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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