WASHINGTON (AFP) — Holocaust survivor Albert Garih has recounted his traumatic experience during World War II countless times. But as the 76 year old ages, he acknowledges he doesn’t have much longer to share his powerful story.
As Israel and Jewish communities around the world mark Holocaust Remembrance Day starting Wednesday night, these eyewitnesses to history — some of them volunteers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum — are even more acutely aware of their role in keeping the tales alive.
“We’re not going to be immortal… so we have to live with that and that’s why it’s so important to pass the message to the next generations,” Garih, a French national and long-time US resident, told AFP in an interview.
Born in 1938, Garih spent his childhood hiding in various locations around France, as his family evaded deportation to the notorious Nazi concentration camps.
The liberation of Paris in August 1944 is still fresh in his mind, even though he was only a boy.
“We saw the tanks, the jeeps, the soldiers with friendly faces giving chewing gum, giving cigarettes and giving chocolate. You know they were our liberators, literally,” Garih said.
The retired translator, who lives in the Washington suburbs, is one of about 60 active survivor volunteers at the museum in the US capital who primarily lead tours and translate documents.
‘Race against time’
In the past few years, director of survivor affairs Diane Saltzman — who has worked at the Holocaust museum since 1996 — has noticed an increase in the number of survivor funerals she has attended.
The passage of time is heavily felt, she says.
“I think both the museum and the survivors feel a sense of urgency — an urgency to provide opportunities for the survivors to share their experiences, to make sure that we’ve documented as many Holocaust stories as we can,” Saltzman said.
“The museum is in a race against time.”
The emphasis at the Holocaust museum is on the people who experienced it. Survivor volunteers man a desk in the lobby, and are at the ready to talk with anyone who has a question, or just wants to listen.
Visitors can pick up “Identity Cards” at the beginning of their tour and follow the life, or death, of a real person as they move through the museum.
Artifacts and resources like the ID cards will soon be the only way to tell these stories, as the survivors themselves will be gone.
According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, this year will be the last major anniversary with a sizable number of living survivors.
“We have to say it clearly: it is the last big anniversary that we can commemorate with a numerous group of survivors,” museum director Piotr Cywinski said in an interview published on its website.
About 300 survivors attended the January event marking of the liberation of Auschwitz, down from around 1,500 a decade ago.
The liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany on April 11, 1945 freed 21,000 people. Only about 80 survivors attended an anniversary event on Saturday.
From the work of museums to projects like the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation started by Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg, there have been tremendous efforts to record survivor stories.
The Holocaust Museum in Washington has plans for a new facility to house its collection of artifacts from around the world, which they expect to double in size over the next decade.
And while the survivors can never be replaced, Saltzman said she trusts in the institution to keep their memories alive.
“We leave it to the artifacts, we leave it to the documents to be the voices that are left behind when the survivors’ voices themselves are silent.”