The volunteers for the Speakers Bureau at the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, have reached many people.
But there is one important audience that they have not; and HERC executive director Shay Pilnik, Ph.D., wants to change that, beginning this month.
In a conversation with The Chronicle, Pilnik said that the about one dozen speakers have traveled to grade and secondary schools in the Milwaukee area and beyond. But “some of our community members have never had a chance to hear them,” he said. And so HERC and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center are mounting a series titled “Holocaust Stories: In Their Honor” that will present these survivors to members of the general and Jewish community.
The first will be held on Sunday, Oct. 18, 10 a.m., at the Ritz Theater of the JCC, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. The program will feature Louis Koplin, originally from Hungary. Veteran journalist and radio broadcaster Ben Merens will be the interviewer for this and all the other programs. “We feel that there is an urgency to do it now,” Pilnik said. “I’ve been on the job [as HERC director] slightly more than a year, and already we’ve lost several members of our Speakers Bureau.”
Moreover, these speakers are distinctive in the Holocaust survivor community, said Pilnik, who himself is the grandson of survivors and has met many of them. Many survivors do not want to talk about what they went through, but the Speakers Bureau members “decided to share their stories with the greater community, to share experiences that were very difficult,” Pilnik said. “You can tell this is an emotional experience for them, and some of them relive it when they talk,” he continued. “They all do it because they recognize that in order for the Holocaust to be remembered and be in the minds of young people who live thousands of miles from Europe and years away from the event, a witness has to come and talk to them and say, ‘I was there; this happened to me.’”
That is why the title of the series speaks of honor, Pilnik said. “The intent is also to honor them” for what he called a “heroic act” of speaking. But Pilnik said the programs are intended to go further than that. “We want the community to appreciate their lives during and beyond the Holocaust. Not only what happened to them, but also their own reflections about the atrocities they faced and how each came to rebuild their lives in Milwaukee and become a member of the Speakers Bureau,” he said.
This year, HERC plans to present five survivors, all on Sundays at 10 a.m. at the JCC: Albert Beder on Dec. 20; Tauba Biterman on Feb. 28; Nate Taffel on April 17; and Raye David on July 17. Pilnik added that he and Merens have worked with Sarah Siegel, engagement director at the JCC, on this project. Pilnik said he and the other organizers hope this series will be given annually until all the Speakers Bureau members are interviewed and honored. For more information, contact HERC, Holocaust CenterMilwaukee.org or 414-963-2710