This Is Home Now: Interviewing Kentucky’s Holocaust Survivors
Almost exactly 11 years ago, on a hot May night, hundreds of people crowded into the former Fayette County courtroom in Lexington to hear six Holocaust survivors speak. The occasion was the opening of the exhibit “This Is Home Now: Kentucky’s Holocaust Survivors.” Although some of the speakers had attended Holocaust-related forums before, this was the first statewide gathering of survivors, and most were meeting each other for the first time.
The exhibit was based on oral histories I conducted with Holocaust survivors who made their homes in Kentucky, and on portraits by photographer Rebecca Gayle Howell. Later that year, in November of 2005, the Kentucky Historical Society and Kentucky Oral History Commission hosted a symposium on Kentucky’s Holocaust survivors, and in 2009, the University Press of Kentucky published our book, “This Is Home Now: Kentucky’s Holocaust Survivors Speak.”
All of this work was the result of tremendous collaboration and support, both locally and nationally. The United States Holocaust Museum and the Kentucky Oral History Commission funded the interviews, and both serve as archival repositories for the collection, which consists of interviews with 14 survivors. The Kentucky Humanities Council, the Kentucky Arts Council, LexArts and the Zantker Charitable Foundation provided financial support for the exhibit.
Since a decade has passed since the exhibit closed, I thought it would be rewarding to reach out to some of the survivors and ask for reflections on what the interviews, exhibit and book have meant to them. Some of the people originally involved in the project have passed away, and I have lost touch with others, but here are thoughts from three of them.
Robert Holczer, originally from Budapest, Hungary, survived World War II in a makeshift medical clinic in Budapest. A former fascist officer set up the clinic as a front to save the lives of hundreds of Jews. When I interviewed Robert, he lived on a horse farm near Paris, Kentucky; he has since moved to Washington State. “The Lexington History Museum event will never leave my memory,” he told me. He continued:
In spite of being a teacher for 36 years, I was never comfortable speaking to adults. My nervousness usually showed in perspiring heavily. As I looked at the large crowd, I said to myself, “this is ridiculous, these people deserve better than a nervous, perspiring, aging man in front of them.” I calmed myself down, and for the first time in my life, I managed to give a speech and answer questions, without any sign of being uncomfortable. And I continued this method ever since.
Meeting my fellow survivors in Kentucky meant a great deal to me. I reminisce often about my Kentucky time, the contact and friendship with Arwen, and the rest of us in the survivors group.
John Rosenberg was born in Magdeburg, Germany, and escaped Europe in 1940. John is a legal services lawyer, the former director of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky (AppalReD). He has lived in Prestonsburg since 1970.
Participating in this project very much raised my consciousness about my family’s past and my own obligation to speak publicly about their experiences, so this piece of history would not be forgotten.
For many years, when I spoke publicly about my legal services work, I spoke as a project director or civil rights lawyer, but not about the Holocaust, because it seemed irrelevant to the subject I was called to address. When I started talking about how relevant the Holocaust was to our lives, I learned how important it was for me to speak about it. Now I speak regularly to school and church groups about the Holocaust. I think that’s directly the result of my having been involved with this oral history project.
Alexander Rosenberg (no relation to John) has lived in Louisville since 1968. Originally from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Alex was imprisoned in the camps Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen before being liberated in 1945 by Russian forces. Alex says that because of the exhibit and book, he was asked to participate in a number of Holocaust-related educational and public programs, including a memorable visit to a rural school:
Five years ago, I agreed to talk to the 6th grade of the Carlisle County Middle School. In September I had to have open heart surgery, and while being wheeled into the OR I said to the surgeon, “I have a commitment to go to Carlisle County in late November and I sure would like to keep that.” He assured me that I could, and I did. I was absolutely shocked when shown the gym where I was to speak to the combined Carlisle County Middle and High School. Full-size basketball court, packed to the rafters, standing room only. They held me for two hours and at the end gave me a standing ovation. I literally was moved to tears.
The transformative power of oral history is abundantly clear in the above stories – for the speaker and, more importantly, the listener. Kentucky’s Holocaust survivors have given the state a great gift in sharing their stories, a gift we may continue to draw upon long after the survivors themselves are gone.
The Kentucky Oral History Commission commemorates its 40th year in 2016. The only commission of its kind in the United States dedicated to providing financial and technical assistance to oral history repositories and oral historians, KOHC has positioned Kentucky historical organizations, libraries and archives to lead the way in collecting and preserving oral histories, like these. The Kentucky Historical Society administers and houses KOHC.)