“Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness.”
This quotation from author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was the central theme of a talk by Diana Wang, a family therapist and Holocaust historian, on the first night of Passover this past Sunday. Wang spoke about her experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors and her work as the president of “Generaciones de la Shoá,” which organizes “The Apprentice Project,” a program that pairs Holocaust survivors with young adults who record their stories with the aim of sharing that testimony once the survivor has died. This is not Wang’s first experience with recording Holocaust survivors’ stories: She worked with director Steven Spielberg to compile a registry of testimonies after the release of Spielberg’s acclaimed 1993 Holocaust film, Schindler’s List.
During her talk, Wang told the story of a woman who died shortly before she finished The Apprentice Project. Her apprentice attended the woman’s funeral and was approached by her grandchildren, who were hoping to hear the stories about the Holocaust that she had told her apprentice but not her own family. Wang used moments like these to emphasize the importance of her project to the approximately 30 people who attended the talk, which was hosted in Peirce Lounge by the Partnership of East Knox and Kenyon (PEKK). Wang spoke so softly that the audience’s silence was palpable. The crowd listened in awe to the enthralling and fluid way Wang related her stories.
Holocaust survivors are often hesitant to join The Apprentice Project, according to Wang, even when they are approached by other survivors who have participated. This is how the project recruits more survivors. Many survivors do not think their stories are valid enough to be shared, Wang said during her talk; after sharing, they are grateful for the experience and often feel for the first time that their stories matter to someone.
Wang and her colleagues monitor every apprenticeship and are available for advice on how to communicate with a survivor. Although both the apprentice and the survivor are often nervous about the process, by the time they complete the program, they have a deep relationship.
“I don’t know what it’s called, because it has no name, but [it is] a strong relation,” Wang said during her talk. “You don’t imagine how strong.”
Wang’s own experience with the Holocaust was secondhand. Her parents were living in Poland when the Nazis invaded the country 1939. As a carpenter, her father had a work permit to leave the ghetto. One day, a Nazi officer’s wife warned him of the impending danger that faced the Jewish ghetto, which gave him time to escape and warn some others. For a day or two, Wang’s family hid in a church and then moved into a three-foot high attic in a house occupied by sympathetic non-Jewish people.
To stay in the attic, Wang’s parents had to give up her older brother, who was two years old at the time, because his cries might alert someone that there were Jews hiding in the attic. They gave their son to a Christian family and were not able to locate him after the war ended.
As adults, Wang and her younger brother decided to return to Poland to search for him, but their mother refused to give than any information about the family to which she had surrendered her son.
“All these stories [of survival] were my childhood stories,” Wang said. “I never saw it as something special, something different.”
Wang also discussed the academic theory that survivors of genocide find it difficult to talk about their experience because of the suffering they endured.
Although Wang rejects the idea that survivors never speak about their experience in the first years following the genocide, she said a survivor needs decades to recover their confidence that the state is caring for them.
In the Q&A that followed Wang’s talk, she related the story of a woman who told her apprentice the story of having to strip in front of a German officer at the age of 14 and discovering that she was menstruating. The woman said that was the worst thing to happen to her at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Wang thinks the next iteration of the program — its tenth — may be the last due to the shrinking number of Holocaust survivors. In fact, Wang became inspired to create The Apprentice Project during a week in which nine Holocaust survivors died. Her hope is that the apprentices will keep their stories alive.
“When you know the person, you tell the story from knowing the person,” she said.