Archived Story

Holocaust survivors share their stories

Published 11:17am Friday, February 28, 2014

Joni Sussman and her siblings didn’t have many extended family members when they were growing up in Minneapolis. So, the young children began to ask their mom and dad questions.

“My parents would just say, ‘there was a war, and we lost much of our family,’” Sussman said. “As we became older… they gave us more information about their experiences.”

The main piece of information? Her parents were both Holocaust survivors.

Sussman spoke to a crowd of more than 65 people Thursday evening at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum as part of an opening reception for Transfer of Memory.

Sussman’s parents were from the same town in Lithuania and survived a couple of years in concentration camps during World War II. After being liberated from the camps, they reconnected in a displaced persons camp in Germany, eventually came to the United States, were married in 1950 in Minneapolis and managed to live really wonderful lives, according to their daughter.

“I was very lucky,” Sussman said. “Many Holocaust survivors didn’t speak about their experiences. My parents really felt that it was important for us to know the stories.”

Sussman, a past president and chair of the Holocaust education for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, continues to teach and speak about the Holocaust. She also shares stories of her mother, Hinda Danziger Kibort, who died in 2003 at the age of 82.

The photography exhibit illustrates stories of 37 Holocaust survivors living in Minnesota. David Sherman, a professional photographer for 20 years, came up with the idea a few years ago. It was the annual Holocaust commemoration that sparked it.

“Every year the number of survivors attending was getting smaller and smaller,” Sherman said. “And it struck me… that somebody should be making pictures. That somebody should say, ‘these are the survivors.’”

He partnered with JCRC and asked for participants who were willing to share their stories. They started with about 25 people in the exhibit. Sherman feels pretty good about now approaching 40 survivors (he has two more waiting to be added this spring), since the total number of them in the state is “really a moving target.”

The exhibit idea was one that struck Steve Hunegs, executive director of the JCRC, instantly when he heard it. Learning the lesson of the Holocaust is important in itself, but it’s also important so they can address the genocide today and into the future, Hunegs said.

It’s a chance to celebrate the lives of the survivors, he said.

“They suffered unimaginable consequences due to the Holocaust, and they came here,” he said. “The portraits are a testimony to human strength and human determination. It’s a remarkable testament to human spirit.”

Each photograph in the exhibit features a survivor (or two) with cards of information telling their story, written by Lili Chester. Sherman started each conversation, which was videotaped, with the survivors by asking for their age, birthdate, where they grew up, and then getting into when the Nazis invaded their community. It can be a 15 minute- to 45-minute conversation.

“At first, I just thought that would be a way of establishing rapport,” Sherman said.

However, it quickly became a part of the experience, he said.

“It gave people the opportunity to speak about their experience, to reminisce a little bit,” Sherman said. “Those conversations became the basis for the text.”

Unfortunately, Sussman’s parents passed away before they could be a part of the exhibit. But her aunt and late uncle, Ben and Reva Kibort, are featured in the exhibit that Sussman calls amazing and “very inspiring.”

“You’ll be amazed to see what they did with their lives after the war and right here in our state,” Sussman said. “Many of whom (survivors) made major contributions to the state of Minnesota. That’s really what made his project special for us.”

Her parents were one of those success stories. Her father owned a printing company and both her parents were active in the civil rights movement, “because they both really knew what it was like to lose rights,” Sussman said. Her mother with involved with the human and gay rights movements right up until she died.

There’s one lesson they taught Sussman that she will definitely not forget.

“They both really knew how to enjoy life,” Sussman said. “So they were pretty fearless, and they enjoyed everything they possibly could.”

Every vacation. Every holiday. Every birthday.


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