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Reflection: A fuller view of the Holocaust

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2011 - "No monument stands over Babi Yar," quoted Daniel Reich, curator and director of education for the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, speaking to almost 1,000 people gathered at Sha'are Emeth Congregation for this year's Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Service Sunday afternoon.

More than 50 years after Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote this first line to his poem "Babi Yar," named for a ravine in the Ukraine where Nazis shot 33,000 people, themes of memorial -- and the need for stronger, broader, more expansive memorial -- still reverberate among Yom HaShoah observances around the world. That is why, Reich said, the Holocaust museum chose to dedicate this year's service to the 70th anniversary of the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union.

Communities from Jerusalem to St. Louis to Buenos Aires remember the Holocaust through the services and ceremonies that have taken root since the first official Yom HaShoah in 1951. However, as traditions set, organizers face an annual challenge to update services to both honor and reflect the people, voices and testimonies still emerging from the Holocaust.

Through stories, pictures and careful museum exhibits, images of concentration camps and efficient mass gas chambers pervade Holocaust educational materials, if not the general consciousness. According to Reich, however, many Americans do not realize that this is just one narrative of the Holocaust, pieced together from the first major wave of Jewish immigrants following World War II. Many of these survivors came straight from Displaced Persons camps in Poland and Germany. By the time refugees from the former Soviet Union settled in the early 1980s and '90s, there was already a coherent, harrowing story of Nazi brutality.

"It wasn't Auschwitz or Treblinka. So, it was seen as separate. Really, only in recent years has it been studied in greater depth. And this being the anniversary, we wanted to make that the focus," Reich said. "This year was an opportunity not only to commemorate, but really to educate."

To that end, event organizers approached Felicia Wertz, who has interviewed, recorded, and translated local Russian speakers' Holocaust memories for the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center's Oral History Project. On Sunday, Wertz read the story of Charna Palatnik, a Jewish woman from the Ukraine, whose blond hair and blue eyes allowed her to pose as a non-Jew avoiding deportation to a work camp. Unwilling to wait for the arrival of the Eintsatz-gruppen -- the Soviet Nazi Killing squad -- she ran away from her family, and says she "still has nightmares" because neither her mother nor her brothers would say goodbye.

Wertz, who came to the United States from Poland in 1966, says many of the 3,000 Soviet refugees who settled in St. Louis are still processing war memories. Years before she began conducting formal interviews, she heard a wide range of stories from the "New Americans" who began to arrive in 1979.

"We have people whom I would divide into categories," Wertz, herself a Polish immigrant, said. "We have war veterans who fought in the Soviet Army. With all the medals, they were the heroes, recognized in Russia. Here, they have their own organization.

"Then, we have, we call it, 'People who were on the territory of the Holocaust,' in hiding or in ghettos.

"Then, we have the so-called 'deported,' people deported to Central Asia after the war. It was called evacuation.

"And we have people who survived the siege of Leningrad."

In St. Louis, organizers incorporated new Holocaust memories into Sunday's service through these personal testimonies, a historical handout and a lecture from Michael Kuelker, a professor at St. Charles Community College. But Wertz says memorial is about more than repeating stories; it is about actively seeking those that were hidden or left untold.

"After the war, the local survivors had a lot of silence. [They] don't remember the bad things; they never talk about it," Wertz said.

Thus, on a larger scale, organizers also hoped to use Sunday's memorial service as a means of engaging the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors -- the "third and fourth generations." Sulamif Gipkin invited her daughter, Bella Gipkin, to read her memories as an orphaned child in Belarus. Aleksandr Reznik presented his story of "slave labor" in Moldova through his granddaughter, Diana Mekler. Both survivors' stories were translated into English, and both of their next generation counterparts are native speakers.

Recent scholarship in former Soviet territories has not only brought lesser-known stories to light, it has inspired more historical research in the region. As researchers find and publish more information about the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union, official death tolls rise in retrospect. It has changed what Reich calls "the big picture" of Holocaust history. A researcher named Father DuBois has traveled from hidden mass grave to hidden mass grave in the Ukraine, finding enough bullet shards and bone fragments to change the estimated death tolls from 1.5 million to over 2 million people.

Today, a monument does stand over Babi Yar -- but it took decades of activism and protest, and still more years to persuade the government to include the word "Jews." With the former Soviet territories more open to research, and an engaged younger generation attuned to continued genocides around the world, Reich hoped this year's service would both honor and inspire more powerful memorial.

"For many years, they have been saying; 'Remember us; we went through this, too. It wasn't just the Poles and the Germans and the Viennese, it was the Belarusians and the Czechs, we have our own unique Holocaust history,'" Reich said. "Some would say we've waited. But we're doing it; we're doing it now."

Ariana Tobin, a graduation senior at Washington University, is a Beacon intern.