Jessica Sectzer-Rubin’s grandfather worked in the family bakery in Poland before he was deported to Auschwitz and survived as a forced laborer. When Nazis broke into their bakery, they beat him and his father until they bled, then shoved her great-grandfather’s face into a bag of flour.
Sectzer-Rubin, 43, relays these traumatic events in a 20-minute story, honed through a five-week training for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors offered by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
HERC took on this educational initiative that empowers grandchildren of survivors to learn and compellingly share their family’s Holocaust stories. It enlisted the assistance of the organization 3GNY, “third generation New York,” which trained seven grandchildren of survivors to share their stories; all of their grandparents ended up in Wisconsin after the war.
The third generation is a new pathway to keep Holocaust memories alive for young audiences, said Samantha Abramson, executive director of HERC. “As Holocaust survivors pass away, their children and grandchildren have a unique and essential opportunity to be the torchbearers who continue to light up the world with their family’s story, so that we all remember, and never forget.”
The need for speakers will become even greater in the fall with a new state law going into effect requiring that every school district in Wisconsin incorporate the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides, Abramson said. “Students connect with real people and individual stories in a far more empathetic and personal way than they do a textbook, historic dates or statistics,” she said.
Shira Phelps of Madison never knew her grandfather, a German rabbi who survived Buchenwald. But she has learned as much as she can about Frank Rosenthal’s story. “It has given me an opportunity to think about my unique perspective as a grandchild to relay the lessons of the Holocaust, how the generational trauma fits into all of our lives and how it connects us to our Jewish roots,” said Phelps, who works in the field of anti-human trafficking.
Sectzer-Rubin grew up in Milwaukee and now lives in Evanston, Illinois, where she is a nutrition counselor and clinical psychologist. She will present her grandparent’s story virtually or in person in Milwaukee.
Her grandfather, Aron Mydlak, died in 2009 and her grandmother, Sala, passed away a few years ago. “My grandpa definitely gave us a sheltered version. As we grew up, we pieced things together.” Her grandparents participated in video interviews for the USC Shoah Foundation.
Her grandfather became a forced laborer in the camps and her grandmother hid from the Nazis during the war. “My grandfather would tell us about how hungry he was all the time. He would take the little stale piece of bread that they would give him and roll it into a ball to make it last.”
In her training, Sectzer-Rubin learned to “amplify a story within the story to slow down time and make more of an impactful punch.”
Aron Mydlak’s whole family died in the Holocaust. “For my grandpa, there were these moments where life and death were a hair apart,” she said. “We’re here because of the luck he had.”
Sectzer-Rubin feels like it is her duty to tell his story since he is not around to share it. “I feel like it helps people who have no relationship to the Holocaust so they can understand our differences, whether it’s different religions or races. It can help us bridge the world to have more love and less hate.
“I’m hoping if I share it, it brings a real person to the history. It’s not so distant and doesn’t get lost. I’m a real tangible, palpable person who can say I sat with my grandpa. I touched his skin where he had numbers on his arm.”