Five Things We Can Learn From Survivors of the Holocaust

October 21st 2016

Denial film

There are approximately 500,000 Holocaust survivors still alive. About 100,000 of them live in the United States.

As they continue to age, we risk losing their stories. Holocaust survivors are living reminders of the horrors of genocide, and reminders that history cannot repeat itself. Thanks to oral histories, many of their stories have been logged for future generations to witness.

But what can we learn from them today? To understand how their experiences shaped their worldviews—and to offer some perspective on current events—we spoke with five survivors living in Los Angeles.

"Humanity is still pretty innocent. They have to know the truth."
Renee Firestone, 92

Renee was incarcerated in Auschwitz at 20 years old, living in the concentration camp for 13 months before being liberated. Her mother and sister were murdered in the camps but her brother and father survived, the latter dying from tuberculosis shortly after liberation. Despite her history, Renee maintains a balanced outlook. “Humanity is still pretty innocent,” she explained of the importance of history. “They have to know the truth.” Renee emphasized this message by drawing a parallel to the situation Syrian refugees face.


“I was one of the lucky ones.”
Bob Geminder, 81

After evading the Nazis in Poland for several years, Geminder’s family hid out and escaped incarceration, surviving the Holocaust as a complete family unit. They immigrated to the United States in 1947 thanks to the help of an uncle who lived in Pittsburgh. To Geminder, it’s important to keep things in perspective, to stay positive despite what you have lived through. “I was one of the few lucky ones who somehow survived,” Geminder explained. “It wasn’t anything that I did. My mother was a very brave woman and so was my stepfather. But I survived. The four of us somehow survived, which was very rare.”


Genocide should not be forgotten or denied.
Eva Nathanson, 75

Nathanson spent most of her time during the war in various makeshift hiding places, from cellars to attics to holes dug into the ground covered by a cabinet door. “Anything you think of, I was hidden,” Nathanson recalled of the period. She was just 2 years old. Nathanson survived the harsh conditions which are still very present to her, triggered by anything from small spaces to weapons. To her, she finds the crime of genocide to be the most important takeaway. “Genocide should not be forgotten or denied,” Nathanson explained. “13 million, at least, people were killed that time. Half of them were Jewish, half weren’t. To deny that that ever happened is a crime…if you deny the past, you can’t stop the future to happen again.”


Holocaust deniers are “very subtle.”
Harry Davids, 74

Davids lived in the Netherlands with a Protestant family who pretended he was their son until the end of the Holocaust. He lost his family but, after years of searching and some legal battles, his paternal uncle living in South Africa was able to gain custody. In terms of the Holocaust today, Davids is alarmed by how sophisticated deniers have become by coding their point of view. “I sometimes hear people ask questions,” he said. “They’re very careful about how they phrase the question. Very subtle. And when you’ve been speaking long enough, you can tell the difference and you can see where they’re going with the questions.”


“They can turn their lives around.”
Gabriella Karin, 86

Karin’s family owned a deli in Slovakia that was located next door to a police station, an arrangement that helped them receive inside information about deportations that they would pass to the Jewish underground to protect families. Karin was eventually placed in a convent for three years, in hiding, until she was reunited with her family in Bratislava, Slovakia, in the safe keeping of a young lawyer’s apartment. Karin described her nine months in Bratislava as “sitting on a chair, not being able to move around” in a room without a window. “The only thing I could do is read,” she said. She would read what was given to her—mostly history books, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy—for up to 14 hours a day. But she maintained her happiness, stressing that her story helps others put their lives into perspective. “How I feel about it is these young people...They see their life,” she explained. “They see the problems that they have today and they see a Holocaust survivor who smiles, who is happy. They have something to look forward [to]. They can turn their lives around also.”

See the film Denial, which tells the true story of Deborah E. Lipstadt's (Rachel Weisz) battle for historical truth against a Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). In theaters everywhere now.

Share your opinion

Should America accept more refugees?

No 6%Yes 94%