A Holocaust Survivor Hands Off Her Story

A Holocaust Survivor Hands Off Her Story
Cipora Katz and Allison Russ set up a poster display, as Katz prepares to give a presentation in Skokie. (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
A Holocaust Survivor Hands Off Her Story
Cipora Katz and Allison Russ set up a poster display, as Katz prepares to give a presentation in Skokie. (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)

A Holocaust Survivor Hands Off Her Story

This weekend, the new Illinois Holocaust Museum will open in Skokie. Visitors there will see more than artifacts – they’ll hear directly from survivors of the Nazi genocide. It could be the last Holocaust museum built with guidance from people who lived through the history.

As the survivors fade away, the Skokie museum is taking a unique approach to preserving their legacy. Each survivor’s story will become the responsibility of an individual partner. WBEZ’s Gabriel Spitzer watched that process unfold over most of a year.

Cipora Katz’s Story of Holocaust Survival

A dozen young women have come – nursing students from a little Christian college in Indiana. It’s late March, near the end of the spring term … and they’re in this Skokie conference room to hear about a life radically different from their own. A short Jewish woman with jet-black hair and impeccable eyebrows commands the front of the room.

KATZ: My name is Cipora Katz, I was born in Semyotich …

Cipora tells her audience about living in the Warsaw Ghetto at four years old … until one day, her father and uncle collected the children and dressed them in warm clothes. Her mother stayed behind to wait for her sister.

KATZ: My uncle cut a opening in the fence surrounding the ghetto, and we all ran into the forest. We heard gunshots in the distance.

Miraculously, the eight fugitives found a Polish acquaintance who agreed to hide them in a cramped potato silo. There, in the dark and cold, Cipora and her family would spend the next 22 months and three days hiding from the Nazis. They slept on top of each other, sharing lice and disease.

KATZ: In the silo, we only held hands, prayed in Hebrew or in Yiddish and counted each day of our survival. There were no games to play, no bedtime stories, and no mother to hug me. Because she was not there.

Cipora would later find out her mother and sister died at Treblinka.

One of the people absorbing all this is Allison Russ. She’s 35, a massage therapist with curly brown hair. She drove Cipora here today. She’s been hearing pieces of this story for nine months … but this is the first time she’s heard Cipora put it all together. She brought a pad to take notes, but wound up leaving it blank: she didn’t want to miss looking Cipora in the face.

RUSS: These kids today that get to hear these people speak are very lucky. It’s hard to think about. When they talk about the last survivor of World War One, the last survivor of Titanic, or the last survivor of the Holocaust. They’re things you cant learn in the textbooks, so you just want to, kind of like, hold on to it.

Allison and Cipora are one of about 20 pairs around Chicago – partnerships between survivors and young people. They have made a pact. Cipora will entrust Allison with her story, and Allison will carry it forward.

This all began last summer, in a bare basement office in Evanston. Cipora brought along her poster display, covered in photos and documents.

KATZ: That’s a true picture where it was located. RUSS: How big is it? KATZ: The silo was so small that we could not stand up. RUSS: And how many were there? KATZ: We were eight of us.

Cipora tells how they were sustained by the kindness of a Polish veterinarian, who smuggled them food … how her uncle kept the family going by brute force of will … and how her father, sick and starved, died in that cramped hideout.

KATZ: He laid with us in the silo, unburied for seven days, because the ground was so frozen. And it took the veterinarian and his son for seven nights late at night to pour boiling water deeper in the forest by a tree. And when we came back my uncle and his older son Schlomo buried him in a Jewish cemetery. And this … I will not forget.

RUSS: I feel kind of physically sick. To think, what her family did to get him buried in a Jewish cemetery, it’s just really hard to hear because in my mind, all I think about are bodies piled up on top of each other.

Allison was born 30 years after the war ended. But the Holocaust has been a part of her life since she was a kid.

RUSS: Every night I would pray that this wouldn’t ever happen again, or that Hitler wasn’t still alive. Obviously you’re young, you don’t understand that he’s not coming back. You know, I was like, where’s the proof?

It’s a chilly winter morning in Skokie, and we’re in the car. Allison recalls this troubling experience from childhood that’s bubbled back up in the 6 months she’s known Cipora.

RUSS: They had this poster of Anne Frank in my Hebrew school class. And everyone used to make fun of me because I would, like, look at it and I would get so upset. Here was this young girl who died.

Now, Allison is connecting with another little girl, hidden with her family from the Nazis. One who survived.

RUSS: Hi Cipora … I am downstairs. I’m here …

By now, their conversations aren’t just about the war, but about clothes, careers, dating. Today, it’s lunch at The Bagel in Skokie.

KATZ: Boker tov! Boker tov! RUSS: It’s been a long time! KATZ: You look wonderful. My favorite color, purple! (Doors slam) KATZ: Did you wash your hair again this morning? RUSS: Yes. KATZ: I told you not to because when it’s cold you’ll catch a cold. You didn’t dry it …

(ambi: food arrives)

They talk over bagels and lox. There are a few war stories, but much more about politics and family.

(smooch) KATZ: I’m so happy we are meeting here. Good breakfast, good company. RUSS: Every time I talk to you … KATZ: You learning something? RUSS: Oh, I’m learning so much. Not only that … KATZ: So learn what I told you. Winter is now, you do not walk out with wet hair.

Fast forward now ….to that Skokie conference room, where Cipora has those nursing students captivated. Some cover their mouths as they listen. The presentation culminates, like all Cipora’s presentations, in a ringing decree.

KATZ: You are probably the last generation to be able to interview an actual Holocaust survivor. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you to pass my story and others’ stories to other people of your generation, to make sure that what happened to me is never repeated.

This is a message for humanity… Allison and Cipora are focusing it into a very specific covenant between two people. Someday, it could be Allison telling this story. But she, and her whole generation, are left with a dilemma: When Cipora gives the history, she has the images in her mind, the smells in her nostrils, the scars on her body … Allison has none of that. How can she possibly tell it with the same power?

RUSS: It’s a hard thing. It definitely is not gonna be the same. Even going through the museum is not the same thing as listening to a survivor talk. But it doest mean it’s not going to make an important impact.

Allison is still wrestling with how to make that impact – even if she can’t have Cipora’s gifts as a storyteller or the authority of an eyewitness. So she’ll draw on a haunting memory of Anne Frank, a dark detail about a corpse, an intimate moment with Cipora Katz. And she’ll keep wrestling with it. That, at least, is her responsibility.