Peter Wigmore grew up like many children of Holocaust survivors. He could see his mother’s Auschwitz prisoner number tattooed on her forearm. When he wouldn’t clean his plate his mom told him he’d better eat up because people starved in the concentration camps. But she never really talked about what she’d been through.
His dad told him bits and pieces, but warned Peter never to ask his mom about the camps directly. As he grew older, she would tell a little more. Peter eventually pieced the basics together. Still, his mother, Rosa, never spoke publically about the Holocaust. So Peter decided he would tell her story.
Starting in the 1980s, he visited eighth grade classes in Lake Oswego. Each year, students read The Diary of Anne Frank as an introduction to the Holocaust. Peter’s visit helped them understand people who survived were real and part of their community.
But Peter kept his storytelling secret from his mother for 15 years. He’d feared she would be hurt, or angry. When he finally told her, he was surprised:
To my shock and delight, she spent the next three to four hours grilling me. It was like a master’s exam. Whenever I was inaccurate, she would correct it. Still, we didn’t go into the nitty gritty of daily life in Auschwitz. I knew what that was like from reading and talking with other people.
Eleven million people died in the Holocaust. Most living survivors are now in their 80s.
We heard Alter Wiener’s firsthand account on a recent show, as well as the experience of Marie Abijuru, who witnessed the genocide in Rwanda. It’s a difficult process for any genocide survivor to share what they’ve experienced. Many who chose to speak publically about it do so in the hopes what they went through won’t happen again.
Today we’re exploring who will tell those stories when they no longer can.
One organization in Boston is training students to tell Holocaust survivor stories. Cambodian-Americans in Oregon recently completed an oral history project that let twenty somethings ask their parents questions they’ve wondered about for years.
Of course, this issue preceeds twentieth century traumas. Some Native American children are raised visiting battlefields where their ancestors fought Europeans. Others know little about their past because family and tribal lines were broken through wars, epidemics, boarding schools and tribal termination.
How do you keep important history alive? Does it matter if an individual’s story is told by another person, when so much is written down, and so many oral histories are being archived on video? What is it like to feel you are the only person who can keep a family member’s survival story alive once they are gone?
Peter Wigmore is now part of the speakers bureau organized by the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center. I asked him if his children will carry on telling their grandmother’s story when Peter no longer can. He said he isn’t sure and looked a little bit pensive. But then he brightened up and told me about a girl who heard him speak back in the 80s at Lake Oswego Junior High. She was so moved she went on to study the Holocaust in college. Later, she spent several years working as a guide and educator at the site of the Dachau concentration camp.
Her name is Jennifer Wood and she now teaches fifth grade in Berlin. I called her up and asked her what she remembered about studying the Holocaust back in junior high. She talks about that here [11 minute MP3], and about her pursuit of deeper Holocaust knowledge afterward. I also asked her if she feels she’s carrying on Rosa Wigmore’s story specifically. That answer is here [1 minute MP3].
- Miriam Feder: Writer and performer; granddaughter and niece of Holocaust survivors.
- Nitiya Sin: Architecture student at PSU; daughter of Khmer Rogue survivor.
- David Lewis: Manager, Cultural Resources Department, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde; an author of the Oregon Encyclopedia.