For years, Larry Lesser took the advice of other Jews and Holocaust survivors who told him to bury his memories of World War II.
"'Don't talk about it, keep it to yourself.' You heard it all the time," says Lesser, who spent the first years of the war living with his family behind the Nazi-built brick walls of Warsaw, Poland's Jewish ghetto.
Eventually he escaped the ghetto, only to wander alone through Poland for the rest of the war. He never again saw his parents. He assumes they died in a concentration camp.
Lesser, born Lolek Lejzerowicz 60 years ago, now talks freely about the Holocaust and his wartime experiences. He decided two years ago that it was time to speak up, after taking part in the Baltimore Jewish Council's Project for Video Documentation of Holocaust Survivor Testimonies.
Putting his life's story on four hours of videotape "opened my mind to how important it is that [the history of the Holocaust] be preserved," says Lesser, of Columbia, a manager with the Sta-Dri paint company in Odenton. "If we forget what happened, it could happen to Jews again, or to any other ethnic or racial
group. Everyone has a stake in remembering."
Initiated almost three years ago, the BJC's video project recently received new funding, just as its coordinator, Froma Willen, was worrying that the program would perish from a lack of money.
The initial three-year endowment of $45,600 from the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education expired last summer. But then the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore announced in September that one of its supporting funds, the Harry Weinberg Family Foundation, would give the project $7,500 for each of the next two years.
The video project is modeled on a similar program started 12 years ago in Connecticut by a television producer and a psychiatrist who was a survivor. By 1981, the two men had taped 200 interviews and given them to Yale University.
Those tapes formed the basis of what is now the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. The archive contains the video remembrances of 2,200 individuals, including concentration camp survivors, soldiers who liberated camps and righteous Gentiles" who helped Jews during the war.
Many of the tapes at Yale have been donated by the more than 20 regional programs, such as the BJC's, that have been interviewing Holocaust survivors and witnesses throughout the United States.
The BJC project conducted its first interview in December 1988. As of a few weeks ago, 106 people -- and their often tragic histories -- were on tape, Willen says.
Besides sending tapes to Yale, the BJC makes copies of each interview for a special archive opened last spring at Baltimore Hebrew University. The interviewee also receives a tape. Yale holds the copyrights to the tapes and tightly controls their use, releasing them only for academic study.
MA The BJC project started by taping "some of the more prominent
members of the community who were known as survivors," Willen says. "Then they would tell us, 'I know someone you really should get.' It snowballed through word-of-mouth, to the point where the video project is now a well-known entity" among the estimated 2,000 survivors in the Baltimore area.
Willen defines a survivor as someone whose life in Europe was severely disrupted by military and political events there from 1933 through 1945.
In recording the survivors' stories, she says, time is of the essence.
"It's not at all indelicate to say that we feel an urgency about our work," Willen says. "We know the population is aging. Before long, wewon't have many people around who can tell us personally about living through the Holocaust."
The tapings are held in a lounge at the University of Baltimore, in a modest setting that resembles a living room. It was selected for its plainness, so as not to distract from the interviewees and their stories, Willen explains.
Each session is led by a two-person interviewing team and taped by Bryan Kocsis, the head of UB's audio-visual department. Willen's corps of 40 interviewers consists of unpaid volunteers who have undergone six weeks of training on Holocaust history and interviewing techniques by officials of Yale and Baltimore Hebrew.
"The Holocaust was something I'd always been interested in since junior high school," says Laure Gutman, 37, of Upper Park Heights. She has asked the questions at 10 sessions, more than any other interviewer. She joined the program two years ago, after answering an advertisement the BJC had placed in the Jewish Times.
"I've always wondered about the survivors," she says. "How do they continue what we perceive as a normal life? How do they handle having lost members of their family? How do they go on?"
Gutman says a taping can be "totally, completely emotionally draining" for everyone at a session.
"But you don't want to cry because your tears would take away from the people and their stories," she adds. "This is their two or three hours. It's for them to express themselves, not for you. I've felt like crying, but you hold it back. On the other hand, you don't want to seem like a robot. You just show compassion."
The deep pain of the survivors is "all there in the interviews," says Willen, who acts as the "director" overseeing each taping. "Still, you're amazed at what they've been able to do with their lives, despite their losses. That includes people who had their children literally snatched forever from their arms. But they're people who look forward to the next day. They laugh, they hug, they kiss. They're just an inspiration."