The miracle of survival

The University remembers genocides around the world through art and film

Kathryn Nelson

Max Goodman, along with the other Romanian deportees, was forced to climb a steep hill toward an unknown destination. Many slipped on the muddy incline and were left to die while others stepped around them.

Fifty-three years later, Floriane Robins-Brown watched helplessly on television, knowing her family was still trapped inside her native country of Rwanda in the midst of genocide.

They now bear witness.

As years pass and memories fade, the University is working to make sure their legacy of survival and strength will endure for future generations.

Through film, art, lectures and documentation, the University is a leader in Holocaust and genocide studies. Now professors and survivors are working together to ensure the horrors of the past will never be repeated.

They are heroes

Voice to Vision is a labor of love for art professor David Feinberg.

Now on his third installation of a film series documenting the stories of Holocaust survivors through art, Feinberg decided to incorporate the narratives of two Rwandan sisters who survived the 1994 genocide.

“This mixing of cultures has never been done before concerning genocide,” he said.

Feinberg admits it is difficult to work with such emotional topics, especially when survivors recall sounds, textures and smells that have long been forgotten.

Yet, he feels a responsibility to represent their stories and to help others understand the horror through visual art.

“No matter how many problems and how difficult, you must do it; you don’t have a choice,” he said. “You have to be brave.”

Memorializing the stories of Holocaust survivors, whose numbers diminish each day, is especially important.

“Art lives after people die,” Feinberg said.

During the art process, Holocaust and Rwandan genocide survivors recall different experiences of their horrific past.

Sitting in a small circle with his wife Edith, at his side, Max Goodman, a survivor of the Romanian Holocaust, saw something that caught his eye.

“That looks like a gallows,” he said while staring at the painting the group created weeks before.

“People were just hanged,” he said.

B-11291

Growing up as a Jew in Berlin was not particularly dangerous, Henry Oertelt said, but his life changed at the age of 12 when Hitler came into power.

Now, 85 years old, Oertelt tells a story he has told hundreds of times to thousands of people, a story where “all these things are based on hate,” he said.

Oertelt is also one of the 52,000 survivors documented by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute. The University libraries are in discussion with the foundation to license access to the full collection this winter.

Barred from attending school for being Jewish, Oertelt was a furniture designer and builder apprentice for four years. Soon after finishing his training, Oertelt did forced labor duty, constructing roads in Berlin.

In June 1943 Oertelt and his family were given 15 minutes to gather their belongings and leave their home behind.

“It was as simple as that,” he said.

That day, Oertelt began a journey to Theresienstadt, the first of five concentrations camps he lived in until the end of the war.

Theresienstadt was different than other camps, Oertelt said, because the Nazis put it on display for the world to dispel rumors of mass killings.

The administration scheduled concerts, operas and theater performances, Oertelt said, to hide the misery of the camp.

“We didn’t know what we had more of: lice, fleas or bedbugs,” he said.

While others worked hard labor, Oertelt designed furniture, saving the few calories he could to survive.

One day, Oertelt was shoved into a railroad car with other deportees and taken to another camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, which Oertelt called, “the killing machine.”

Camp workers separated the old and the sick from the healthy, Oertelt said, and “children were taken away first.”

Chosen for the healthy line, Oertelt continued to the showers, but was forced to stand in the cold night air, naked.

His hair was shorn and he was tattooed with “B-11291,” which still marks his left arm.

Oertelt was later moved to a camp in Flossenbürg where he would stand in role call for hours on end. He survived a grueling death march and was liberated by American troops.

Oertelt weighed 82 pounds.

For the last 35 years, Oertelt has made it his mission to bear witness to those who perished in the Holocaust, including his mother, who died at Auschwitz. He published the book “An Unbroken Chain” in 2000 which chronicles his life as a persecuted Jew.

The Romanian Holocaust

Goodman was born in the city of Radauti to a Jewish family who spoke German. He and his family lived relatively peacefully until the summer of 1940, when Romania and several neighboring countries adopted anti-Jewish laws.

Goodman was 16 when his father, a veterinarian and horse breeder, was pushed from a moving train as he returned from a business trip. He died two months later, leaving Goodman, his mother and younger sister.

As anti-Semitism grew throughout Eastern Europe, the rights of Jews in Romania became increasingly restricted. Government officials confiscated his family’s horses and forced them to pay rent to live in their own home.

Goodman was expelled from school after the 10th grade and became a forced laborer, working on roads and fields without pay for several months.

