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Students travel to Germany to preserve Holocaust survivor stories

  • Photo by Anne Evans (MSJ14)

  • Photo by Anne Evans (MSJ14)

  • Photo by Anne Evans (MSJ14)

  • Photo by Anne Evans (MSJ14)

Chicago and Hamburg, Germany, are more than 4,000 miles from each other, but both cities have connections through Holocaust survivors and their descendants. To preserve their memories, students from Medill and HAW Hamburg School of Design, Media and Arts collaborated on a digital storytelling project.

Through a project called The Memory Archives, the students tracked dozens of survivors and their family members in Chicago and Hamburg. Medill journalism students and their German counterparts spent more than a year conducting interviews, writing stories and editing video. The project, an endeavor headed by the International Media Center Hamburg, will serve as an archive of memories, ensuring that these stories will not be lost.

“I was able to help other people tell their stories,” said Anne Evans (MSJ14). Evans, along with her German partner, interviewed Steve Safran, whose father emigrated from Hamburg to Chicago in 1938. Two weeks after they left Germany, the Nazis stormed the Safrans’ Hamburg apartment.

The documented stories showed the variety of attitudes survivors have as they deal with the Holocaust’s legacy. Some have moved on and harbor no ill will toward Germany. Others refuse to ever visit Hamburg again.

“The challenge was how to tell these stories in a meaningful way,” said Sarah Gilgore, a graduate journalism student who helped record the story of Lilli Greenebaum. Now living in a Chicago suburb, Hamburg-native Greenebaum and her family left for the United States days before Kristallnacht, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass.”

Students from Medill joined the project because Hamburg is connected to Chicago through Sister Cities International. Finding survivors with ancestral roots in Hamburg and a connection to Chicago proved difficult.

“It was like searching for a needle in a haystack,” said Medill Lecturer Stephan Garnett, who served as an adviser for the project. Garnett accompanied the Medill students on a trip to Hamburg to conduct interviews and see the city firsthand.

Students and faculty said the chance to make in-person connections and travel to Hamburg made documenting the stories a richer experience.

“Being in Germany, physically walking the same streets [as the people we interviewed], you’re touching history and interacting with it,” said Shyla Nott, who teamed up with a German student to interview Steven and Rob Eiseman. Eva Eiseman, their deceased mother, was 12 years old when she boarded a ship in Hamburg’s harbor and escaped the Nazis.

Partnering with the German students meant having the perspectives of people who grew up with the legacy of the Holocaust on their teams. Nott said her partner, Lena Janz, “brought up questions I wouldn’t have considered.” Janz grew up in Germany and went to school there. She told Nott about how Holocaust education is required in schools and German students don’t shy away from learning about a dark period in their history.

Nott said the legacy of this project won’t really hit her until more time passes and documenting Holocaust survivor stories becomes more difficult.

“I think the impact for me will set in farther down the road when I realize how rare this opportunity is,” Nott said.

See, hear and read the stories of the survivors documented in The Memory Archives project.