HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (May 17, 2019) – Huntsville Center’s Equal Employment Opportunity team hosted a Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance here May 8.
Days of Remembrance is the nation’s eight-day annual commemoration during which local, state and federal government organizations, such as schools and military installations, hold activities and observances to honor the victims and reflect on lessons from the Holocaust.
As part of the event here, attendees watched “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” a 38-minute documentary produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The film covers, as the title denotes, how the Nazis seized power and systematically killed 6 million Jews, as well as millions of non-Jewish people.
According to the museum website, the documentary is designed to “provoke reflection and discussion about the role of ordinary people, institutions and nations” in the Holocaust.
True to that intent, EEO set aside time for a discussion led by Huntsville Center employee Irene Freedland, who works in the Interior Design Branch of the Engineering Directorate’s Civil Structures Division. Freedland, who is Jewish, said the topic of the Holocaust is still as relevant as it’s ever been.
“The promise that most Jewish people have is that we shall never forget,” Freedland said. “The idea is that, as generations go on, you seem to forget because you don’t hear the horror stories.”
The first time Freedland learned about the Holocaust was when she was a young girl living in Baltimore, which she said had a large Jewish refugee community. Her father would often bring her along to visit friends of the family, a married couple who owned a bakery. It was during one of these visits with the Goldmans that the young Freedland noticed something unusual.
“I always stayed up front with [Mrs. Goldman] when my father would visit Mr. Goldman, and she’d always feed me cookies – a bad habit to get into,” Freedland said with a laugh. “And then we walked in the back, and because the ovens had been going for a while and it was very hot, he had just his T-shirt on, and I saw he had a tattoo,” she said, pointing at her forearm.
“I said, ‘Why are you tattooed? Jews don’t tattoo themselves,’” she recalled saying.
“My father literally picked me up and carried me outside,” Freedland said. “I was probably 5 or 6 at the time. I don’t think I was even in first grade yet. He tried to explain to me why they had those. They didn’t do that to themselves. At the time it was just my older sister and I, and my parents had to try to explain the Holocaust to us, which at that point was way over my head. I could not imagine people doing that to other people.”
As she grew up and learned more about her family history and her Jewish heritage, she said she “started putting the puzzle pieces together” about what the Holocaust was and the lasting impact it had on the people in her community and on her extended family.
Freedland’s great-great aunt and uncle, who raised her grandfather on her mother’s side, had sent him to the U.S. in the early 1930s while they stayed in Europe.
“They wrote a letter to him and said, ‘Don’t send us anymore mail,’ and that they heard they were rounding up Jews and holding them for ransom,” Freedland said. “After that, they never heard from them again.”
Her mother’s attempts to find out what happened to them were unsuccessful. This included conducting research through Yad Vashem, Isreal’s official memorial to Holocaust victims. Yad Vashem has a database of victims, as well as testimony from survivors.
“When you read some of these accounts, you say, ‘And yet, they survived,’” she said. “My girlfriend’s parents, who were survivors, said that when you saw ‘Work will set you free’ on the sign, you had to make up your mind. You would do anything – whatever you needed to do – to survive. If you didn’t take that attitude into that camp when you walked through that gate, you did not survive.”
Freedland said she would like to have a survivor visit Huntsville Center, but also realizes that the population is dwindling.
“They are the witnesses,” she said. “They are the people who survived. I think if we heard it from their lips, maybe it wouldn’t be so far away. I’ve heard other Jewish people say, ‘Well, nobody’s like that anymore.’ Well, I think they probably thought that in the ’30s too.”
Freedland stresses that anti-Semitism hasn’t gone anywhere, an opinion backed up by findings from the State Department, the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. In fact, all three organizations report an overall rise of global anti-Semitism throughout at least the last decade.
“You hear people say, ‘Why don’t you people just let go of it?’” she said. “Well, the whole idea is not to let go of it so we won’t go down that path again. It’s way too easy to close your eyes and say, ‘It’s never going to happen here.’
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website hosts a series of survivor accounts at www.ushmm.org/information/visit-the-museum/programs-activities/first-person-program and on their YouTube page at www.youtube.com/user/ushmm.