On Oct. 12, 1941, the government declared that all Jews from Radauti would be resettled into a new territory. His family put all their valuables in the National Bank and left their house keys in the door.

About 9,000 people gathered at the railroad station for deportation, Goodman said. The police packed about 100 people into each railroad car. He watched as people died from dehydration during the three-day trip. Two people committed suicide.

“It was just hell,” he said.

People toppled out of the cars as the doors opened, Goodman said, and some ran to a nearby river to drink the muddy water.

“They were shot.”

The train took Goodman to Atachi, near the Dniester River, 150 miles away from his home. He and his family lived in limbo, bargaining for food with local peasants.

After several days, Goodman and his family relocated across the river, along with 40,000 other deportees who assembled in Atachi.

Unlike the carefully planned deportations in Germany, Goodman said the Romanian government did not prepare to house thousands of people in Transnistria, where the deportees stayed. The Romanians instead placed people in crude barracks without running water, electricity or latrines.

By November, the deportees were moved out of the barracks. Goodman said many of the older and younger men and women were unable to walk up a steep, muddy hill on the way to Djurin. They were left to die.

“Not everyone could make it,” he said.

Goodman and his wife, Edith, memorialized that scene in one of their paintings with Feinberg. It is a way of remembering the place where many people perished.

Goodman and his family moved into an abandoned house with 16 other people for two and a half years. This town became a “Jewish Colony,” a combination concentration and labor camp, which required Jews to wear a yellow Star of David.

Because of his Aryan-looking blond hair and blue eyes, Goodman became the chief bookkeeper at a slaughterhouse near the camp in 1942.

“He liked my looks,” he said.

People would gather outside and wait for scraps of meat, skin and bones to be thrown out of the slaughterhouse after the cleaning each morning, Goodman said.

“They were fighting for the bones just like dogs would,” he said. “People were just starving to death.”

After working at several labor camps, Goodman and his family left Djurin in 1946, but stayed in a camp for the displaced in Briceni for a year.

One-third of the initial deportees survived, and this was a good ratio, he said.

When they returned to Romania in 1945, they found their house was converted into a school.

After the Holocaust, his mother and sister survived. Eighteen of his family members did not. Fewer than 1000 people out of the population of 9,000 returned to his home town.

“It was a miracle to survive.”

Rwanda

Floriane Robins-Brown was in Burkina Faso, West Africa when violence erupted in her native country of Rwanda in 1994. She watched on television as a white Ford Bronco sped down the highway, driven by a former American football player.

Every now and then, Robins-Brown said, there would be a short announcement that the president of Rwanda had been killed in a plane crash. Then it would turn back to O.J. Simpson’s Bronco.

“I wanted to know about what was happening on the ground,” she said.

But the telephone lines had been cut and contacting anyone in Rwanda was nearly impossible.

After several days of waiting, Robins-Brown received a call from two family members in Brussels who fled Rwanda during the massacre.

Her sister and brother-in-law did not survive, and neither did several uncles, aunts and cousins, she said.

“There were so many.”

According to UNICEF, the 1994 genocide impacted the amount of orphans immensely, leaving 810,000 without parents. Even today, access to education and medical treatment becomes impossible because children must work to survive.

Robins-Brown, who said she experienced childhood abuse and neglect, broke ground on an orphanage in Rwanda this fall, where 150 children, ages 8 to 18, will soon call home.

The Nibakure Children’s Village, opening in 2008, will provide two “mothers” for ten children, as well as a stable home. Each child will attend school and receive medical care at the on-site clinic, she said.

Sharing their stories

Feinberg and several University art students worked with both Rwandan sisters to create a painting that intertwined their genocide stories into one visual expression.

The completed painting is a startling reminder of the 1994 genocide where an estimated 800,000 people were killed.

On the edge of the wide canvas sits a small drawing. It’s a gruesome scene. Stick figures run from machete-wielding militias screaming, “Let me pray before you kill me” and “Run, run.”

A man carrying a baseball bat covered in nails runs toward a group of people.

A crying child says, “My mother is dead” in a thought bubble.

The white Ford Bronco drives diagonally across the canvas, growing larger until it runs into the outline of a television.

A picture of Robins-Brown and her high school friends lining a dock and the photo is a reflection in the water.

Each of these images has an important significance to the lives of Rwandan sisters, a way of portraying their relationship as survivors.

These paintings are not just for the participants, Feinberg said, but rather a means to allow the viewer to “enter (the survivor’s) world.”