Today we mark Holocaust Memorial Day (Jan 27) with a personal tale of remembrance to ensure that the horrors experienced in World War II are never repeated and that we never forget.
People from all over Ireland gathered in the Limerick City and County Council last Wednesday for the launch of a powerful photo exhibition called “Traces of Memory: a contemporary look at the Jewish past in Poland.” I took a guided tour of the exhibition, a collaborative undertaking by British photographer Chris Schwarz and scholar Jonathan Webber.
The material offers a new way of looking at the once beautiful Jewish past in Poland’s Galicia, which thrived for 800 years before its eventual extermination in the Holocaust. I was honored to be able to speak to a group of young Irish students about my own family’s past in Galicia, and the horrors they endured in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Drohobycz labor camp. My hope is to educate our next generation of Irish scholars about the Holocaust, to ensure that it's never repeated, and that we never forget.
The exhibition will be in Limerick for the three weeks before it continues on its tour of Ireland, a journey made possible by the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, and the Polish Embassy in Dublin.
Brilliant speakers at the launch included the Lord Mayor of Limerick Kieran O’Hanlon, Limerick Director of Services Josephine Cotter Coughlan, Deputy Head of Mission in the Polish Embassy Piotr Rakowski, and Holocaust Education Trust Ireland Trustee Tim O’Connor. Tomi Reichenthal, one of four Holocaust survivors living in Ireland, was scheduled to speak but was unfortunately unable to attend due to illness.
The exhibition sheds light on Jewish Poland’s glimmering life that bookends the horrific death. We don’t see gruesome visuals, but instead, telling images of traces of memory to prompt questions about a culture that once existed in a country that is simply not the same.
The exhibition came to Ireland to inspire questions among the Irish, who might relate to the concept of “traces of memory” in a country that would be very different had it not been for the Famine. Photographs of destroyed synagogues and cemeteries might beg questions about Ireland’s famine roads or ruined churches; persecution, destruction and emigration are familiar to both the Jewish and Irish people.
Lynn Jackson, the founder of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, told IrishCentral: “This exhibition is here to raise awareness about the Holocaust, and for people to reflect on what happened to the Jewish people over a long period of history, and eventually what was wiped away in the Holocaust. The images are not horrific: they’re especially constructed to prompt questions. What was that building used for? How many people went there? What did they do? And what happened?”
“It causes us to reflect on our own history,” she said, “when we see derelict buildings or abandoned cemeteries. Who were those people? Where did they come from? Every culture has a relationship with their own traces of memory. So we brought it to Ireland.”
The exhibition is divided into five cohesive sections of photographs and text: section one, “Jewish life in ruins,” depicts remnants of Galician synagogues and Jewish cemeteries that have been demolished. What remains are walls or columns overgrown with leaves and vegetation, and smashed crumbles of stone where gravestones once stood.
Section two, “Jewish culture as it once was,” depicts the strength and splendor of Galicia’s old Jewish community through old synagogues or tombs that have been restored. Section three, “The Holocaust: sites of massacre and destruction,” gives us a look into the Holocaust far beyond the scope of that one infamous photograph of Auschwitz’s gate. We see sites of massacre, or mass graves in forests holding hundreds of thousands of bodies, marked only by rusted railings or simple concrete memorials.
Section four, “How the past is being remembered,” shows the evidence of revival that’s creating some continuity between past and present, such as memorials, restorations, or a strong wall built from broken pieces of Jewish tombstones. Finally, section five, entitled “People making memory today,” leaves us with a glimmer of hope, through photographs of ceremonies and anniversaries all over the world, including the “March of the Living,” which is a triumphant march through Auschwitz by the children and grandchildren of survivors, such as myself.
On my father’s side, my grandfather Wolf Herz was the sole Holocaust survivor from his entire family – he witnessed his parents and siblings being shot and killed in the forests of Galicia. My grandmother Mira, Wolf’s future wife, had escaped her town of Riga, Latvia just moments before the Nazis invaded by being pulled through the window of a moving train; the very last train out of Riga. On my mother’s side, my great grandmother Lenka and her sister Berta, who were in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, were the only two Holocaust survivors from their entire family. They also witnessed their parents and siblings being taken to gas chambers to be murdered.
My grandfather Wolf testified against certain SS officers after the war, and he described details of what he witnessed and endured in a deposition that’s since been translated into English, which I have in my possession. In the deposition, he describes the last time he saw his family: his sister Kayla, who I’m named after, had already been shot before his eyes. The Herz men were separated into two groups: teenagers and elderly men to one side, and young adult to middle-aged men to the other. His elderly father and younger brother were taken to one side to be shot before his eyes, and Wolf, a strong man in his mid twenties, fit to work laborious hours, lived.
