Thursday, March 21, 2013

Holocaust Education Conference: Remembered stories of survivors

By Grace Demun, Guest Writer

A lecture on March 13 by Sharon Rennert, granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, marked the start of the Sixth Annual Powell-Heller Holocaust Education Conference.

Rennert said, “many people ask, ‘why didn’t Jews fight back?’ I tell them, ‘they did.’”

Every year, this conference is a way for students to reeducate themselves on the events of the Holocaust.

The conference encourages students to reinterpret and rethink how the lessons surrounding the Holocaust can be applied to their lives today. This year, the conference’s theme is “empowerment,” focusing on the persecuted people not as victims, but as survivors.

Some highlights of the conference included speakers Heather Mathews, assistant professor of art and design, and Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.

“This year’s conference has represented the circle of life,” Henry Heller, member of one of the two families who organized the conference, said. “I think that these stories represent how the descendants share the role of continuing their remembrance.”

The movie “Defiance” preceded Rennert’s lecture. The film centers on Rennert’s grandfather, Tuvia Bielski, and his brothers, who became famous during the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941.

They saved and recruited more than 1,200 Jews for more than three years, sabotaging weapons and ambushing and killing Nazis. The group welcomed women, children, the elderly and the sick.

From the survivors of this group, tens of thousands of descendants live on today, including about 300 from the Bielski family alone.

The story of the Bielski partisans began as a book, “Defiance,” and was then adopted into a movie of the same name in 2008 starring Daniel Craig.

Rennert said the movie gave her family a platform to publicly speak about their ancestors. A few of Rennert’s favorite lines from the film were “I am Bielski”, spoken by Zus Bielski (played by Liev Schreiber in the film), and “Nothing is impossible”, spoken by Asael Bielski (played by Jamie Bell in the film).

Along with stories like that of the Bielski brothers, the conference included a speech by Josh Gortler, a Holocaust survivor and retired medical professional.

Gortler began by saying how important it is for survivors to speak out, because “if the few survivors don’t speak out … there will be more and more Holocaust deniers [in the future] than there are today.”

Gortler came to the United States at 15-years-old unable to speak a word of English. Despite this, Gortler graduated from college and medical school, only recently retiring. At 70-years-old, Gortler is one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust living today.

Born in 1936, Gortler grew up in Tomasz√≥w, Poland. When the Nazis marched in and rounded up all the Jews, Gortler said he and his family “had to leave our comfort, our home.” The family was able to go into hiding and was on the run for most of the war.

Gortler’s grandfather was not as lucky. As a rabbi, he often wore the traditional prayer shawl, the ‘tallit.’

Gortler and his family found his grandfather hanging from a tree by his feet, which Gortler said was a clear sign he had been persecuted for his religious beliefs. Gortler said he still thinks of his grandfather whenever he puts on his tallit.

Following the war, Gortler and his family were placed in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp. Gortler said the DP camps represented a new chapter of his life.

“Revival. Regeneration. That was life in the DP camp,” Gortler said. “From the ashes, there was a phoenix that rose. And the Jewish people will go on forever.”