What to ask a holocaust survivor
April 30, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I've got a holocaust survivor coming, and I get to ask one question. For some reason, I can't think of a question. We've covered most of the stuff in class, and I just can't think of anything to ask him. He's 82 btw, and hes coming to my college.
posted by Nighthawk3729 to Education (36 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"What kind of questions should we be asking you at this moment in history?" It's a valid question, and I'd like to know the answer.
posted by sswiller at 10:52 AM on April 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

How about asking him his thoughts on Holocaust deniers. Has he had any experience dealing with such people?
posted by Lucubrator at 10:52 AM on April 30, 2009

It's a highly personal question, but one I asked a Holocaust survivor when I was a teenager and the answer has stuck with me to this day: "Do you believe in God?"
posted by meerkatty at 10:53 AM on April 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

What did he think about while in the camp? How did he pass the time? What was his first day/night of freedom like?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: I wanted to ask him about resistance movements, these are good though, thanks :)
posted by Nighthawk3729 at 11:03 AM on April 30, 2009

Sort of along the same lines and maybe an innapropriate question, but I'd be interested in what he thought of the ordinary germans who knew about the holocaust but didn't do anything, and what he might have done in their shoes. Or something like that.

I don't think it's a question I'd ask, just one I'm interested in. Do you think if you were on the other side, you would have acted differently?
posted by sully75 at 11:10 AM on April 30, 2009

If you could speak to one of your captors today, what would you say to them?
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 11:13 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Were there any joyful moments while you were in the camps? If so, what were they?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:15 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you find it hard to trust people?
posted by TheOtherGuy at 11:16 AM on April 30, 2009

You could ask if he was aware of a resistance movement at the time, and if he thought that they would be the ones to get there before the Allied forces.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:20 AM on April 30, 2009

My grandma is a holocaust survivor, and she's told me many stories from "the camps." Her Alzheimer's related dementia now has mercifully released the grips of those memories. The question I wish I would have asked her is what kept her going?

She was 17 when she was taken away, her parents were taken to Auschwitz and killed, and she had no one. I can't imagine her hopelessness through the ordeal. I know that people give up on life for things that seem so much smaller (losing money in the stock market, etc).

I've basically spent my 20's studying Psychology. . . on my way to a a Ph. D. While I've learned a great deal about human motivation and behavior, there is something about the will of one of my own family members; an ordinary, kind, loving grandmother; that still eludes me and and likely will for the rest of my own life.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Could you maybe post a little more about this particular survivor? (That is, depending on how much you know about him in advance.) Is he Jewish or part of another persecuted group? Was he hidden somewhere during the war, or in a camp, or both, or somewhere else? What country was he in?

I read Laurence Rees's book on Auschwitz a while ago and was struck by the number of misconceptions I had having learned about the Holocaust in high school--particularly but not exclusively about life in different camps and life in the aftermath for survivors. I'd be inclined to ask this person about the social atmosphere in the months or years leading up to the Holocaust. Did he have non-Jewish (or non-whatever group) friends or colleagues? How did average fellow-citizens treat him--was there an abrupt change, or was there always underlying prejudice, or... some other way to characterize how his different-ness affected his interactions with other groups? How would someone go about finding help from a resistance movement (or join it) in his particular situation?

I'd also be curious, personally, about how he views pop culture portrayals of Holocaust stories, if he thinks about them or views them at all. I'm thinking particularly of things like "Law & Order"-type shows that sometimes use Holocaust subplots to add emotional depth to an otherwise standard murder mystery (the victim appears to be just an old man, but wait! he was actually an SS Officer 50 years ago... time for a black & white flashback scene!).
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:25 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

(I guess the math doesn't match my terms--should have said non-Jewish friends or classmates, and maybe you could ask about what he observed as far as his parents' social lives before and leading up to the war.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:27 AM on April 30, 2009

What an amazing opportunity.

I would ask, how did you find the will to continue on?
posted by Leezie at 11:30 AM on April 30, 2009

Excellent ideas so far. I would think it depends on what his experience was. Was he in the camps? The resistance? In hiding?
posted by chez shoes at 11:31 AM on April 30, 2009

I find it bizarre that you would ask what you should ask someone else, and that you add the narrowing to resistance movements belatedly. To be constructive, I think you should reflect more about what you would like to know.

