Holocaust educator has credibility problem

BALTIMORE, July 27 (JTA) — For 11 years, John Holzworth taught the junior class at Fallston High School about the Holocaust as part of his American history course’s section on World War II.

To help students appreciate the Holocaust’s impact, Holzworth brought in several survivors to the Harford County school through the Baltimore Jewish Council’s 12-year-old speakers bureau.

One of those speakers was Deli Strummer, a Vienna-born survivor and Towson resident who claimed she was in five concentration camps from 1941 to 1945. But five years ago, after hearing her speak twice at the school and at a Towson church, and interviewing her before a school panel discussion, Holzworth requested that the BJC not send Strummer any more.

“I never questioned any of the survivors, with the exception of Deli,” said Holzworth, a Bel Air resident who visited three concentration camps and has studied the Holocaust extensively, including at Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. “I just couldn’t square some of the things she said with what I knew.”

Six months ago, Strummer’s wartime experiences were reviewed by two renowned Holocaust experts, enlisted by the BJC, who challenged much of her accounts. A popular lecturer, she was among the BJC’s 25 regular speakers from a list of 140 speakers that included survivors, liberators and witnesses.

Although the BJC removed Strummer from its list of recommended speakers, she continued to lecture at four schools before being the focus of a June 20 front page story in the Baltimore Sun. Though acknowledging “innocent errors, inconsistencies,” Strummer stands by her accounts of her life during the Holocaust.

But some educators and survivors are growing convinced that the fallout from the Strummer affair, which drew international headlines, will do more than simply curtail Strummer’s speaking engagements. They believe that future survivor testimonies may be suspect as well, particularly among students, and will be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny.

“Some probably will use it as an excuse to question any version of survivors’ experiences,” said Holzworth, who retired last year. “It might cause some teachers to obtain some background information about the person testifying. It could certainly cause people to delve more deeply so that they would have the knowledge to ask questions.

“Deli’s called into question not only her account. She’ll probably make suspect the account of other survivors.”

Like several survivors, Holzworth questioned many of Strummer’s accounts, from the skewered timeline, to misstatements about where she labored and the concentration camps she was in, to an evasion of details.

Holzworth said he fears that some people — such as a former student who wanted to discuss whether deniers had a case — will seize onto the revelation. “What I’m afraid of is that if Holocaust survivors are regarded as suspect, then more people will have grounds — albeit untenable grounds — for being skeptical,” he said.

While Arthur C. Abramson, the BJC’s executive director, called the impact of the Strummer case on Holocaust education “a question mark,” he said the council will consult with education experts on “how to best deal with the situation in the schools.”

But he noted that the BJC will take preemptive steps to ensure that speakers are reliable. “What this will do is make sure that I’m perfectly comfortable with anybody we send out, and that I understand the story and it makes sense to me,” he said. “But it would not be fair to question all survivor testimony on the basis of one case. We will do our best to trust them, listen, and learn more so we can be as sure as we can be.”

Marsha Tishler, the BJC’s director of Holocaust education, arranges lecturers for the speakers bureau. She said she is concerned over students’ reactions to survivors’ testimony and how they will interact with survivors in the classroom.

“I’ve been wrestling with that,” she said. “Without questioning our survivors or their story, if the question comes up we must have some way of dealing with it. While there are some small memory lapses by survivors, the vast body is true so it’s not that we’ll automatically question other individuals.”

Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, of Beth El Synagogue in Pikesville, has shared the stage several times with Strummer. He said the revelation only verifies what he has been advocating for years — that Holocaust education must be accurate to preserve history for the future and to counteract deniers.

Loeb recalled a presentation years ago by an Israeli Holocaust historian who emphasized the necessity of correcting the figures of those buried in Auschwitz, from 4 million to 1.2 -2.8 million.

“His point was no matter what it was, it must reflect the truth,” Loeb said. “Otherwise they will think we covered up the truth. And then people 100 years from now will say, ‘Nothing really happened.’ That’s why we must not tolerate any exaggeration or it will be fodder for bigots of the future to deny the Holocaust ever happened.”

