“You cannot suppress human spirit”: Millersville hosts the 33rd Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide

Maria Rovito
Opinion Editor

“Resistance” was the theme of Millersville University’s 33rd Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, bringing in speakers, historians, and survivors from around the country. The conference was held from April 2-4, 2014, making it one of the largest conferences dedicated to the Holocaust in North America.

The event began on April 2, in the SMC Multi-Purpose Room, with opening remarks from MU professor Dr. Victoria Khiterer. She stated, “There were thousands of uprisings in the ghettos and concentration camps. Many people would risk their lives to save Jewish people. Those who survived had strength to resist the conditions brought upon them.”

After her welcoming remarks, the documentary “Misa’s Fugue” was presented, directed by MU graduate Sean D. Gaston, class of 1999. The film explored the life of Frank ‘Misa’ Grunwald, who resisted and survived the concentration camps of Europe. Born in 1932, Grunwald lived in Prague when Germany invaded the Czech Republic in 1939.

Pastel drawing contributed to the conference by Brittany Martin, an art student at MU.
Pastel drawing contributed to the conference by Brittany Martin, an art student at MU.

“I would have never said I was Jewish; I would have said I was Czech,” stated Grunwald.

After the invasion, he was kicked out of school, forced to wear the Star of David, and ordered to move out of his home. In 1942, he was deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the Northwest Czech Republic.

“It was the first time I saw people being treated worse than cattle,” he said.

After he was separated from his parents, Grunwald was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. The number 169057 was tattooed on his left arm.

“We were starving,” Grunwald stated. “We were literally covered by human ashes.”

He was then deported from Auschwitz to Mauthausen, and then forced to go on a death march to the Gunskirchen concentration camp in Austria.

“For me, the only way to survive was to fantasize about being home,” he said.

After surviving the concentration camps for 2 years, 9 months, and 21 days, the US Army liberated the camp at Gunskirchen.

“For me, the war was over,” he stated. “When I looked in a mirror, I couldn’t recognize myself.”

Frank “Misa” Grunwald, an artist and Holocaust survivor who was featured in a movie that was shown at the Holocaust conference, working on his piece, V-11071944.
Frank “Misa” Grunwald, an artist and Holocaust survivor who was featured in a movie that was shown at the Holocaust conference, working on his piece, V-11071944.

Grunwald and his father eventually moved to the US, and had the number on his arm removed.

“Art for me was the greatest escape,” said Grunwald, who resisted the conditions the Nazis brought upon him through sketching and creating sculptures. He stated on life after the Holocaust, “I think about it everyday; sometimes 15 times a day.”

After the film viewing, director Sean D. Gaston presented his view on the importance of preserving Grunwald’s story.

“I was blown-away by his story-telling abilities,” Gaston said. “I wanted to preserve his legacy, and he was ready to open up more about his story.”

On the second day of the conference, several Holocaust scholars and historians presented their studies and knowledge on resistance to genocide.

In the first session, “Jewish Resistance in Ghettos and Concentration Camps,” Paul R. Bartrop discussed the importance of defying the Nazis in his lecture, “Confronting the Nazis in the Concentration Camps.”

“Resistance was an active, ongoing process,” he stated. “It ran deeper than a simple defiance to the SS. The Nazis attempted to destroy their ability to think and act for themselves.”

The next speaker, Sara Bender, discussed the importance of resistance in the ghettos in her lecture, “Ghetto Uprisings: Reality or Myth?”

“Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter,” she said. “As long as there was a chance of saving lives, right before the liquidation, would uprisings occur. It was a final message to both the Jewish and the free world.”

Dennis Klein of Kean University presents his lecture, “Witnesses and the Hidden Realities of Genocide.”
Dennis Klein of Kean University presents his lecture, “Witnesses and the Hidden Realities of Genocide.”

In the session, “The Holocaust as Genocide,” Hartmut Heep presented the concept of oppression and discrimination in his lecture, “Contextualizing the Holocaust as Genocide.”

“Are we Jewish because we are told we are Jewish?” he asked. “When do you know you are different? When people tell you?”

The next session, “The Holocaust and Post-War Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union” explored the struggle of Jews in the USSR.

Julie Chervinsky presented the stories of two veterans in her lecture, “Jewish Soldiers and Partisans of the Soviet Army of the Great Patriotic War.”

One veteran, Stanislav Severinovsky, stated, “All the fields surrounding the Treblinka extermination camp were covered in human ashes; I saw people digging through the ashes.”

Igor Kotler’s lecture, “The Case of Cultural Genocide,” described the destruction of Jewish cultural life in the Soviet Union.

“You cannot suppress human spirit. You cannot suppress human dignity,” he stated.

In the session, “The Rwandan Genocide and Violence in Africa,” Musa Wakhungu Olaka presented the importance of keeping alive the memory of the children who survived the genocide of Rwanda in 1994.

“These children were forced to witness rape, torture, pregnant women being disemboweled, being forced to kill others; things a child should never have to do. Children would use stones to repel the attackers,” he described.

After the sessions for the second day, Dr. Diane Umble, the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Millersville, gave the conference participants welcoming remarks.

“The study of the Holocaust and genocide helps us to understand our past and shape our future,” she stated.

Zvi Gitelman presents his lecture, “Rumination, Resignation, and Resistance.”
Zvi Gitelman presents his lecture, “Rumination, Resignation, and Resistance.”

After her introduction, Zvi Gitelman, from the University of Michigan and the keynote speaker, presented his lecture, “Rumination, Resignation and Resistance.”

“I wanted to know, did they really fight back?” he asked. Jews underwent moral, spiritual, and psychological resistance to defy the Holocaust, he described.

“Those who lived had the ability to survive and retain humanity. It was important to save Jewish honor among the Jews and the Poles.”

The third day of the conference presented more sessions and a cultural program presented by Millersville University students and professors. The cultural program presented a reading from Barry Kornhauser’s dramatic adaptation of Jane Yolen’s novel, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

This adaptation was performed by Millersville University students under the direction of MU professor Tony Elliot, from the Department of Communication and Theatre.

Over three days, Holocaust scholars, survivors, historians, and witnesses presented on the importance of resistance to suppression, injustice, and persecution. By sharing knowledge and informing the public of these events, these scholars are keeping future generations aware of the dehumanization of millions so that it will never happen again.