He was taken to a labor camp in Drohobycz for transporting and breaking bricks. At the labor camp, Wolf was wheeling a massive barrow of bricks when they fell over. He broke his back and his arm while scrambling to get them back on the barrow so he wouldn’t get caught and killed. But with a broken back and arm, he knew that he would be shot in the morning. That night, he managed to escape the camp by digging a hole underneath an electric fence – he hid in the forests of Galicia for the next year and a half until liberation.
My great grandmother Lenka on my mother’s side was in Auschwitz with her parents and three siblings. Her father was separated into a labor line, and she never saw him again. But on the day of her own separation, Lenka, her sister Berta, and their mother Mirjam were separated into a line to live and work, while her other sister Sidonia, who had a noticeable limp, as well as her five-year-old brother Mejer, were taken into a line to be killed in the gas chambers.
Dr. Mengele, “the angel of death,” who performed gruesome experiments on the Jewish people and selected those to be gassed, was present at the time, and had actually approached little Mejer who was crying for his mother. He took him by the hand to find his mother, and when they found Mirjam, Mengele brought her into the other line to be gassed with her son. One year later, when Nazis found out liberation was coming, Lenka and Berta were taken on a “death march” to a factory for building airplane parts, where they worked until they were found at the time of liberation.
In his speech, the Lord Mayor of Limerick said: “What happened to the Jewish people in Poland and in other countries is something which should never be forgotten. The horrors are unspeakable. It’s a story so cruel with unimaginable lengths, yet it did happen, and this needs to be talked about and discussed. It’s important that the survivors and their stories are listened to very carefully.” He added: “I would encourage all Limerick people and people in this region to come and see the exhibition, and see what really happened. We have a duty to make sure this never happens in humanity again.”
Read more: Irish woman who fought the Nazis
As a Jewish woman living in Ireland, and the descendant of Holocaust survivors, I was truly moved by the exhibition’s atmosphere. While on the tour, the group of students who I’d later spoken to didn’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around the information – understandably. However, when I spoke to them in person, I could see in their faces and reactions that they were starting to understand.
Being able to look at a young woman who looks just like they do and hear such facts sparked something in them, and in me. Exhibitions like this instill hope that education is possible in Catholic countries like Ireland that weren’t directly involved. We’re on our last generation of survivors, and it’s utterly necessary that we keep their memories alive, and the memories of the six million Jews who were exterminated from this earth.
“The location of the exhibition here in the council offices means it’s accessible to everyone and will capture the widest possible audience,” said Josephine Cotter Coughlan, who ended her speech by inviting and encouraging as many people as possible to visit the exhibition.
It is important to note how far Limerick has come with its respect for and recognition of the Jewish people, considering an anti-semitic history stemming from the county’s former political and religious leaders, dating back to the 70s and also the early 1900s.
In 1904, Limerick was home to around 170 Jewish families, until Father John Creagh staged a pogrom, ousting the Jewish people from Limerick in what is known as the “Limerick Pogrom.” He compared the Jewish people to leeches, and publicly detested their flourishing businesses, calling for boycotts. And in the late 1960s and early 70s, Limerick’s infamously prejudiced mayor Stevie Coughlan spread anti-Jewish sentiment, proclaiming that his parents were active in the 1904 pogrom. Today’s multicultural Limerick is a different world, however, and is home to people of many different nationalities: around the city, you can even spot businesses of possibly Jewish origin, such as Hartmann Opticians, which is a common Jewish surname.
In his speech at the exhibition, Tim O’Connor said that education is at the core of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland’s mission: “To make sure that we never forget to promote education, information and awareness about this extraordinary event and time in which millions of Jewish men, women, children, and others, were persecuted and murdered for their religious belief, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation. At the heart of the Holocaust was a demonization and a dehumanization of the other.”
“Limerick is a place of culture, and we know that culture is at the heart of everything we’re doing here,” O’Connor said, also calling attention to the 150,000 Polish people living in Ireland today, with 15,000 Poles in Limerick alone.
“We’re delighted that 'Traces of Memory' is coming to Limerick because the exhibition is about recalling an earlier time, a part of Jewish civilization that was 800 years in Poland before the Holocaust – and recalling the memories of that through art.”
For more information on the exhibition visit hetireland.org.
* This article was originally published in 2016.