Providing a Voice for Those Who No Longer Speak
WHEN I was a producer for an ABC News special on education, our executive producer stormed into my editing room with a pained look on his face, saying, ``One of the high school students we interviewed was asked what the Holocaust was and said, `Isn't that a Jewish holiday?''' The producer then walked from room to room recounting this story to every member of the staff. Of course, he used the sound bite in the broadcast, but we were all ashamed, ashamed that he was right to put the sound bite in the show. After all, it was a program that examined how little American teenagers know about world history.
I am not a child of the Holocaust. I am not a survivor of Auschwitz, or Buchenwald, or Dachau, or Treblinka. I am an American Jew who, like many Americans, is often looking for a marker in time, a specific moment or date, on which to observe or commemorate an ``event.'' Ironically, I work in television, a medium that is charged with the responsibility to mark ``events.''
I have often wondered how Americans like myself, who never lived through the Holocaust, can ``remember'' what we didn't experience. This summer, when I was videotaping in three concentration camps in Eastern Europe for Channel One in New York - for a news broadcast that will reach millions of high school students - I found some answers to that question. I began to understand that we all share a collective memory and conscience. If we read, watch films, and listen to the testimonies of survivors, we can remember.
``There is not one single picture of what took place inside the gas chambers. Nobody could testify about what took place because everybody who crossed the threshold of the gas chambers never came back to testify.'' Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust documentary, ``Shoah,'' opened a recent address with these thoughts. Lanzmann continued, ``An event without witnesses is an event which didn't exist, didn't take place. Thus, witnesses are so important.'' His words gave me a new sense of purpose as a journalist.
Trying to explain the Holocaust to a teenage audience is one of the most difficult assignments I have ever had. I decided to tell the story through the eyes of teenagers. I videotaped young people who had traveled to Auschwitz, Terezin, and Birkenau, to become witnesses themselves. One group stood in front of Block 22 in Auschwitz, listening to a survivor named Henry Kaye tell how he lost 163 members of his family, at the age of 13.
Sally Kaye walked with the teenagers to a barbed-wired fence, where she described something she witnessed as an eight-year-old child, in chilling detail. She watched a woman throw herself on the electrified fence surrounding the camp. The teenagers stood motionless as Sally put her own hands on the fence to show them how that woman's hands had stuck to the twisted metal, turned black, and how her body fell to the ground. Sally said the only way she could talk about Auschwitz was to share her memories with young people.
Sally and Henry Kaye know that many teenagers don't even know what the Holocaust was and, worse still, aren't particularly interested. Moving them enough to care is my responsibility. It is a privilege to be able to use the power of television to tell the stories of those ``who never came back to testify.''
It is through images, the faces of survivors, the barbed wire, the crematoriums, the photographs of children, that our student audience will learn to remember. Television is a medium that is made to ``witness,'' however passively. By capturing reality on video, we relate memories, reminding our American teenagers of the German teenagers who rampaged through Jewish ghettos, looting shops and homes, and murdering men, women, and children on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, an ``event'' called Kristallnacht or ``night of broken glass.''
I hope we will actively remember occurrences such as Kristallnacht, not only for those who ``never came back to testify,'' but also for the teenager who thought the Holocaust was a Jewish holiday. We can all take the time to think about those witnesses who will never testify.