Decade of remembrance

Anniversary: Today marks 10 years since the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

April 26, 2003|By Liz Halloran | Liz Halloran,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Myra Gourley, a nurse from Florida, was waiting alone in line outside the stark, windowless U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this week not quite sure what awaited her within.

A Midwesterner by birth - she grew up on Dakota Indian reservations where her father was a school principal - Gourley has seen the movie Schindler's List, and recalls reading Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf in high school a long time ago.

But, Gourley says, "I have never met a Holocaust survivor."

While Gourley started her tour in the darkened exhibit hall, in Connecticut, Sigmund Strochlitz, who more than 55 years ago survived the Nazis' most notorious death camp, was getting to work as usual at his New London Ford dealership.

He and Gourley would not be strangers for long.

It was 10 years ago today that the Holocaust Museum opened its doors for the first time, inviting people like Gourley into the lives of men, women and children like Strochlitz - European Jews who were persecuted, tortured and murdered under the Nazi terror.

With long-lived Holocaust survivors like Strochlitz, who is 86, counting down the final years of their lives, it will be the museum and its store of artifacts, texts, and oral and visual histories that will bear much of the future burden of ensuring that their stories are never forgotten.

It took many years before Strochlitz could give his own firsthand account of what happened to his life and the lives of the more than 3 million Jews living in Poland when the Nazis arrived. Only 20 percent survived.

"After liberation I was very angry. Bitter, angry," said Strochlitz, who moved to America to start anew. His faith was in tatters, and he was tired of being asked to explain the numbers the Nazis had tattooed onto his left forearm. He had them removed.

He wanted to forget how the Nazis had come to his town of Bedzin. How they shot people in the synagogue who were trying to save the sacred scrolls. How they hanged people in the square and then corralled the Jews into living in a guarded ghetto.

He wanted to forget the day that he, taken to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp, learned that his entire family - his young wife, two sisters and both parents - had been murdered together in one of the camp's gas chambers as soon as they got off the train.

Gourley saw those Auschwitz gas chambers at the museum, where a scale model fills part of an exhibit room. She stood silently and looked at plaster models of Nazis dropping deadly Zyklon B pellets through roof vents into a vast room crowded with naked prisoners, whose bodies were then moved to "Cremetoriam II" - there were five at the camp.

Cremetoriam II alone had 15 ovens, and could incinerate 1,000 bodies a day, she read. At its peak, Auschwitz was capable of efficiently murdering 10,000 people a day.

When President Jimmy Carter more than 20 years ago sent Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel and a hand-picked group to Europe on a fact-finding mission for a U.S. Holocaust museum, Strochlitz was with them.

Among the places they visited: Auschwitz. It wasn't the first time Strochlitz had been back. He and his second wife, Rose, whom he met when he was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, took their children, in-laws and some other relatives on a difficult trip back some years earlier.

Strochlitz still doesn't like to talk about the particulars of his first visit, but he came back with the Carter commission ready to recommend the museum and willing to take on chairmanship of the committee that started the annual Day of Remembrance commemorations in every state.

Instead of forgetting his experience, Strochlitz said, he is now determined to remember.

"It is with you every day and every night - it's something that you have to live with," he said. "The nights are very difficult, I have some nightmares."

"But I am not trying to eliminate it," said Strochlitz. "If you're feeling too good, it could create a situation where you forget."

Gourley stood elbow-to-elbow with high school students, elderly Jewish couples and other tourists in the last dark room of the museum, straining to see films from liberation day in the death and concentration camps.

She was exhilarated - "relieved that it was finally over" - and then stunned by the brightness and simplicity of the final room, the soaring, sunlit "Hall of Remembrance" where two tiers of flickering votive candles line the walls, and an eternal flame burns on the far side of the room.

Strochlitz knows the power of his story, personally told.

"When all the survivors fade away and the personal testimony fades away, it will be more difficult" to remember, Strochliz said. "Thank God the museum was built."

Liz Halloran writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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