If you genuinely can't come up with anything, which is regrettable, perhaps ask whether he had close friends who declined to join the resistance, and what his reaction was to that.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:33 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Take a cue from USC Shoah Foundation. They have terrabytes of videos of holocaust survivors.
(Full Disclosure, I've done some network/security type work for them, but it's not in any way my project.)
posted by zengargoyle at 11:35 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would ask him what he thinks of Obama's hedging on torture prosecution and the current attitude of, "it's in the past, let's just forget it" re: the torture memos.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:41 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two sets of my grandparents from my mother's side and my stepfather's side are Holocaust survivors (4 in total).

I realize it may be uncomfortable to ask, but the most poignant question you can ask is "what was the key point or most important thing you did for survival?" This question brought up the most interesting responses from my grandparents, giving me stories of immense cruelty and hope at the same time.

My maternal grandfather responded to this question by telling me a story of how while he was in a concentration work camp, he was often craving for a cigarette, being a heavy smoker at the time.

He found a half-smoked butt on the ground that was discarded by an officer. Soon after, he was caught smoking it by a German officer. Worker smoking was strictly prohibited at the camp. The officer immediately pistolwhipped him, beating him badly. While pointing the gun at his head, he asked him why he should let him live. My grandfather was fairly quick witted and noticed the officer had thick stubble, unable to get a good shave while being stationed at the camp. The officer obliged, telling my grandfather than if he gave him a good shave and haircut, he would let him live. If the shave and cut were bad or if he tried any funny business, then he would face punishment. My grandfather managed to perform adequately to the officer along with other stationed officers and was given reprieve. Thereafter, he gave hundreds of haircuts to German officers in exchange for small favors like getting an extra hunk of bread or private smokes. He had never cut someone's hair before that point.

The part I like best is that after being liberated by the British in 1945, he moved to America and became a career professional barber until he retired about a decade ago. I have good memories receiving free haircuts from my grandfather for most of my early childhood.

After talking to many Holocaust survivors (not just my grandparents), each survivor has an unique individual story like this, each amazingly memorable in their own way. However, I have found most survivors do not like talking about many of their more horrifying experiences. With the trauma involved, this is understandable even after so many years.
posted by seppyk at 11:43 AM on April 30, 2009 [30 favorites]

I would be really curious to know how he feels about contemporary society's fascination with the holocaust.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:44 AM on April 30, 2009

Reflect on what you've learned in class so far and find something you either want to know more about or perhaps something that was not covered in class at all. There's quite a wide range of topics - from day-to-day life to historical aspects to how life & identity was affected afterward to more abstract things such as their thoughts on the nature of faith, god and forgiveness.

Maybe ask yourself what made you take the class in the first place to help guide your thoughts to a question.
posted by mikepop at 11:47 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is he aware of the violence going on in places like Darfour? What is the best thing that we (ie: western people who are not members of our governments) do to try and end the violence these people are living through today?
posted by anastasiav at 11:54 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would imagine that a question will simply arise as the result of something this gentleman says, so I would worry about it too much. I gave many talks about surviving the siege of Sarajevo, and the most delightful - which isn't really an apt word, considering the circumstances, but nonetheless - were the few wherein I spoke alongside Holocaust survivors (and once, a survivor of one of the atomic blasts in Japan) so that the students could draw parallels between mankind's atrocious past and more recent events. I will never forget the lovely Holocaust survivor who asked me, rather impishly, "What question do you get the most?"

I didn't have to think, because by far the most common question is "What did you use for toilet paper?" She responded, "Yeah, that's probably the most popular one for me, too." So don't ask that one!

But I'm always intrigued by the mentality that existed among the (Jewish or other persecuted peoples) communal mentality *before* the deportations and whatnot started. Quite a few people above have mentioned "the resistance," but it's my understanding that this sort of thing was often a viable option (to the extent it ever was) long after it was too late for many people. (In many places, for much of the war, Jews weren't even allowed in the resistance per se.)

In my own experiences, we simply didn't believe that anything too catastrophic would really happen to us. It was a shock when the city was blockaded and life essentials - food, water, gas, electricity, phone (etc) were shut off. There was no meaningful time to ponder "resistance" of any kind, though it would have been nice if there had been.