While survivors must be treated compassionately, said Loeb, their testimony also must be scrutinized. “The problem is that [survivors' accounts] are filtered through painful memory, so it’s hard not to exaggerate,” he said. “You can’t judge survivors; they deserve only compassion. But we can’t accept it all at face value. The historians that the BJC employed were important. They needed to corroborate the truth.”

But not everyone agrees that exaggeration of Holocaust events should be immediately dismissed. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russia’s poet laureate, was in town for the recent Baltimore debut of the symphony that was based on his “Babi Yar” poem about the mass murder of 34,000 Jews.

“Some people are exaggerating or they lose their memory of the precise details of history,” said Yevtushenko, who is not Jewish. “But in my opinion, exaggeration about atrocities is not so dangerous as obliviousness about atrocities. Some people hyperbolize.”

Nor, he said, can there be too much hyperbole when so many photographs and evidence of the Holocaust abound. “It’s enough to see the mountain of shoes of people who suffered in the gas chambers,” he said. “This is realistic hyperbole.”

But Leo Bretholz, a local survivor who speaks regularly for the BJC, said the Holocaust provided enough drama without survivors needing to resort to exaggeration.

“Each of us has a story that is part of that mosaic that puts all together that cataclysmic tragedy,” said Bretholz, a retired bookstore manager who collaborated on a Holocaust book. “If we want to exaggerate and tell things that are more tragic than tragic, we are not doing any good. We’re helping deniers. We don’t have to put any more wind in their sails.”

Although he believes the Strummer case will provoke more questions when survivors speak, the Vienna-born Bretholz maintains that the incident also may initiate more study and awareness.

“Maybe it will motivate students to ask more questions, to be inquisitive ­ and they may challenge us,” he said. “But because they may be more alert in listening and questioning, it will perhaps stimulate them. So instead of saying, ‘Another Holocaust story,’ they will say, ‘Maybe I can catch him.’ And they will ask even more questions.”

Bretholz insists that survivors ascertain that their stories can withstand such probing.

“Every story is an individual story and has to stand on its own right to scrutiny,” he said. “[The speaker] has to make sure his answers can be properly explained. There is no doubt that people will be challenged to listen closer, to scrutinize closer. People have a right to question, and I can stand my ground. If you stick to facts, you don’t have to feel bad about being judged.”

Even as students and teachers delve into his accounts, Bretholz said he would not approach his speaking engagements with any hesitation. “I would not be affected in my attitude or be careful in what I say because I’m saying all the things that I always said,” he said.

Too much weight, Bretholz said, is placed on how Holocaust deniers will react. “We overdo it when we fear so much of the deniers,” he said.

“They don’t even have to have wrong facts to challenge. They challenge even the ones that are right. An anti-Semite doesn’t need a reason to malign you.”

Rubin Sztajer, another survivor and speaker, said he also expects that his speeches will be suspect.

“But I don’t care,” said Sztajer, a retired Pikesville salesman. “I have nothing to hide — I tell the truth. And I felt the same way before this happened. I was concerned before because I thought that if [the Strummer case] comes out, deniers will have a field day. But because we exposed it ourselves, I am not worried. I will tell it as I remember it.

That’s all I can do. If they question me, I will welcome the opportunity to answer.”

Sztajer said when he speaks publicly, he recounts his story chronologically from life in the ghetto, to his separation from his parents, his arrival in the camps, daily living conditions there, the death marches and liberation. “No one has ever doubted me,” he said. “And I don’t believe anyone ever will.”

Bluma Shapiro, a survivor and BJC speaker, maintains that the Jewish Council did what it had to do for the sake of education.

“[ Strummer] had to be stopped altogether from talking to the children,” said Shapiro, a retired Mount Washington grocer. “Maybe she has suffered, but she brought it on herself. The misleading of children is a big sin. And all those who deny the Holocaust say, ‘You see. She is lying. They all make up stories.’ She tells lies, so they will say the whole Holocaust is a lie. So you can’t let this happen. And if you say a lie long enough, you believe it.”

