Illuminating A Dark, Dark Time
July 18, 2019
"The most important thing is to be kind," said Martha Sternbach, a Culver City resident. "Never judge people by their color or religion."
Having learned the tragic opposite of that message firsthand as a Holocaust survivor, she is committed to keeping the memory of that reprehensible time alive because "knowledge is power." She shares her story with groups at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (www.lamoth.org) in Pan Pacific Park, 100 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90036, (323) 651-3704.
Sternbach was a teenager living peacefully with her family in Hungary until Nazi Germany invaded in 1944. Within a few months her family was forced to live in a ghetto and then sent to the man-made hell known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, a name that became a symbol for the Holocaust.
It was actually three camps in one: a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave-labor camp. New arrivals were divided into groups. The young and relatively able were sent to work. Young children, their mothers, the sick and the elderly were sent to the gas chambers. And thousands were subjected to barbaric and monstrous medical experiments.
Upon arrival Sternbach and one of her sisters were selected to work but eventually were separated from each other, and she went to work in a munitions factory. "I became like a zombie when we were separated," she recalled, adding that a rare exposure to kindness came from a woman in the munitions factory.
Toward the end of the war she and other prisoners were sent on a death march but were soon liberated by the British. Although Sternbach was able to locate some relatives upon her return to Hungary, all of her immediate family had perished.
She came to New York, married, and she and her late husband raised three children in New Jersey. She never shared her horrific wartime experiences with her family until 1994, when a neighbor asked her to provide testimony at a college in New Jersey in conjunction with a Holocaust studies program.
And those grim pent-up memories were finally aired.
"After the war I tried to find peace of mind," Sternbach explained. "I was alive and people kept telling me I was lucky to be alive, but that was not what I was feeling. I can only hope that people learn from the past, and learn to live in peace with everyone."
The George Santayana quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," has been a strong motivator for Culver City resident Stewart Bubar, who became a docent at the museum three years ago after retiring from LAUSD. His long career in education included a 12-year stint as an elected official on the Culver City school board.
"I also taught in religious school," he said, "and since 1971 I taught about the Holocaust as a primary topic. Some of the kids touring the museum have only a very rudimentary idea of what it was. Even though the Holocaust is now part of Social Studies in school, what the kids get always depends on how much the teacher is involved in getting the story across about the attempted extermination of a people from the face of the earth."
Bubar commented that "even in the religious school some parents felt the story was best left untold as it would reawaken the suffering their parents and grandparents went through." He then referenced the Santayana quote, emphasizing the museum's role in keeping history alive.
"Acts of hatred and racism continue to be with us," he said, "and awareness is essential. Never again! I tell the kids about where the extremes of hate can lead. The Nazis were very methodical about the dehumanizing process, defining Jews as a separate race, on the level of vermin and to be stamped out like cockroaches. After all, you've never seen anyone feel guilty about stepping on a cockroach, and that was the mindset."
When asked if there was anything he learned at the museum that was surprising to him, Bubar responded that he was heartened by "the number of righteous people, non-Jews, who put their lives on the line to help Jews."
The museum has the distinction of being the oldest survivor-founded Holocaust museum in the United States. Its roots go back to 1961, when a group of survivors taking English as a Second Language at Hollywood high school connected and shared their experiences. After discovering that they each possessed artifacts (photos, concentration camp uniforms, etc.) from the Holocaust era, they decided these artifacts needed a permanent home where they could be displayed safely, a place to memorialize their dead and help educate the world so that no one would ever forget.
"Our museum is a bit of a 'hidden gem' in Los Angeles that many people don't know about," added Jill Brown, Director of Communications & Outreach. "We are open seven days a week and admission is always free. Visitors can tour on their own with our complimentary audio guide, which contains 27 hours of recorded information, or they can go on a group tour led by trained volunteer docents like Stewart.
"We also provide opportunities for students and adults to learn directly from Holocaust survivors in our community like Martha, who was here on Monday, July 8th speaking to a middle school summer school group. During the summer we offer two weekly Holocaust survivor talks that are open to the public, on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. The Sunday talk is year-round; the Wednesday talk is during the summer only. And this past May, nearly one hundred 10th graders in Culver City High School's AP European History class visited the museum for a tour and Holocaust survivor talk."
Brown explained that "the museum's mission is to commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust, educate the public about Holocaust history, and inspire people to create a better future. We encourage visitors to learn from one of the darkest times in history and leave the museum armed with the tools to stand up to hatred and intolerance. The annual docent training class begins on Thursday, September 19th and meets weekly for 12 weeks. I encourage anyone who is interested in becoming a docent to sign up on our website, http://www.lamoth.org/the-museum/job-opportunities---volunteer/2/."
There is a Yiddish word, "bashert," which translates as "destined," so for those who love working with people (especially with middle and high school students), have a passion for history, believe the Holocaust should never be forgotten, and want to make a difference by joining the museum community and becoming part of a dedicated group of volunteer docents, reading this article may indeed be bashert.