Remembering Hell and the kindness of strangers

Holocaust survivors share their memories

September 27, 2006
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Maurice Vanderpol talks about smuggling children to safety during the Holocaust.

As a small child, Micheline Federman, a pathologist at the Harvard Medical School, was hidden from the Nazis by farmers on the outskirts of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a village in southern France. She recently visited the village, where 5,000 children were rescued from the Nazis, and she will be talking about her recollections and experiences as part of the Witnesses to the Holocaust lecture series.

The series, hosted by the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character (CAEC), developed out of a writing course taught by Bernice Lerner, the director of the center. “I teach a College of Arts and Sciences course called Resistance during the Holocaust, and every semester I bring in at least two survivors of the Holocaust. I feel that it’s very important to hear from survivors, and this generation of students is the last that will have the opportunity,” says Lerner.

Lerner sees her course and the lectures as a natural extension of the CAEC’s mission to promote moral education. “The stories that Federman and the others have to share offer examples of individual human beings and of communities that embodied virtue—people who upheld their morality in a very dark period against great odds and at the risk of their lives. They tell the stories of people who did the right thing,” says Lerner.

Harold Bursztajn, a forensic psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School and the second survivor to speak, will tell the story of his parents, Abraham and Miriam, comrades in the Lodz ghetto underground, who survived in a bunker in the sewer system beneath the city during in the last year of the war.

The last speaker in the series is Maurice Vanderpol, who was a psychiatrist with the Boston Psychoanalytic Society. “He will tell the story of Walter Suskind, a Dutch Jewish leader who smuggled children to safety as their parents awaited deportation to concentration camps.

“It shows that individuals, even under the worst of circumstances, can choose to do the morally correct thing. And I think this is an extraordinarily important lesson for students,” says Steven Katz, director of CAS department of religion.

Lerner hopes that people will come away from the lectures with moral exemplars they can refer to in their own lives. “If you’re ever in a situation where you have to make a very difficult decision, those people can be part of the repertoire of stories you will carry with you.”

Micheline Federman will speak on October 5 at 12:30 p.m. in the Ryan Library at CAEC, 621 Commonwealth Ave. The registration deadline for her talk is September 28. Harold Bursztajn will speak on November 16, and Maurice Vanderpol on November 21, at the same time and location. For more information, click here.

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Remembering Hell and the kindness of strangers