But Shapiro said she is prepared to clarify any questions her speech may provoke. “There are different memories of an event because we are getting older,” she said. “They might say, ‘How can I believe you?’

They ask me how I remember the dates. So I ask them, ‘Do you remember when your grandparents died? That day is inscribed in our hearts and minds.’”

Bonnie Rosenblatt, principal of the Park School’s middle school, doubts that students will suspect the credibility of other survivors even though Strummer spoke for her school’s May Holocaust Remembrance Day event — after she was asked by the BJC to no longer lecture.

“I don’t think students will say, ‘They are all a bunch of liars,’” said Rosenblatt. “It may make them aware of the necessity of being historically accurate. But it would not be calling into question for them the veracity of the Holocaust.”

Rabbi Mitchell G. Wohlberg, dean of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, said the BJC’s actions of enlisting Holocaust experts to review Strummer’s claims and informing schools of their findings only prove that the quest for historical accuracy is of prime importance to the Jewish community.

“I think the very case that it’s such an exceptional case verified all the speakers,” said Wohlberg. “And also that no one wanted to brush it aside and say that it was no big deal.”

Zipora Schorr, Beth Tfiloh’s educational director, discounted assertions that revelations about Strummer will impact students or fuel Holocaust denial.

“I don’t think it will affect the children at all,” she said. “One witness doesn’t define the Holocaust. There are too many other witnesses to give any credibility to deniers.”

Rather, said Schorr, who leads annual senior trips to Polish concentration camps and Israel, the revelation will allow educators to teach students about the importance of accurate testimony.

“What this will do is give us the opportunity to discuss how important it is to bear witness, how important historical accuracy is and to discuss the whole issue of Holocaust denial,” she said. “This only tells me how important it is for our children to go to Poland and stand there and bear witness.”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, of Shomrei Emunah Synagogue in Greenspring and a psychologist, lectures about the Holocaust every Tisha B’Av and presents an annual lecture about a Holocaust figure on the last day of Passover. He is compiling a book on 12 of those figures.

Despite the inconsistencies and exaggerations, Weinreb said Strummer still has much to offer as a survivor and instrument of learning. “I still think one cannot entirely write her off as being a fraud — maybe a person who overdramatized, was carried away by her emotions,” he said. “But there is a core there that is certainly useful.”

He, too, maintains that the revelation only emphasizes the need for careful recording of the Holocaust that’s “impenetrable and beyond question.” Most important, the rabbi said, there must be balance between survivors’ stories and historical record.

“The narrative needs an objective factual support,” he said. “But the emotional wallop that a survivor’s story tells is necessary also. This will encourage people to insist not only on emotions and memory, but hopefully it will encourage more historical research, a careful examination of survivors’ narrative.”

Weinreb said inconsistencies are not uncommon in the historical narrative. “There may be certain aspects of fiction, distortions of history,” he said. “There were no tape recorders. It is not possible not to have distortions. So people need to bring more sophisticated nuance. … It doesn’t shock me that three weeks in Auschwitz felt like nine months. It must have felt like 30 years in hell. They’re important questions to ask, but they have to be raised in the context of the experience.”

But Weinreb does not feel that the revelation will feed the Holocaust denial movement. “Whether she came out [of Auschwitz] on Monday or after three weeks or nine months, this has nothing to do with whether the Holocaust happened,” he said.

In fact, because Strummer is such an effective speaker, said Weinreb, students may reject denial literature. “It may give much more credence to a real live person who they feel affected by,” he said.

It must also be remembered, said Rabbi Weinreb, that both the Holocaust scholars and Strummer are using “limited” history ­ the experts are limited to second-hand information and she is limited to memory lapses, the physical and psychological conditions she was in, the years that have gone by.

“And that’s not limited to the Holocaust,” he said. “You can read 10 different accounts of the Civil War.”

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