Students meet Holocaust survivors in France

Over spring break, seven Penn State undergraduate students and one graduate teaching assistant traveled to Paris to participate in a weeklong study tour led by Willa Z. Silverman, Malvin E. and Lea P. Bank Professor of French and Jewish Studies. The trip was designed as an extension of Silverman’s Spring 2016 residential course, “France and the Holocaust in Film and Literature.” Students met with concentration camp survivors, historians, hidden children and Resistance members, and visited Holocaust memorials and a former concentration camp.

“Often when we learn about the Holocaust, we hear about it in terms of numbers,” said Mackenzie Moon, a sophomore biology major. “However, this trip helped me to understand that the victims of the Holocaust are more than just numbers—they were and are real people, just like you and me, people with personalities and surrounded by people who love them. This devastating realization is something that I think will stick with me in my future studies.”

The class met with four of the dwindling number of concentration and extermination camp survivors remaining in France, of the approximately 76,000 deported from that country. Aubrey Reeher, a junior in criminology, said hearing their stories first-hand was an experience she will never forget.

“Each individual’s story was unique, and although most of the survivors were telling their stories in French and were being translated for us into English, the raw emotion they were feeling was a universal language,” said Reeher, who is also earning a certificate in Holocaust and genocide studies. “It saddens me that the next generation probably won’t have the opportunity to meet a survivor.”

One of those survivors, Jacques Klajnberg, is 88 years old and tells his story weekly, determined not only to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and its victims but also to rouse French youth to fight injustice.

Elizabeth Tuttle, the graduate teaching assistant on the trip, spoke at length with Klajnberg. “As our conversation veered toward the present, I asked Jacques what he thought defined a bystander, a theme we have been grappling with throughout the semester. Jacques simply answered that those who lived through the war had choices and shared his hopes that we should never have to face such impossible decisions or live through such terrifying and uncertain times.”

Tuttle reflected, “My commitment begins now, with this experience, for I know that long after Jacques Klajnberg is no longer able, I will continue to tell his story.”

As a result of this trip, Clare Belmonte realized the importance of listening, sharing stories, and having respect for generations before her. For Belmonte, a junior with majors in French and francophone studies, and immunology and infectious disease, it was more than just a trip to Paris for spring break. “It was a week to be completely engrossed in the recent history of the Holocaust in France, and of course, the culture of France.”

Belmonte is interested in the ways in which people act in times of crisis, which is why she found meeting the survivors and resistance fighters so interesting. She said, “I feel as though part of the responsibility of a French major is to have a growing understanding of France and its culture.”

"In the end," reflected Silverman, "I hope this trip concerning what the French refer to as the Shoah will encourage students – inspired in part by the example of activists such as Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, whom we met in Paris – to engage broader aesthetic, historical and ethical questions that concern each of us, such as the challenges of representing catastrophe, the dangers of intolerance, the duty to remember and the necessity of pursuing justice. The soldiers we saw guarding Jewish sites in Paris, the continuing news of Europe’s refugee crisis and of the resurgence of extremist rhetoric, and the words of the survivors themselves, now at the end of their lives, were all compelling reminders of the urgency of these tasks."

To read the entire series of student reflections from the "France and the Holocaust" embedded course, click here. To see photos from the tour, click here.

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Last Updated April 08, 2016