In introducing Dwork, the temple’s assistant rabbi, Joshua Franklin, ’06, M.A. ’07, called her a friend and mentor.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’d be standing here before you as a rabbi … if it wasn’t for developing under her mentorship at Clark,” Franklin said. “While I was an undergraduate and graduate student, she pushed me to ask big questions, and she empowered me with the tools to answer them.”
Clark University President David P. Angel also gave introductory remarks, noting that “universities play an important role in our society. They are one of the … few remaining institutions that embrace the responsibility to bring to bear knowledge, insight, wisdom (and) hard work to the difficult problems facing society. … The Strassler Center exemplifies the very best of all of those aspirations for higher education.”
Dwork’s talk highlighted that in the aftermath of war and tragedy, there can be resolution for survivors, whether painful or joyful. In the months after the Holocaust, Jews created informal networks and lists to find out whether their loved ones had survived the Nazi death camps or perished.
“Survivors in Europe developed their own means of communications. … Thousands upon thousands of survivors did not wait for organizations to take charge,” she said. “Each did what she or he could to effect reunion.”
Dwork recounted stories and anecdotes from diaries, documents and interviews, starting with Rabbi Abraham Klausner, a chaplain in the U.S. Army, who compiled the first list of Jewish survivors. That list grew to as many as 30,000 names, eventually being published by the U.S. government as the Sheerit ha-Pletah, or “Surviving Remnant.”
Rumors circulated throughout Europe as messengers passed along sightings and news of lost friends and relatives. Dwork’s maternal aunt, who survived Auschwitz and a series of other camps, was liberated at Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany. She located her husband in Hungary after hearing he was alive. Newspapers and radio broadcasts picked up the lists, which eventually were integrated into formal reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross. From 1945 to 1947, Red Cross speakers broadcast more than 570,000 names over 4,600 hours.
Not all the stories ended happily, Dwork explained, recounting the diary of a young German girl who had lost track of her parents and grandparents during the war. She had been sent via Kindertransport to Switzerland by her mother and grandmother while they worked to free her father from a concentration camp; he had been taken by the Nazis on Kristallnacht.
Along with the other anxious children, the girl, Karola Ruth Siegel, waited patiently as the orphanage staff read aloud the names from the Red Cross lists.
“It is a terrible feeling to hear those lists, listening for two or three names, holding your breath, and then, finished, nothing, cold and empty,” she wrote on May 18, 1945.
The girl, who later would go on to become celebrated American sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, never was reunited with her family. They were all killed in the Holocaust.