Educating about the Holocaust in Switzerland

by Cilla Tomas

I recently had the opportunity to return to Bern, Switzerland — to the synagogue where I grew up — to introduce the book, The Ones Who Remember: Second-Generation Voices of the Holocaust, a collection of stories written by my Second Generation group at Temple Beth Emeth.

The synagogue in Bern was built in a Moorish-Oriental style of architecture in 1871, and currently has 400 members. In Switzerland, there are approximately 20,000 Jews, .2% of the whole population.

During World War II, neutral Switzerland survived the war without any harm, but the border remained closed to Jewish refugees, and thousands of Jews were turned away, even though the Swiss knew these refugees would have to face potential death. My father’s family had emigrated from Kishinev (at that time in Russia, now in Moldovia) to Bern at the beginning of the twentieth century with other Eastern European Jews after experiencing persecution.

It was a wonderful experience to present my family’s story in my mother tongue, Bernese Swiss German. To my surprise, I discovered that several participants at the presentation were also second-generation Holocaust survivors. A woman I had grown up with was present. We had attended the Jewish youth group, Hanoar Haboneh, together. We had never shared the common background of our mothers who survived the Holocaust. We both expressed in front of the entire group our disappointment that our families felt like outsiders in the Bernese Jewish Community. Both immigrant families, most of the other members of the synagogue were long-term established members.

Left, Corinne Merlin with the author Cilla Tomas

Also present was another member of the community, Eve Stockhammer, a psychiatrist and artist, who has written two books in German about the Shoah: Kaddish in Remembrance: Contemporary Witnesses and Subsequent Generations Report on the Shoah, and, co-written with her sister, Iris Ritzman, Violins in the Snow: Two Ways of Remembrance of the Shoah.

The sisters’ mother kept her Jewish identity and her escape from Nazi Germany a secret. Eve and Iris eventually discovered this family secret through photo albums they found in the attic. Therefore, they became very engaged in researching, writing, and painting about the Shoah.

The attendees at my presentation in Bern were impressed to learn that our Ann Arbor group began working on our Yom HaShoah Services at Temple Beth Emeth approximately 20 years ago, and are still together after writing, publishing, and presenting the book to a wide variety of groups and institutions.

This long journey has also helped us heal and grow emotionally, and we have been able to establish long-lasting relationships among us.

My second presentation of our book was at the “BabelKultur” in Zürich, Switzerland. A very dynamic Jewish couple, Bettina Spoerri and Miklos Klaus Rozsa, established this private cultural center on the outskirts of Zürich to present primarily Jewish cultural events. They both travel the world and write, take photos, and publish books mostly about Jewish culture. They had just returned from Shanghai, China.

My presentation was just two days after the attack in Israel on October 7. In spite of the difficult times, we had good attendance with a very engaged discussion. Several of my good friends travelled from other cities to listen to my presentation.

The big surprise was seeing my dear friend E., who is also a second-generation Holocaust survivor. She has rarely talked about her mother’s experience in the concentration camp. Actually, her parents, both Jewish, barely participated in Jewish life, and the whole family enjoyed celebrating Christmas with a tree at home. This time she brought me to the Jewish Museum in Basel and introduced me to the manager. She told him about my upcoming talk in Zürich and brought her sister and friends with her to my presentation.

One of the interesting topics we discussed during my talk was “Why have many of us second-generation Holocaust survivors chosen helping professions, such as psychologist, social worker, or teacher?” Our explanation was that our parents loved and cherished us very much. But sometimes they were so preoccupied with their own traumatic experiences in the past that they were unable to parent us. We then felt obligated to “take care of them.” This dynamic helped to develop our “emotional intelligence,” which helped us keep the family together. This later served us well as professionals in those helping professions.

On the last day of my stay in Zurich I met with Anita Winter, Director of the Gamaraal Foundation. She is very dedicated and hardworking. Also a second-generation Holocaust survivor, she supports Holocaust survivors who found a home in Switzerland. She provides Holocaust education to school children and organizes exhibitions all over the world. The Swiss government and many other institutions help this organization. She wants to coordinate some exhibitions in our area with us. 

After the attack in Israel, a quote by Primo Levi in her brochure struck me. “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.” Let’s try to educate as many people as possible about what happened during the Holocaust, so history doesn’t repeat itself!

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