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The search for meaning: Local author translates account of Jewish life in Lithuanian ghetto

Gabriel Laufer’s latest book gives readers a glimpse of the pain Lithuanian Jews experienced while being stripped of rights, freedoms, belongings and hope during Nazi rule. It is a translation of a Jewish doctor’s journals of his time leading up to and during the Jewish ghetto confinement in Siauliai, Lithuania, during World War II.

Dr. Aharon Pick, a doctor, community leader and religious scholar in Siauliai recorded his observations and experiences of prejudice, cruelty and physical harm under Nazi occupation from 1942 to 1944 in three notebooks, which he titled “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter” in a reference to Jeremiah 7:32.

Pick died about a month before the ghetto was liberated, possibly from an intestinal illness he mentions late in his diaries. His notebooks, which chronicle an ominous progression of cruel treatment under state-sponsored anti-Semitism, were buried behind his ghetto lodgings for safekeeping. His son, Tedik, recovered the notebooks after the war and took them to Israel.

Pick’s writings document milder forms of antisemitism early in the war, including discrimination he faced in his medical profession, and escalating transgressions that included insults, punches and kicks in the streets once Jews were required to sew Stars of David on their clothing — later expanded to mass murders and deportations. Acquaintances who were entrusted with Jewish families’ belongings that could be sold later for food and medicine sometimes kept the items or sold them for their own benefit. A harrowing passage describes the fate of a baby girl born to a woman who got pregnant after German laws forbade Jews to bear children.

Laufer and Andrew Cassel teamed up to translate Pick’s diaries from the original cursive Hebrew and create “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter: A Memoir from the Ghetto of Siauliai, Lithuania.”

Laufer, the son of two Holocaust survivors, was born in Budapest and raised in Israel. He wrote “A Survivor’s Duty” about his father’s Holocaust experiences and his own service in Israeli wars.

Since retiring from his work as an engineering professor at the University of Virginia, Laufer has been volunteering with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to translate personal accounts and make them available to scholars and readers.

Laufer has completed three document translation projects for the museum and is working on a fourth “to make sure the Holocaust story is never forgotten,” he said.

Laufer started working on translating Pick’s diaries in 2018, and in 2020, he was introduced to Cassel, who independently had been working on the diaries. Cassel, a retired journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, brought a family connection that traces back to when his grandfather, Boruch Chaim Cassel, teamed up with Pick in the 1890s to collect and preserve lyrics to traditional Jewish folk songs. His family’s stories of life in Lithuania at the time helped illuminate some of Pick’s references.

“The book introduction is a summary of his dissertation,” Laufer said of Cassell. “He has strong interest in Lithuania. Essentially, he would preserve the accuracy [of the translation], but would rewrite it in modern English so a reader can understand it. It would not have been as good as it is without him.

“We got introduced to each other in February or March of 2020, and for both of us, it turned into a fantastic COVID project. By the time we started to open back up [after pandemic shutdowns], we were finished.”

The work was published by Indiana University Press.

Holocaust denial has grown in recent years as social media has gained in popularity and extremist views have received more exposure. Fewer Holocaust survivors remain to share their stories in person. At the same time, a study released in September 2020 by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, revealed that younger Americans today are far less aware of the facts of the Holocaust.

The U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study, the first to survey Americans ages 18 to 39 in all 50 states, showed that 49% of 11,000 millennial and Gen Z respondents had witnessed Holocaust denial or distortion of facts on social media. Among the survey’s bleak findings: 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust; 48% could not name a single concentration camp; and 11% believed Jews actually had caused the Holocaust. That third figure rose to 19% in New York, the state with the nation’s highest Jewish population.

Three percent of the respondents said the Holocaust did not happen, and another 7% were not sure whether it had or not. Almost 1% could not recall hearing the word “Holocaust” before.

On the bright side, 80% believed that teaching people about the Holocaust is important, and 63% thought Holocaust education should be required in schools.

Laufer said he doubts that books such as “Notes from the Valley of Slaughter” can help reduce antisemitic sentiments, but he believes they can help help counter Holocaust denial.

“What this book does is fight misinformation,” Laufer said. “There are a lot of Holocaust deniers out there, and more and more people are believing it. The way to fight misinformation is with more information.”

A renowned scholar of religion and the Holocaust said that accounts such as Pick’s, and translations such as Laufer’s and Cassel’s, serve an important role in bringing what can seem like remote horrors of the Holocaust home to more readers.

“I think that, especially, the personal accounts add depth to the story,” said Victoria Barnett, who is the Frank Talbott Jr. Endowed Visiting Professor at UVa’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Jewish Studies Program for the 2022-2023 academic year. “These personal accounts have an impact the broader stories don’t have. It affects people more deeply than figures and facts. It brings the story to life.

“I’ve experienced this with my students. People see a movie or read about the Holocaust, but once you read the personal accounts and learn what it really meant to be persecuted by the Nazis, that’s what makes it real.”

Accounts such as Pick’s can be a powerful tool to fight Holocaust denial, Barnett said.

The Holocaust “is something everyone knows about. People think they know — and don’t,” said Barnett, who has served as director of Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Last week, Barnett shared with her UVa students Nazi propaganda that was specifically aimed at children, exploring with them the dark art of “teaching children to hate,” she said. “That really shook the students up. Children learn what you teach them.”

Barnett said Laufer’s efforts can help new generations educate themselves through the lenses of families’ and individuals’ experiences in the Holocaust.

“In terms of translating these personal stories, that resonates with me,” Barnett said.

Laufer said that efforts being made in Germany to educate people about the Holocaust through the Jewish Museum Berlin, Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe and other programs deserve credit, as do expressions of remorse and attempts to make amends. He said he was moved to see schoolchildren touring the Berlin museum.

“Not only did they build it, but they are teaching children about it,” Laufer said. “When you see what they do, it’s hard not to forgive. We need to do all we can to make sure it’s not forgotten.”

Processing the effects of the Holocaust remains a work in progress, however.

“I have in me enough to forgive the Germans,” he said. “I don’t know if I have it in me to forgive the Lithuanians.”

There are plenty of other lessons Americans can come away with from works such as Pick’s, Laufer said. “I wish we were owning up to what happened here before the Civil War,” he said.


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