Rubin Sztajer has told his tale of horror hundreds of times.
The Timonium resident calmly speaks of the moment on April 12, 1942 when as a teenager in Poland he was separated from his family by the Nazis and spent the next three years being dragged from concentration camp to concentration camp.
He eventually ended up at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp before being liberated on April 15, 1945 by the British. Sztajer was one of about 60,000 prisoners inside, mixed in with about 13,000 corpses. While he survived, his parents, two younger sisters and brother all died during the Holocaust.
Sztajer, 88, has made it his life’s mission to ensure that his family, along with the 6 million other Jews that perished during the Holocaust are never forgotten. Whether it is at a school, a college, synagogue or church, Sztajer said he never tires of trying to educate others about the atrocities he witnessed.
“It feels great to see the kids and how they respond to my speeches,” said Sztajer, who spoke at McDaniel College and to a group in Hagerstown last week. “Kids ask great questions and they are just shocked at the stories I tell them. This is my mission and what keeps me going.”
Sztajer is one of the estimated 109,000 to 140,000 Holocaust survivors that are still alive in the United States. Survivors like Sztajer feel an added sense of motivation in recent years to tell their tale as their generation continues to dwindle with time.
Those deaths include Alice Herz-Sommer , who was 110 years old and the oldest living Holocaust survivor when she died in February in London. Locally, Leo Bretholz , who led the fight for reparations from a French rail company that transported innocent victims to concentration camps died in March. The 93-year-old passed away just days before he was to testify in Annapolis on the issue.
Remembering the Holocaust
The terrors of the Holocaust and the desire to preserve its memory to ensure history never repeats itself is at the forefront this week as the Jewish community celebrates Yom HaShoah Sunday and Monday. Hundreds turned out to reflect on Sunday at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville, which included a tribute to Bretholz, in an event sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council.
A recent Pew Research Center report found that 73 percent of Jews surveyed said remembering the Holocaust is a vital part of their identity.
That is the case for Dr. Steve Salzberg.
A psychiatrist, Salzberg also teaches “The Oral History of the Holocaust” at Goucher College along with professors Uta Larkey and Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff. The trio teaches students how to interview survivors, and in turn, how to retell those stories to others.
“This is the last generation that will have the chance to interview actual survivors,” said Salzberg, whose father and uncle both were survivors. “You can read about the Holocaust in a book or view material online, but there is something powerful about hearing the tales directly from the source.”
At 91 years old, Morris Rosen takes that mission to heart.
Rosen spent decades volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The Pikesville resident has spoken all over the country and has met Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Rosen, who was born in Poland, was 14 when the Germans invaded the country. One of his most vivid memories came in 1942 when Jewish families were gathered into a field in order to receive new identification. Nazi troops surrounded the group armed with machine guns on roof tops.
“We were told if we did not show up, we would be shot,” Rosen said. “Only two people didn’t come out.”
Rosen spent five years in various German labor camps. During that time, he was forced to build scaffolds for hanging. During those years, Rosen was forced into hard labor in extreme heat and cold with no food; at times going more than 10 days without any nourishment. Both of Rosen’s parents and five of his nine siblings died during the Holocaust.
“Do you think I want to recall those stories?” asked Rosen, who has more than 5,000 historical documents on the Holocaust in his home. “I have to. There is still so much anti-Semitism out there. There is still so much hate in the world. I’m going to keep telling my story.
“There are still people out there that deny the Holocaust ever happened. If I put out my story, and the photos and the documents, there’s no way people can deny it.”
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said even 70 years later it is important never to forget about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I join people from all nations and all faiths in remembering the 6 million Jews and others who had their lives and families torn apart in the Shoah," said Cardin in a statement. "We honor the memory of those humanity lost and cherish the lives of the survivors. In the United States, Israel and across the world, Holocaust Survivors still bear the physical and mental scars, proof of
the barbarism some are capable of.
"Survivors are a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of faith. Sadly we are losing Holocaust survivors daily, along with their priceless knowledge of our history. They have our utmost respect. Now, more than ever, we must do all that is possible to allow the survivors among us to age with comfort and dignity.
“In memory of those who fought back in Warsaw and elsewhere, this Day of Remembrance must also be a day of action. ‘Never again’ must not be words left to history but actions that we take daily to protect the basic human rights of all peoples. We must be vigilant in the fight to erase ignorance and blind hate from our communities. We owe it to past and future generations work towards a more just and caring world for all people.”
Learning at a deeper level
Towson University history professor Valerie Thaler said hearing stories directly from survivors can have a powerful impact on younger generations.
Thaler, who has taught the history of the Holocaust at Towson, said she tries to get students to examine the Holocaust at a deeper level. This includes at 7 p.m. Thursday when Towson will host Sol Goldstein. The 91-year-old World War II veteran helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.
“There are plenty of examples of genocide that has gone on in recent times, including in Syria, Rwanda and Darfur,” Thaler said. “While the access to information has never been greater, it’s amazing the extent to which people are oblivious to atrocities.
“Some people just choose to not want to know what is going on around them. The Holocaust happened because of a perfect storm of events. From economic hardship to the Germans being upset over losing World War I to apathy from much of the world on what was happening to the Jewish community, made it easy for the Nazis to come to power. If we’re not careful, that could happen again.”
Thaler pointed to the JCC shooting earlier this month in Kansas and issues in Ukraine as prime examples that anti-Semitism is still alive and well throughout much of the world.
In Kansas, the shootings were allegedly carried out by Frazier Glenn Cross of Aurora, Mo., who is jailed in Johnson County, Kan.
Police say Cross fatally shot two people on a Sunday afternoon in the parking lot behind the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, then drove to a retirement community where he shot a third person. He was arrested in an elementary school parking lot.
Then in Ukraine, Jews around the world expressed grave concern about the anti-Semitic flyer circulating in Donetsk, Ukraine , that states that all Jewish citizens need to register with local authorities.
During the Holocaust, approximately 1.5 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in the territory of Ukraine.
“Efforts to save the Jewish people came too little too late in many cases during World War II,” Thaler said. “The biggest enemy to fighting hate out there is apathy.”
That concern is shared by Sztajer.
“I fear when we die, the Holocaust will be forgotten,” Sztajer said. “Even now, I have some people tell me that the Holocaust is simply ‘old news.’ People today are more concerned about the Orioles or Ravens than learning about the Holocaust. If that were to happen today, I’m not sure the Jewish people would be able to survive.”