I heard the story of Henny [Brenner]. I find it terrible how Jews were persecuted. She was such a strong woman and had to go through so much. I think there should be a movie made about her life.
My brother Hardy and I received the letter containing these words, written by 11-year old Romy from the German town of Emden last year, after our mother had just passed away at the age of 95.
January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and along with the grief and anger I always feel on this day, Romy’s letter gives me hope. She never met my mother, but developed an intimate familiarity with her thanks to an organization called Zweitzeugen, or “Secondary Witnesses.” It tackles a problem that haunts those trying to teach the history of the Holocaust. The most effective way for people–especially kids—to learn about the Nazis’ atrocities and ensure they are not repeated is to meet living eyewitnesses of the Shoah. But fewer and fewer survivors remain. Soon they will all be gone.
My mother was born Henny Wolf in Dresden in 1924 to a Russian-born Jewish mother and a Protestant father. As she was raised Jewish, she was forced to wear the yellow star and was ordered into slave labor in an armament factory at age 16.
She and her mother were constantly threatened with deportation to a concentration camp. But as it happened, the orders to report for relocation to a new “work assignment” did not arrive until February 12, 1945. The next day, Dresden was famously bombed into ashes by British and American planes. My mother and her parents fled through one of the worst firestorms of the war, yet the firestorm saved their lives. They ripped off their yellow stars, hid them in their shoes and found refuge in a basement, where they hid for three months until they were found by Russian soldiers.
Like many survivors, my mother did not talk much about her experiences during the Nazi era when I was a kid growing up in Germany. But in the 1980s, she started telling her life story in classrooms. Sometimes I joined her and marveled at her ability to connect with children of all ages. She did not immediately focus on the most brutal actions of the Nazis. Instead, she used anecdotes from her daily life to give her listeners a palpable sense of the human being who was victimized.
After describing her perfectly normal childhood before 1933, my mother would explain to her audience what it felt like when former friends began to head to the other side of the street when she approached. She told them about the non-Jewish delivery boy who rang their doorbell at Passover and announced: “Heil Hitler, I deliver the Matzah.” She told them about the math teacher who appeared in class wearing an SS uniform, and how much she hated math from then on. Eventually, she recounted how her relatives were deported by the Nazis and disappeared forever, and how she and her parents survived. She published her memoir, The Song Is Over: The Survival of a Jewish Girl in Dresden, in 2001.
I can attest that when it comes to communicating the Nazis’ crimes, nothing can replace personal interactions with eyewitnesses like my mother, who conveyed the immediacy of her experiences with her own facial expressions, hand gestures and suppressed tears, as well as humor. The Zweitzeugen initiative does the next best thing. It has kept Henny Brenner’s personality and story vividly alive. Young Zweitzeugen staffers and volunteers interviewed and filmed her, and have enabled the mother I knew to shine through on YouTube and a variety of other readily accessible platforms. People also get to “meet” Henny in traveling exhibitions and, as noted earlier, in workshops at schools, after which students, some as young as ten, are encouraged to write letters to my brother and me.
As a result, Romy and many other young people are now secondary witnesses to my mother’s experience as well as to those of 36 other German Jewish survivors whose stories have been conveyed by Zweitzeugen over the last 12 years.
Fortunately, other organizations are finding ways to address the challenge posed by the dwindling number of survivors. Some museums use holographic interview recordings that are paired with voice recognition technology, allowing images of survivors to recount their stories and have one-on-one conversations with visitors. When young people have at least some kind of personal encounter—even one that is feigned—with individuals targeted by the Nazis, the experience is often more memorable than reading about survivors’ experiences.
On January 23, my brother and I watched via livestream a ceremony in the Berlin Parliament in which Zweitzeugen and five other German individuals and organizations received Obermayer Awards. These awards are given annually to people who commemorate the experience of German Jews and who fight against antisemitism. This work, which creates more secondary witnesses, is going on throughout Germany.
Of course, I can neither forgive nor forget the Nazis’ barbarities. At the same time, I am grateful to Germans who are refusing to let their country forget, keeping survivors’ stories in front of young people and letting my mother continue her mission of tolerance education in her distinctive, inimitable voice.
Michael Brenner is Distinguished Professor of History at American University in Washington, DC, and teaches Jewish history at the University of Munich.