New Partnership Brings Survivor Voices to Hearts and Homes

This Yom HaShoah, USC Shoah Foundation and Zikaron BaSalon are expanding a grassroots revolution that is changing how the Holocaust is commemorated.

Thu, 03/24/2022 - 10:04am

Alan Rose was repeating himself. He was stuck in a particularly difficult part of his story about being deported from a labor camp to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Josh Turnil and the guests he had invited to hear Alan’s story in Josh’s Paris living room that January 2019 evening – about 20 people of all ages tucked into sofas and folding chairs – gently helped Alan along. After Alan had finished speaking, Josh’s teenage son sat at the piano and played a slow, jazzy melody with a repeating refrain that reflected the circularity of memory.

"Knowing we could gather like this was a huge awakening,” Turnil said. “I didn't realize that you could consider the Shoah in such an intimate way, in a way that could be so pertinent and relevant.”

That was the first time Turnil had hosted a gathering (or “salon”) through the Israel-based Zikaron BaSalon, a Hebrew phrase that translates as “Remembrance in the Living Room.” Every year since he has hosted or co-hosted several salons to observe Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in April and International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. And some of Turnil’s original guests have in turn hosted their own salons.

The model of intimacy and internalization is exactly what Zikaron BaSalon founder Adi Altschuler envisioned after she hosted her first salon—inviting 40 people to her home in Hod HaSharon, Israel, to hear a Holocaust survivor speak— in 2011. Since then, more than 1.5 million people have participated in tens of thousands of salons, mostly in person and some virtually, in more than 60 countries. The effort is wholly grassroots: a host invites a survivor to speak, asks family and friends to attend and runs the salon using material and guidance provided by Zikaron BaSalon in a downloadable kit.

But Zikaron BaSalon is acutely aware that it needs to transition into a new era of remembrance.

“As long as we have living survivors, these are the people that need to be in the salons,” said Sharon Buenos, global director of Zikaron BaSalon. “But unfortunately, we don’t have many survivors left, and there are many regions that have no survivors at all. And yet we still have the duty to remember.”

This year, USC Shoah Foundation and Zikaron BaSalon have partnered to create Zikaron BaSalon/Bringing Testimony Home, a program that provides hosting kits containing a 30- to 45-

minute video of edited testimony, along with discussion prompts. The idea is to empower hosts to lead guests through a meaningful engagement with the testimony—and with each other.

“We are always trying to find new ways for people to engage with the myriad voices we have in our Visual History Archive,” said Dr. Kori Street, Interim Finci Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation. “Zikaron BaSalon’s model of bringing testimonies into homes is a simple and direct way to keep these stories alive in people’s hearts and minds.”

For Zikaron BaSalon/Bringing Testimony Home, USC Shoah Foundation’s team has edited seven testimonies from the Visual History Archive in Hebrew, English and Spanish that cover a wide range of experiences. Starting April 1, hosts can register through Zikaron BaSalon or USC Shoah Foundation and, in addition to receiving a link to the curated testimony, will find tips for moderating the evening and material that provides historical context. Salon participants will also receive a link to download the survivor’s full-length testimony.

Buenos believes that participants connecting to a survivor through testimony, and to each other through discussion, will help create the sense of intimacy that is so central to the Zikaron BaSalon experience.

“When you hear a person’s story, you understand one perspective, and one narrative, and you can bring yourself into that, and you see the story in a different way,” she said, especially when you are “sitting with your close friends and your family and you are all snuggled on one sofa.”

The testimonies featured in the kits include: Agnes Adachi, born in Budapest, who was an aide to rescuer Raoul Wallenberg; Dr. Edith Eger, who survived Auschwitz and became a prominent author and psychologist; Elie Alevy, who was interned in the Salonika ghetto in Greece before being transported to Auschwitz; Erika Gold, who worked as a courier for the French resistance as a teenager; Kurt Thomas, who escaped the Sobibor death camp during the prisoner uprising of 1943; and Yehuda Bakon, who survived Auschwitz and later became a prominent Israeli artist and one of the “Birkenau Boys.”

“It's about the here and now,” Buenos said. “I think when you hear about what Edith Eger went through, and what she was able to overcome, and to start a family and be productive and help society and contribute to her community, you tell yourself, ‘Okay, you can be strong’. You can’t turn a blind eye. You can’t see a kid being bullied, and not respond.”

The do-it-yourself ethos of Zikaron BaSalon will appeal to the younger generations, said Dov Forman, Young Spokesperson for USC Shoah Foundation. Forman, who is 18 and lives in London, creates TikTok videos with his 98-year-old great grandmother, Lily Ebert that range from conversations about her experience in Auschwitz to quirky Shabbat Shalom messages. To date, the videos have attracted more than 250 million views.

Forman encourages others to explore and share their own families’ stories.

“There is so much hatred in the world, and social media is an echo chamber where misinformation and Holocaust denial and antisemitism can spread so quickly. The only vaccine to hatred is education, and I think the way to combat misinformation is not by getting into fights with people, but by using social media to do the opposite – to spread love and spread positivity, and to spread survivors’ voices,” said Forman, who plans to host a salon for his family and friends.

Street said that the collaboration with Zikaron BaSalon will not only reach a wide diversity of age groups; it will also allow USC Shoah Foundation to fulfill its commitment to survivors—to keep memories alive and to teach future generations the lessons of the past.

“When we started recording testimony in 1994, more than 50,000 survivors came forward. Some had told their stories before, many hadn’t. And it was hard for many of them to relive the worst chapters in their lives,” Street said. “But they did it, so that the world would remember, even after they were gone. And now it’s our responsibility to continue the work they started.” Learn more about Zikaron BaSalon at a launch event March 31, 2:30 pm PDT.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.