Often when I reflect on my years as a Holocaust educator, I marvel at all I learned and experienced—but mostly, how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to be in the presence of these twentieth-century heroes. They rose from the ashes and created new lives for themselves—lives without hatred. What they taught me about resilience and the triumph of the human spirit is the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I was their witness. I promised them I would remember their stories and share them.
How ironic is it that meeting a former Catholic priest on the beach in 1982 is what brought me to the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center? The story is long and beautiful, filled with friendship, growth, awareness, and connection.
After Tom and I became friends, he moved up north and became the director of the Anne Frank Center in New York. At the same time, I had quit my job and was looking for one that spoke to my soul. Tom’s responsibility was to send the 800 piece photographic exhibition, Anne Frank in the World: 1929–1945 around the United States. Because I had been keeping journals for many years and Tom felt this would be something that would be a worthwhile experience, he asked me if I would like to bring the exhibit to Miami as a volunteer. I agreed and spent time organizing what became a highlight in my life.
We had over 60,000 people who viewed the exhibit in the six weeks it was in Miami. I organized over 100 programs for students, organizations, and the general public. For one of the student symposiums, I invited two women from the Holocaust Center to speak to the participants. They were excited about what I was doing and wondered whether I would help them plan student programming.
After a few weeks of volunteering there, they asked me to replace the secretary, who had left unexpectedly. I agreed to but let them know that if I wasn’t in the education department within three months, I would have to leave. The rest is history. The director of education was eventually fired, and I was hired to head the department as the director of educational outreach.
The Holocaust Documentation and Education Center has been taking testimonies of Holocaust survivors, liberators, and others whose lives were impacted by the Holocaust since 1980. While those were key to the mission of the Center, equally important was educating this and future generations about what took place from 1933 to 1945.
My job was to help the survivors pass along their legacy of remembrance to students and teachers. We arranged a variety of programs that accomplished that goal. First and foremost, I helped the Center develop Student Awareness Days. We had ten to twelve of these annually, with 250–850 high school and college students participating. Ten students sat at a table with a Holocaust survivor and a facilitator. Throughout the day, the students learned about the antecedents to the Holocaust and had the opportunity to speak to and ask questions of the survivors at their tables.
They learned that the survivors had the same kinds of hopes and dreams as they had growing up. The survivors shared honestly and openly as they answered the students’ difficult questions. I knew many of them would have a sleepless night after discussing the horrors they endured, but they did it despite that. And because of the survivors, the students learned from someone who was there instead of from books and movies. History had come alive for them.
In the afternoon, we switched gears and discussed prejudice. By then, the students understood that it was prejudice unleashed that had led to the Holocaust. The survivors had been willing to dredge up their horrifying memories to teach today’s youth about the dangers of stereotyping. Living in Miami, a culturally diverse city, we knew that many of those teenagers present were victims of bullying and discrimination. And so, those discussions became difficult but rich as the students shared what they were experiencing.
Other important programs we convened at the Holocaust Center were teacher institutes, held annually. Teachers sat with a different survivor each day throughout the week, so by the end, they had spoken to and learned from five different Holocaust survivors. Each year, the educators let the survivors know they will pass the stories along to their students and will never forget.
While tremendously difficult for the survivors, these experiences were extremely important. They understood that their stories mattered. Sharing them was their way of hoping that the next generation will learn and ensure that our world is a kinder and safer place for everyone. I marveled at their ability to relieve their most painful memories to teach others so that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.
The survivors have shown me what matters in life in a way no one else ever could. They have taught me what hatred can do. Through them, I’ve learned about the resilience of the human spirit. They’ve helped me realize what is possible by living through something unimaginable, picking up the pieces, and creating a new life filled with love instead of hate.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer survivors are still alive. With each passing, we lose an essential part of history that cannot be recaptured. When a survivor dies, we also lose a whole group of people who no one will ever remember—their entire families who had lived on in their memories only.
Through the years, I carried these stories of trauma deep in my soul. As a witness to the survivors, I understood my responsibility. To process what I heard between 1986 and 2011, I would come home from work, immediately take out my journal, and record their stories. At the time, I did my best to capture as much as I could remember from what they had told me.
Most survivors never talked about their experiences until sometime in the 1980s. Many told me about coming to America and being with their relatives who did not let them share their stories. Family members here in the States told the survivors they needed to move on and forget what had happened to them—as if that were possible. Little empathy was shown.
Some American relatives spoke to the survivors about their own suffering during the war and told them how awful it was for them since they had rations and sometimes couldn’t get butter or sugar. They obviously did not understand what the survivors had endured and lost. For some survivors, coming to America was not always what they had hoped it would be. For others, it was a haven.
What must it have been like to walk into a world without compassion after living through the awful nightmare the survivors had experienced? They carried so much sadness, trauma, and heartache, but to be rejected in these ways was also painful.
While working with survivors, people would ask me how I could listen to all their stories and not have nightmares of my own. I was able to do this because I can be a container for their accounts of life during the Holocaust. I am grateful that I could sit with their pain and hold them close to my heart. These stories needed to be heard and remembered. I consider it my sacred responsibility to make sure they are.
When I step back and look at our society today, I feel a deep sense of sadness. Although we speak the words Never Again, the reality is that genocide continues to happen. Since the Holocaust, countless people in Cambodia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Rwanda, Darfur, and Myanmar, to name a few, have died due to prejudice and discrimination against the “other.”
Will we ever learn?
– Merle R. Saferstein
As the director of educational outreach at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center for twenty-six years, Merle Saferstein worked closely with hundreds of Holocaust survivors, helping them pass along their Legacy of Remembrance to hundreds of thousands of students and teachers. When she retired from the Holocaust Center, she developed a course entitled Living and Leaving Your Legacy® and teaches and speaks to audiences locally, nationally, and internationally. She trains hospice staff and volunteers showing them ways to help patients leave their legacies and works closely with the patients at the end of their lives doing sacred legacy work. For many years, she has volunteered at a camp for children who experienced the death of a family member—helping them gain important tools, including journaling, to cope with their grief. Also, she conducts an all-day parent session at these camps. Merle facilitates a writing for wellness group at Gilda’s Club for women impacted by cancer. She is currently involved in Wisdom of the Century, a project that interviews individuals ninety years old and older. Since April 2020 at the start of Covid, Merle has led a weekly journaling circle. For fourteen years, she culled through her 359 journals taking excerpts according to approximately seventy topics. She has taken these excerpts and created Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vols. l and ll—each containing eleven subjects. Vol. ll is an Amazon #1 new release in two categories and is an Amazon bestseller in two additional categories. Merle is a council member of the International Association for Journal Writing, is the author of Room 732, an award-winning short story collection that pays homage to the historic Hollywood Beach Hotel, is a contributor to the Huffington Post, Medium, Authority Magazine, Women Writers, Women’s Books, and Thrive Global, and has been featured on NPR and MSN.com. As a pioneer in the field of legacy journaling, her chapter on the subject appears in The Great Book of Journaling: How Journal Writing Can Support a Life of Wellness, Creativity, Meaning and Purpose. Merle was chosen as the 2019 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Volunteer of the Year. Connect with Merle on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.