Although the situation in Sarajevo is not analogous with the Holocaust, there are certainly similarities, and I've always wondered what people were thinking before things got too bad - some felt it coming and fled successfully, others didn't wake up until they were on the trains to death camps. How did the one group perceive the other? Was fear of seeming cuckoo to family and friends a death sentence to many? Where is the line between paranoia and foresight? I've asked questions like these of Holocaust survivors and (to me) they've been far more enlightening than just about anything else.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:08 PM on April 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

She certainly might have read Viktor Frankl's seminal Man's Search for Meaning. You might ask her if she had ever had the chance to return to the camps to visit and find her own meaning for the destruction, injury, death, and heartbreak that occurred there.
posted by parmanparman at 12:49 PM on April 30, 2009

Do you think that people are good?
posted by Meatbomb at 1:02 PM on April 30, 2009

seppyk's comment is excellent and reminded me of this recent news story about a French Jew whose name was found on a piece of paper in a bottle during recent construction work near Auschwitz. He survived by working as part of a construction team. It also reminded me of the father's story in Maus: he learned to repair boots and because he had a specialty he was able to get by at certain points.
posted by zadcat at 1:08 PM on April 30, 2009

If you're still thinking of asking about resistance groups, I'd be interested to know his thoughts on Jewish "Avenger" groups that took justice into their own hands by hunting down fugitive Nazis. I just finished Neal Bascomb's Hunting Eichmann and the differences between those who wanted Nazis arrested and tried and those who wanted to hunt them down and kill them were pretty interesting.
posted by kjars at 1:34 PM on April 30, 2009

"Have you gone back?"
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:11 PM on April 30, 2009

My paternal grandmother was also a Holocaust survivor (3 years and 3 months in Auschwitz, Lodz and Grotniki), and she, too, also had many stories to tell me from her time there. Even though she't not with us any more, I never got around to asking her if she believed in God...

Would they ever go back? My grandmother never went back, but I never asked her if she would.

I saw Elie Wiesel at my university earlier this year and it was awe-inspiring. I've never met another person my age (I'm 25) who had grandparents that were in the Holocaust, so it's comforting to me that people DO want to know.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 2:30 PM on April 30, 2009

What did you learn from your experiences?
posted by theora55 at 3:33 PM on April 30, 2009

"What question do you never get asked that you wish you were asked?"
posted by IndigoJones at 4:55 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

What advice do you have for future generations to make sure this never happens again?
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 6:59 PM on April 30, 2009

"What did you tell your children?"

Honestly, this is a good question for anyone who has gone through some sort of trauma and is only now, after many years have passed, ready to talk about it. No one in my family was caught up in the Holocaust (having left Poland in the 1920s and being Catholic anyway), but I recall the stories my father used to tell me about being a marine in Vietnam. When I was young, the stories were all about light-hearted hijinks with the guys, but as I got older he started telling me the darker stories about people who didn't, or almost didn't, make it back. I've always wondered what a Holocaust survivor would tell their children about their time in the camps; would they shield them from the truth, deny it altogether, be totally honest, or some mix of the three?

Anyway, you can re-phrase it however you like, but I still think it would be a great question.
posted by Panjandrum at 7:45 PM on April 30, 2009

Can you ask him about small resistances that weren't part of a larger movement?

A Holocaust survivor came to speak to my class when I was in 6th grade. He told us about how it was his job to distribute loaves of bread to the other prisoners. To prevent him from being able to sneak extra bread to anyone, he was required to hit two pieces together to count them so that the guards could hear it even if they weren't watching him every second. Pick up two loaves, smack them together, distribute, pick up two more, smack them together, distribute.

Sometimes he was able to pick up two loaves with one hand and smack the three so they sounded like two... so sometimes someone got an extra piece of bread.
posted by juliplease at 9:33 PM on April 30, 2009

I had a high school project where we interviewed Holocaust survivors - I spoke with a woman who had been at Lodz. I don't remember what questions I asked - it was over 25 years ago, but I know I didn't ask this question, which I would now:
In your everyday life, how often do you think about that experience?
posted by birdsquared at 3:14 PM on May 2, 2009

If you are not afraid of starting a controversy, you can ask him his opinion about the israeli government actions in parallel with the nazi government at the times, or if you don't want to start a storm you can go for a more conform question such as what he thinks the younger generation can do to prevent such an horror from happening again.
posted by izwalito at 11:17 AM on May 5, 2009

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