Listen to the whisper of their story

Guest Contributor

The following is a guest post to the ICJS Huffington Post blog by Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, a Jewish Storyteller, Educator, and Founder of The Golden Door: Storytelling for Social Justice. It was originally published on The Huffington Post on Dec. 12, 2017. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective.

The Golden Door: Storytelling for Social Justice brings stories of social justice into schools, and trains middle school and high school teachers in storytelling, coaching, and facilitation to create and nurture safe, encouraging, and equitable classroom communities.


I am inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is August 2017. I am walking through halls that I have previously walked. Here in this hallway, thousands of shoes are piled on each side of me. Mostly the shoes are worn to gray. I see a single shoe that is still white.

I think of the feet that once gave them shape. I think of the people who once walked in these shoes.

I pass photos of arms — tattooed numbered arms, more than 30 of them. I know these arms are not just arms. These arms are the limbs of people, living people, people who survived. How strange they are presented this way. I want to see their faces, their bodies. I want to see them - not only their arms.

I walk through an opening and I am surrounded by pictures. Pictures of hundreds, thousands of people. I know this place. I stand at the bottom of a tower of photographs that stretches three floors above me. Of all the spaces inside this memorial museum, this is the one that calls to me most deeply. This place where sepia faces gaze expectantly into the future. Faces of people who cannot know what I know. People who cannot know what I must not forget. Humans who cannot know what I must teach. They look at me. They look to all of us who visit. It is we who must remember.

It is late in the afternoon now. I have returned from the museum. I listen to the car radio. President Donald Trump tells me and tells millions that at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend there were “fine people on both sides.”

I hear this destructive nonsense, and I fume.

In my mind, I see the shoes, the arms. I see the people no one remembers because the ones who would remember are gone. They too have been murdered. Their bodies mutilated, each soul floating up through this tower, sailing past the ash and a thousand photographs. Floating past the faces that watch us.

I’m stepping back 18 years - and now I am 26 years old.

It is a weekday morning in January 1999. I am performing stories at a Jewish day school in San Rafael, California. This afternoon, Dr. Yaffa Eliach, the honored scholar of the Holocaust, is meeting with students down the hall.

I finish my work, and now I sit beside the middle school students, and listen to Dr. Eliach. Just weeks ago I realized that I must tell stories about the Holocaust. Being in her presence feels surreal and predictive.

Dr. Eliach speaks about her experience as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, where she and Elie Wiesel and others were charged with the responsibility of creating a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Dr. Eliach talks about visiting ghettos and concentration camps in 1979, as part of a fact-finding mission for the commission. She speaks of standing on the site of her childhood shtetl Eishyshok and feeling as if her feet were fused to the ground. As I listen, I am there in the place that was her home, standing beside her, enveloped in the memories of her friends and neighbors, caught in a tempest of life and death. Standing beside her within my mind, I know the truth of her words - if it were not for the love of her grandchildren, she would not be able to lift her legs and extract herself from this desecrated and holy ground.

Dr. Eliach tells us that she had envisioned a memorial to victims of the Holocaust that would communicate that the victims did not only die, “They lived!”

She says that she had dreamed of a space that included a collection of photographs that depicted every person who was living in Eishyshok before the Holocaust.

Months after meeting Dr. Eliach, I am at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that Dr. Eliach and her colleagues imagined into being — a place of brick and stone and fire and memory and life. I am inside her tower of memories. I am a witness to the photographs she collected. Almost every Jewish person who lived in pre-war Eishyshok is here.

I am a witness alongside a million other witnesses. I gaze upon each face, and I know one moment of a human’s life. There they are — Dr. Eliach’s family members and neighbors. With my eyes, I see their eyes. I sense their souls. I imagine their spirits floating upward, alongside the pictures that can only hint at a human’s life.

Eighteen years have passed since meeting Dr. Eliach. Eighteen years have passed since stepping inside her story, and since I stood inside that tower of memories for the first time.

For these eighteen years since meeting Dr. Eliach, I have told stories. I am a teller of Jewish stories - from the Torah, from the rabbis, and from our people. I am the founder and director of The Golden Door: Storytelling for Social Justice, bringing storytellers to schools. I am a teacher whose curriculum is “Story.”

Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Step inside Dr. Eliach’s tower. When you do, look at the eyes that look at you. Listen to the whisper of their story. You will hear the powerful murmur of a human being - a person whose life story may never be known.

Now it is 2017, and my daughter stands before our community as a Bat Mitzvah. Survivors of the Holocaust are called to the Torah to bear witness to their own lives and to the lives of all those they remember and to all those no one remembers.

May the day come when we never need to create another memorial to remember another victim. May no one in a future generation ever need design another hallway where faded shoes testify that millions were murdered.

May the time arrive when each person life is encircled by love and each person’s death is embraced by peace. May the day come when each soul, content that it is time to leave, looks into the faces of those who are loved, and joyfully soars upward.

The ICJS Entrepreneurs Lunchtime Series (ELS) brings together local entrepreneurial leaders to discuss the role that religion and ethics can play in building healthy communities. In this initiative, the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the public conversation about religion and ethics in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome and lift up this diversity of perspectives.

Image attribution: Dsdugan (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons