B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Holocaust survivors transmit hope through teaching, SED dissertation shows
By David J. Craig
Michael Klein was 15 years old when he and 93 other Jewish men were found locked in two abandoned cattle cars at a rail yard in what is now Svitavy, Czech Republic, in January 1945. When Oskar Schindler learned of the situation and ordered that the cars be opened, the emaciated prisoners had had no food or water for eight days, 14 were dead, and some of those alive were frozen to the floor of the cars. It wasn't the first time Klein had narrowly escaped death.
During the previous year he had survived numerous situations where he believed that in "the next 10 minutes I will most likely be dead." He escaped the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp -- where his mother, father, and 6 of his 10 brothers and sisters were put to death -- because his father had found a prisoner being transferred to the nearby slave labor camp at Golleschau who was willing to swap identities with his son. At Golleschau, SS guards regularly shot men next to Klein for not working fast enough.
Considering the horrors Klein witnessed during the war, it is remarkable that he was able to go on to live a relatively normal life, let alone become a professor of physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
But like seven other educators profiled in Transcending Terror: A Study of Holocaust Survivors' Lives, Klein was inspired by his experiences during the war to live morally, to think independently, and to give to others through teaching.
Transcending Terror, a doctoral dissertation by Bernice Lerner (SED'01), is based on lengthy interviews with survivors who include Samuel Stern, associate dean of the College of General Studies, and George Zimmerman, a CAS professor emeritus of physics. Lerner discerns from the interviews that they "resisted ways of being to which sufferers are prone, such as self-absorption, loss of hope, and a sense of bitterness or entitlement." Instead, she writes, they "sought -- sometimes seriously, sometimes fervently, and often subconsciously -- to engage in activities that benefit mankind."
Klein was liberated from Schindler's Bruenlitz, Germany, arms factory in May 1945. He weighed 72 pounds and within days was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He would spend the next six years in and out of TB sanitariums; more than once he overheard medical personnel say that he would die.
After being reunited with his two surviving sisters, he came to the United States in 1951, at age 22. Still unhealthy and with little formal education, he worked a series of menial jobs, first in New York City and then in Denver, where he was sent by a Jewish refugee agency for tuberculosis treatment. Determined to become educated, he studied math textbooks in his free time and eventually convinced an engineering professor at the University of Colorado to let him enroll.
Klein's brushes with death in Germany, he told Lerner, filled him with a desperate sense of urgency that drove him to succeed in school. "It was life or death for me," he said. "You know, when you are a survivor . . . I must have re-created the same feeling when I was going to fail in chemistry. When I started the school all my hopes were concentrated on it. And I was going to fail. It was horrible. So I stayed up more nights [studying] in the bathroom . . . I brought out all my guns and ammunition that I had within me to not flunk out."
Klein graduated first in his class, earned a doctorate in physics from Cornell, and became a successful researcher. And like others interviewed in Transcending Terror, once he attained professional success, he found meaning in his life by contributing to society. Of central importance to him have been the welfare of the Jewish community and the necessity of religion, which he believes serves as a moral protection for humans in a way that science or political ideologies cannot.
On many occasions during imprisonment, "Klein willed himself to live because he did not want the Jewish people to 'die out,'" Lerner writes. And later, "he chose an academic career because he felt, in accordance with his religious tradition, that to be a teacher is the highest 'level of contribution' one can make to society." He is retired now and lives with his wife in Jerusalem.
In contrast, Zimmerman, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau but lost contact with all members of his family during the war except his mother and one uncle, admitted to Lerner that he initially became a physicist partly because he wanted to create "a world in which he would not have to interact with too many people."
But he also found satisfaction in teaching, Lerner writes, especially after realizing that he could help students who also had endured great personal hardships. Zimmerman began teaching at BU in 1963, was chairman of the CAS physics department from 1971 to 1983, and retired this year. He was 10 years old when he was liberated from four months at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and came to the United States in 1950.
"When you see so much evil in the world you would like to tailor a world of your own," he told Lerner. "In that world you hope that most people are good. . . . And therefore I decided not to prejudge people and [to] assume that everybody is good, will do the right thing, unless proven otherwise."
From different molds
The Holocaust survivors profiled in Transcending Terror share an "inviolable inner core" that helped them survive the war and subsequently lead decent lives, Lerner says. She scrupulously describes in her dissertation the unique ways they all faced their demons.
Klein, for instance, struggled for years to reconcile his Holocaust experience with his religious beliefs, and succeeded only after making certain adjustments, such as no longer saying a Passover seder prayer in which God is asked to pour out his wrath on nations who don't "know Him."
Zimmerman and Stern, meanwhile, deeply crave freedom and a sense of control in their lives. To that end, Zimmerman loves gardening because "it is nice to nurture things that you know will grow." And Stern, who was six years old at the end of World War II and with his mother and brother survived Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp for women, dreams of opening a bookstore after retiring so he can have "a period of life where I have much more say about what is going to take place." Stern has taught at BU since 1973. His father was killed at Buchenwald.
"What I think is distinctive about the dissertation is that it doesn't rest on a set of grand, untested assumptions," says SED Dean Edwin Delattre. "Bernice listened and thought carefully about what these people said, and came to know their work with penetrating reflection. She never thought of them as merely members of a group, and treated them from beginning to end as individuals."
Lerner's mother survived stays in several death camps, and her father was in Hungarian forced labor battalions; she knows well that the experiences of Holocaust survivors cannot easily be lumped together. "My mother always talked about fighting with every cell of her body against Hitler, and stealing anything she could from the Nazis," says Lerner. "I saw her as a very heroic figure. But my father was more reluctant to share painful memories. And he told me that there were times when he was emotionally numb, that he would be in a line and the Hungarian overseers would say that they were going to shoot every 10th man, and he didn't care if it was him. He ended up escaping, though."
Lerner, who lives in Newton, was director of continuing education at Hebrew College in Brookline for seven years before leaving in 1998 to work on her dissertation full-time. She hopes to find a university administration or research job and to get her dissertation published as a book.
Michael Aeschliman, an SED professor of administration, training, and policy studies, a literary critic, and a member of Lerner's dissertation committee, believes it will be published.
"When writing about the Holocaust, it's hard to get the right pitch and not be exploitive or self-pitying, and Bernice tells these stories in a tone that's very judicious and refuses to be melodramatic or extreme," he says. It is also remarkable, according to Aeschliman, that Lerner gained access to as many highly educated and prominent sources as she did, because "these are stories that people are not eager to tell anymore, or ones that people don't often trust other people to tell for them."
The other survivors in Transcending Terror are the late Zvi Griliches, a longtime Harvard economics professor, who died in 1999; Micheline Federman, a pathologist who taught at Harvard Medical School; Halina Nelken, an art historian who worked at Harvard's Fogg Museum in the 1960s; Ruth Anna Putnam, a retired Wellesley College philosophy professor; and Maurice Vanderpol, a psychiatrist who taught at Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.
Read the sidebar "Resilient memories"