USC Shoah Foundation Conducts Polish-language Dimensions in Testimony Interview with Marian Turski

Wed, 08/24/2022 - 7:48am

Inside a Warsaw light stage surrounded by nine cameras, prominent historian and journalist Marian Turski in late June completed the first ever Polish-language Dimensions in Testimony (DiT) interview.

Conducted by USC Shoah Foundation and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw (POLIN), Turski’s interview was a truly international collaboration involving 15 team members from Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the U.K and the U.S.

When released in DiT format, Polish-speakers will be able to ask Turski questions about his remarkable life and receive real-time responses from pre-recorded video. He joins more than 50 other Holocaust survivors and witnesses who have been interviewed for DiT.

Monika Koszyńska, an education specialist with USC Shoah Foundation in Poland who conducted the interview, said Turski’s background made him a compelling interviewee.

“Every survivor is an absolutely unique teacher, but not everyone has such historical knowledge as Marian,” Koszyńsa said. “He’s aware of the importance of testifying about his experiences and knows how to make his story complete and understandable.”

Turski, 96, survived the Lodz Ghetto and the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Theresienstadt concentration camps, and is currently president of the International Auschwitz Association and co-founder of the POLIN museum.

Born in 1926, the young Polish Jew and his family were imprisoned in the Nazi-run Lodz Ghetto before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944. He was later transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp and then forced on a death march to Theresienstadt, where he was liberated by Russian soldiers in May 1945.

After World War II he had a distinguished career as a journalist with the Polityka weekly and, as an exchange student in the U.S in 1965, took part in Martin Luther King’s famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

By the end of the DiT interview sessions, which were conducted in a 1900’s suburban villa that once housed Soviet military officers, Turski had spent a total of five days providing 351 answers to questions captured on nearly 14 hours of film.

Koszyńska described Turski as an enthusiastic and unflappable participant.

“He is an absolutely unique person, with a great awareness of the mission, and at the same time an extremely witty and affable man, making sure that everyone in his company feels comfortable,” Koszyńska said. “One of the manifestations of this attitude was making sure that he was not the first person to be served a meal during breaks and that everyone had a place to eat and rest.”

Following are extracts from the interview.

What do you think about contemporary racism?

Simply put? It stinks.

After everything you have been through, do you have hope for the future of the world?

The moment I lost hope in Auschwitz, I would have thrown myself on the electric fence. Likewise, the moment I start to doubt that the world could be better, I would probably commit suicide. And I'm in no hurry to do so.

When did you first feel truly free after liberation?

That's a fantastic question. I think most of my friends would say that for them it was the moment the Germans left. But at that time, I was in such a state of physical decay that I was no longer conscious. I doubted whether I would survive.

In reality the first time I felt free was when I came to from typhus, which had the right—the duty!—to kill me. Paradoxically, it was the typhus that saved me, as the high fever it caused burned out all the other diseases I was suffering from. After surviving typhus, I was able to consume six plates of porridge a day—that’s all they allowed me to eat. When I was satiated...and when—don't laugh—I could finally read a newspaper, and because I was in a Russian hospital, it was “Pravda” (“Truth"), that’s when I first felt I was a free man.

What was the first thing that made you smile or laugh after liberation?

(Pause) I remember one episode for sure, but I think...Okay, I'll talk about it. That episode was when I finally felt physically fit. Because after my illness, the typhoid, I suffered from inflammation and when I got out of bed and walked for a while, my legs were so swollen they were like an elephant's. And when I was able to jump off a small platform for the first time, there was a big smile and tears of happiness. But, to tell you the truth, the first time I smiled was when I started to like the nurse.

Do you think the survivor's account is relevant now and important for the future

Perhaps I will answer megalomaniacally. I've written a dozen books, so when someone asks me “Does this book matter?”, for me, the answer is “Yes”. But it's up to those who read: maybe they will say, “Ahh! Nothing special!” And that’s generally the way it is. But if I thought survivor’s accounts no longer matter, I wouldn't be giving this testimony.

Looking at the question from the perspective of a historian, it does matter. Why? I once said that Auschwitz didn’t simply fall from the sky. I say this today with greater conviction than I would have said it five or 10 years ago. Because across the border from where we sit, my border, is the [Russian] aggression against Ukraine. It's an aggression with signs that we are verging on what we call genocide. And yet we have [already] seen this on a mass scale during my lifetime.

So, whoever is listening [to my interview] should think not about me or my family. That doesn't matter. Let them think about what will happen during the lives of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. How will they live? Think about this! Auschwitz never just falls from the sky. Think about how to prevent it. That's what my story is supposed to be about.