Coun­tering hatred with memory

Talking about it

When Anita Winter heard that half of Holo­caust survi­vors world­wide now lived in poverty, she deci­ded to act. With the work of the Gamar­aal Foun­da­tion, she works to promote remem­brance of the unfa­thom­able breach of civi­li­sa­tion repre­sen­ted by the Holocaust.

‘Then they tattooed me: 17978. I cried a lot. Not because of the pain. No. Because of the number. Because I had lost my name; I was then nothing but a number,’ says Nina Weil, one of the Holo­caust survi­vors profi­led in the exhi­bi­tion ‘The Last Swiss Holo­caust Survi­vors’. Accord­ing to Anita Winter, foun­der and presi­dent of the Gamar­aal Foun­da­tion, there are only a few hund­red Holo­caust survi­vors remai­ning in Switzerland. 

A must

There was one parti­cu­lar moment that spur­red Winter into action. ‘When I heard that more than half of living Holo­caust victims world­wide now lived in poverty, I couldn’t sleep any more,’ she says. There are coun­tries, such as the USA or Ukraine, in which Holo­caust survi­vors are more likely than average to be affec­ted by poverty, accord­ing to the Jewish Claims Confe­rence. Poverty in old age exists in Switz­er­land too, in all parts of the coun­try. ‘We support Holo­caust survi­vors in all sorts of ways,’ says Winter. The Gamar­aal Foun­da­tion takes on the costs for hearing aids, for example, or other expen­ses that make life easier. 

A project that brid­ges the generations

‘We wanted to do some­thing small. Just do some­thing. It’s better than doing nothing,’ she empha­si­ses. So she estab­lished a foun­da­tion, as the most appro­priate way to help. The first people to contact her once it was set up were survi­vors who were now doing very well finan­cially. They wanted to help, but didn’t know how, because they couldn’t exactly just send money to someone. She also found it very touch­ing that family members and descen­dants of the perpe­tra­tors kept approa­ching the foun­da­tion again and again, offe­ring their help too. 

Keep silent or keep talking?

Anot­her moti­va­tion to act has its roots in Winter’s child­hood. She was born in Baden and grew up with three siblings as the daugh­ter of Jewish Holo­caust survi­vors. Today she lives in Zurich. Since her child­hood she has been confron­ted with topics surroun­ding the Holo­caust – in her own home. So she knows: ‘There are people who stay silent because it’s too pain­ful to talk about, and those who discuss their expe­ri­en­ces again and again. I had both: my mother kept silent and my father always empha­sised that the Holo­caust shouldn’t be forgot­ten.’ Winter descri­bes her invol­ve­ment quietly, choo­sing her words care­fully, with an under­ly­ing sense of respect, care and great thank­ful­ness towards the Holo­caust survi­vors. She expres­ses great admi­ra­tion for the strength and resi­li­ence these people had to build new lives after all that they had expe­ri­en­ced. Winter’s dedi­ca­tion to this cause is based upon her own history.

‘My father and many survi­vors kept saying in their lectures, No one could have ever imagi­ned what happened.’

Anita Winter, Foun­der of the Gamar­aal Foundation

The father

Walter Strauss, Winter’s father, was born in Heil­bronn in 1922. He remem­be­red his child­hood as an inst­ruc­tive, joyful and happy time. After Hitler took power on 30 Janu­ary 1933, his daily life at school chan­ged when he ente­red secon­dary school. At the begin­ning, he was ‘merely’ igno­red. Then he wasn’t allo­wed to sit down, was called a ‘Jewish pig’, and later on Jews were forbid­den from atten­ding school. In despe­ra­tion his parents sent him to Berlin to train as a tailor. In 1938, as a 16-year-old all by hims­elf, he expe­ri­en­ced Kristall­nacht, the Night of Broken Glass. His first thought when he saw the synago­gues burning, was: ‘Thank good­ness the fire brigade will be here soon to put the fire out.’ He was all the more horri­fied when he reali­sed that although the fire brigade did come, it wasn’t there to put out the burning synago­gue, but to protect the surroun­ding buil­dings. ‘He told us about that night over and over, how ever­ything was just smas­hed and plun­de­red,’ says Winter.

The mother 

Margit Fern was born in 1934, after Hitler had already seized power. In 1938, her mother Rosa fled with her and her little brother Arno via Stras­bourg and Paris to the Dordogne in the south of France. There, deep in the coun­try­side, she was able to hide under the false name Margue­rite Fontaine until the end of the war. It was a hard time, marked by great depri­va­tion. This family history is one of the things that moved Winter to set up the foun­da­tion. From the small project she envi­sa­ged in 2014, big projects have emer­ged over the past eight years. One of them is the exhi­bi­tion, which tours both virtually and in physi­cal form world­wide, and relies on testi­mo­ni­als from Holo­caust survi­vors. The book that accom­pa­nies the exhi­bi­tion begins with a quota­tion from Primo Levi: ‘It happened, there­fore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.’ 

Winning hearts and minds – a mission close to their hearts 

Winter consi­ders Holo­caust educa­tion to be of para­mount import­ance. ‘We can coun­ter this hatred with memory. We can change things if the next genera­tion knows about the Holo­caust. I will say it openly: we are facing an enor­mous chal­lenge. The Holo­caust is gradu­ally being forgot­ten, espe­cially among young people. For instance, in France, one in five of people surveyed aged between 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holo­caust. In Austria, the birth­place of Adolf Hitler, it was twelve percent of young people.’ (Anti-Semi­tism in Europe: an exclu­sive CNN poll). This is a deve­lo­p­ment that the foun­da­tion is batt­ling. In 2018, the Gamar­aal Foun­da­tion, jointly with the ETH Zurich Archi­ves of Contem­porary History, recei­ved the Dr Kurt Bigler Prize for outstan­ding projects in the field of Holo­caust educa­tion. The content of the remar­kable and moving presen­ta­ti­ons is crea­ted by the survi­vors them­sel­ves. The foun­da­tion acts as an inter­me­di­ary, deals with admi­ni­stra­tion and estab­lishes conta­cts. It is of para­mount import­ance to Winter that the survi­vors create their own presen­ta­ti­ons. ‘We are infi­ni­tely grate­ful to the Holo­caust survi­vors, from the bottom of our hearts, that they summo­ned the strength to tell us their life stories and to relate to us expe­ri­en­ces and memo­ries that, in some cases, can hardly be expres­sed in words. The memo­ries come up to the surface. And the feelings along with them.’ A state­ment that gives us pause. It is not always possi­ble for them to tell their stories, she says. Some­ti­mes it just takes too much energy to talk about what happened. But the survi­vors feel it is their duty. They are spea­king for those six million who did not survive and can no longer speak for them­sel­ves. Winter consi­ders nothing more power­ful than coming into direct contact with survi­vors. She rela­tes that during the regu­lar events with contem­porary witnesses, like one held recently in a school hall in Zurich, you can hear a pin drop. The child­ren listen atten­tively. No one glan­ces at their phone. It’s impres­sive. She says empha­ti­cally: ‘Every school­child who gets the chance to listen to a survi­vor beco­mes a witness of a contem­porary witness. That child will under­stand and will not deny the Holo­caust. That’s what we work for, day and night.’ 

‘I say it frankly, we are enor­mously chal­len­ged: The Holo­caust is being forgot­ten, espe­cially among young people.’

Anita Winter

Passi­vity or resistance

A person who does not know about the Holo­caust does not under­stand how fragile demo­cracy ulti­mately is. They do not under­stand how a demo­cracy can give rise to a dicta­tor­ship. They do not under­stand that we must defend demo­cracy and human rights and that it is always possi­ble to do so. And that inclu­des hatred towards people due to their reli­gion, their ethnic origin, the colour of their skin or their sexual orien­ta­tion. ‘You can either adopt a passive role or you can resist,’ says Winter. ‘We have to explain these opti­ons to young people.’

Telling it like it was

‘Holo­caust survi­vors know that history can repeat itself, because they have seen with their own eyes what people are capa­ble of,’ writes Winter in the fore­word of the book accom­pany­ing the exhi­bi­tion, The Last Swiss Holo­caust Survi­vors. This fact is what drives her to preserve the profiles and indi­vi­dual stories of survi­vors for future genera­ti­ons. The most urgent thing the foun­da­tion needs is money to produce high-quality video testi­mo­ni­als. They are recor­ded using the latest tech­no­lo­gies so that they will last and can be used for many diffe­rent purpo­ses – perhaps for history lessons, social media, TikTok campai­gns or virtual exhibitions. 

Nina Weil, Holo­caust survi­vor, born in 1932 in Klatovy (now Czechia). Her work at the Gamar­aal Foun­da­tion ensu­res that the Holo­caust is not forgotten.

A race against time

The life stories of the survi­vors are unique, very indi­vi­dual and important contem­porary testi­mo­nies. Unfor­tu­n­a­tely it has happened that the Gamar­aal Foun­da­tion project team made all the prepa­ra­ti­ons for filming and then, just befo­re­hand, the person died. It is a race against time. ‘My father and many other survi­vors kept saying in their testi­mo­ni­als: nobody could ever have imagi­ned that such things could happen. It began with margi­na­li­sa­tion. Slowly. A remark here, an anti-Semi­tic slogan there, or someone would reveal that they felt uneasy about Jews. But nobody would have even begun to imagine where all these instan­ces of discri­mi­na­tion, gradu­ally incre­a­sing in dura­tion and seve­rity, would lead, and what atro­ci­ties people were capa­ble of.’ Which makes it even more important, accord­ing to Winter, that the eyewit­nesses tell us what they have seen with their own eyes and expe­ri­en­ced with their own bodies. 

‘It has happened, and conse­quently it can happen again: Ther­ein lies the core of what we have to say.’

Primo Levi, Holo­caust survi­vor and author

World­wide 

The great success of the exhi­bi­tion ‘The Last Swiss Holo­caust Survi­vors’ today is also down to Winter herself. She is coura­ge­ous. She brings the exhi­bi­tion to places where it is needed. The exhi­bi­tion takes a stand against horror and death. It is a rally­ing cry for life, and it is travel­ling all around the world. Its first venue was in Berlin, at the Swiss embassy. The embassy is directly oppo­site the German Chan­cel­lery, and was the only buil­ding in the Spree­bo­gen, that famous bend in the River Spree, to with­stand the Second World War. Later the exhi­bi­tion stop­ped in famous muse­ums, such as the Memo­riale della Shoah di Milano in Milan, in various loca­ti­ons in Asia such as Sing­a­pore, in many Swiss cities, and in Israel. It has also been on tour in the USA. ‘A big moment was when we took the exhi­bi­tion to the United Nati­ons Head­quar­ters in New York. The main spea­ker was Ruth West­hei­mer, who was able to survive the Holo­caust in Switz­er­land and now lives in the USA,’ says Winter. The exhi­bi­tion was also held in the Virgi­nia Holo­caust Museum and in Washing­ton DC. Many loca­ti­ons that had been sche­du­led to host the exhi­bi­tion, such as Bergen-Belsen and Shang­hai, had to be cancel­led due to coro­na­vi­rus. This led to the deve­lo­p­ment of a hybrid exhi­bi­tion, which was shown in Athens, Greece, among other loca­ti­ons. The impres­sive exhi­bi­tion in Krakow, on the site of Schindler’s factory, was even­tually shown at a later date. The current venue is in Stock­holm, where the exhi­bi­tion opened on 9 Novem­ber 2022 in colla­bo­ra­tion with the new Swedish Holo­caust Museum. The asso­cia­ted publi­ca­tion has been prin­ted in a number of languages. A small portion of the exhi­bi­tion can be seen within the perma­nent exhi­bi­tion on Swiss history at the Natio­nal Museum Zurich. For school visits there are free guides avail­able in several languages. And the Stämpfli Verlag publi­shing house has now brought out a book, The Last Swiss Holo­caust Survi­vors

Perso­nal

Frau Winter brings toge­ther human beings all over the world to show them the faces and stories of those whose human dignity was once denied them. So I would like to end this piece on Anita Winter and her dedi­ca­tion by quoting Holo­caust survi­vor Ivan Lefko­vits: ‘My mother really protec­ted me in Ravens­brück. She did extra tasks in return for an extra portion of soup, which she then gave to me. I lear­ned reading and writing, and all my times tables, in the worst possi­ble circum­stan­ces. My mother said: “You’ll need it later on in your life.” That was magi­cal. It meant: “You’re going to survive.”’

1 Dem Tod entron­nen [Esca­ping death], Gadi Winter, p. 19

2 Dem Tod entron­nen [Esca­ping death], Gadi Winter, p. 36

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