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.
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
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.
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.’
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
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.
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