News: The Sound of Jackboots

Exhibit re-creates terror and courage of the Holocaust

 
Jymi Bolden


A window view illustrates what awaited Jews found hiding in the attic, according to Racelle Weiman, director of the Holocaust Center.



To understand what it is to be hunted, to hold one's breath and hide, go to the attic — the place of domestic artifacts, gadgets no longer needed and people cowering in fear for their lives.

Mapping Our Tears, an exhibit opening Sept. 4 at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education (CHHE), doesn't preach about racial and religious hatred. Instead it immerses visitors into the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The exhibit is a mock-up of a musty attic laden with the clutter of family life: old clothing, kitchen equipment and photographs. On a screen, a Holocaust survivor is talking.

Heinz Blumenthal describes the moments before the Gestapo burst in. Suddenly jackboots can be heard in the apartment below. A light comes on in a closet. Grandmother shoves him in.

The lighting and sound effects give a sense of what it was to be a 5-year-old hiding from state-sanctioned murderers.

"Most photographs from that era are from the point of view of the Nazis," says Racelle Weiman, director of CHHE. "Can you imagine telling a rape victim's story from the point of view of the rapist? The story of the Holocaust belongs to the people who were there. They can tell what they were thinking, what they were feeling."

Weiman is a Holocaust scholar and the daughter of a U.S. soldier who helped liberate the notorious Dachau concentration camp. Most treatments of the Holocaust in mass media, including the national Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., emphasize the Nazis, she says. Even discussion of the victims has usually treated "the 6 million" as a polyglot.

"What I have seen is emphasis on a government institution," Weiman says. "You spend more time on the Nazis, what they did. Even in Schindler's List, that wonderful movie, the people are dehumanized. We want to focus on people, how to make them real."

Mapping Our Tears is not typical Holocaust fare. Instead of mass murder, this is about individual victimization — or, to be more precise, survival. Because, as Weiman puts it, "survivors are the directors" of this exhibit, it highlights people who outlived and resisted the terror and therefore exudes a certain hope.

"This is not a story about evil," Weiman says. "There is not a single picture here of piled-up bodies. We're not giving kids the horror stories. We've introduced them to real-life people who went on to make whole new lives."

Blumenthal, for example, tells a story of tragedy but also of heroism. The potato peeler in a glass case near the attic is no mere prop; it's the potato peeler given him by the Dutch Christian family who hid him from the Nazis.

"Everything is survivor-driven," Weiman says. "We don't want to hear the voice of the perpetrator. We want the voices of the survivors, the rescuers and the liberators."

A collection of documents attests to a central theme of the exhibit: the amazing contributions of people who survived hell.

"This man, the same year he got out of the concentration camp, started studying to be a doctor," Weiman says. "This one, as soon as he came to America, enlisted in the Army. That woman was liberated and went right into the Sorbonne. This is the story of new life after the concentration camps."

Mapping Our Tears uses segments of six survivors' testimonies, a total of about 45 minutes on videotape, and will introduce other testimonies in the future.

The exhibit's target audience is children in middle and high schools. But the exhibit can be equally useful for adults.

"I hope the Boy Scouts will come here," Weiman says. "I hope the Daughters of the American Revolution finally make it here."

The exhibit is so powerful in part because it particularizes the Holocaust, reducing it from an unfathomable madness to the tangible suffering of the woman on the screen.

"The idea is to help the kids better visualize it," Weiman says. "It's as if she's in the room with you."

The impact is all the stronger because the survivors are local.

"These are Cincinnati stories, people who lived here the past 50 years, people who had so much to offer us and we never knew because we never asked," Weiman says.

For all the good that it commemorates, Mapping Our Tears is inevitably a heartbreaking experience. One Cincinnati man loaned his concentration camp uniform to the exhibit; for decades he kept it in his bedroom as a reminder during hard times how much worse things could be. The descendant of another survivor loaned a letter written by a child, 6-year-old Jalinka, a Hungarian Jew.

"This is one of our most priceless items," Weiman says.

Attached to the letter is a lock of the child's hair. The Nazis slaughtered the little girl and her father; only her mother survived.

In a glass case are telegrams to people in Cincinnati. Written after the war had ended, the messages convey something of the hope and the horror:

"Will attempt to bring all family survivors," the first telegram said.

"No one is left alive in Konin," said the second.



For more information about MAPPING OUR TEARS, visit www.holocaustandhumanity.org or call 513.221.1875, ext 355.

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