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ROBIN ABCARIAN

The Worst of Times--on the Record

October 18, 1995|Robin Abcarian

If one of the great questions about the Holocaust is how-- how could it possibly have happened? --then the only humanly comprehensible answer is this: Slowly.

Let Sidonia Lewin Lax explain. She was 12 years old, the only child of affluent clothing manufacturers in a city in southern Poland, when the Russians and Germans divvied up the country in 1939. Her town, bisected by a river, was split in two.

First, she remembers, Jews were not allowed to work in government jobs. Then, professionals were ordered home. Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks. They could use only the gutters. Then, they were ordered to bring their valuables to the police department.

"It was so gradual," Lax said, "that nobody could notice what was happening."

Eventually, Jews were forbidden to live in certain parts of the city. They were forced into smaller parts of town, ghettos surrounded by barbed wire. Once-affluent families such as Lax's were forced to sleep on straw-filled bags in small rooms, sharing apartments with other families.

Still, she said, a denial persisted: Things would get better, this would all go away.

"This part of the world was used to pogroms," Lax said. "People would hide for a few days and then they would come out and it would blow over."

Of course, it did not blow over, nor would it ever.

Lax's parents were killed early on. Their daughter would spend the war years in six different camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

By then, however, she was no longer Sidonia Lewin. She was A14281.

Only gradually does a person become a number.

At about the same time that Lax's family was being destroyed, a little Jewish girl in Portland, Ore., heard a terrible story about babies being thrown into ovens in a place called Europe.

Her parents, unable to get a baby-sitter, had taken their preschooler to their synagogue, where a famous man brought the awful news. Years later, she would learn that the man was the playwright Ben Hecht, who was determined to tell American Jews of unspeakable Nazi crimes.

She remembers that neither her parents nor any of the other adults believed the famous man. But she believed him--she knew in that way that children do that he was telling the truth. And because she was far too small to grasp that an ocean and a continent separated her from the ovens, she was overcome by fear, traumatized by what she had heard. They could come for me at any time, she thought. I will never be safe.

And that is why she remembers weeping, as a teen-ager, when Israel became a state. Finally, she thought, a place to go; safe haven from the ovens.

The little girl grew up, made a family, and threw herself into political work--for striking workers, for political candidates, for Israel.

But Carol Aminoff never forgot about those babies.

*

Years later, Sidonia Lewin Lax and Carol Aminoff met each other at a place that seems about as far from the grim reality of the Holocaust as you can get: ground zero for feel-good fantasy--a back lot at Universal Studios. But the Holocaust is very much a part of the place, for it is there that director Steven Spielberg has chosen to locate Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the video archive he was inspired to create after the success of his 1993 movie "Schindler's List."

The survivors project, Spielberg has said, "is the most important job I've ever done."

Lax is one of dozens of survivor volunteers on the project, which is housed in remarkably inelegant quarters--a series of portable buildings filled with volunteers and young, impassioned staffers: computer geniuses, librarians, producers. For now, they spend their days coordinating interviews, digitizing tape, cataloguing, cross-referencing, indexing, designing CD-ROMs. In two years, when the project ends, they will resume their careers.

Aminoff--a behind-the-scenes player whose name is well-known in political circles and all but unknown to the public--is director of international development for Survivors of the Shoah. She was hired by Spielberg to spearhead the coaxing of $60 million from private, government and corporate donors in three years. So far, so good: Aminoff has raised close to $20 million in the last nine months.

The short-term goal is to videotape every survivor who wishes to put his or her story on record. About 6,000 have told their stories--many for the first time in 50 years. Spielberg hopes to chronicle the stories of about 50,000 in all, and make the tapes and detailed indexes available to a handful of Holocaust museums and archives here and abroad. (Survivors can arrange interviews by calling [800] 661-2092.)

The long-term goal is to create a permanent record of the Holocaust--to cast the period in the digital equivalent of stone--so that none may ever claim with any credibility that the Holocaust never happened, so that the world can finally understand how in God's name it did.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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