Documenting Holocaust horrors

Posted: March 21, 2014

DAVID TUCK has plenty of Holocaust horror stories. Although nearly 70 years have passed since he staggered out of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, the memories remain as fresh as a wound slow to scab.

Memories of things like the cemeteries where he was forced to loot the jewelry from corpses and dig gold fillings from their rotting mouths to give to his Nazi guards.

Or how he dodged death by swearing, in German, his loyalty to the "Fatherland" after he got caught hiding a slice of bread.

And the numbers 176, which became his "name" in the labor camps, and 141631, the tattoo still inked on his left forearm.

He's talked about his experiences to whoever would listen (10,325 students last year alone), out of a drive to bear witness to one of the world's worst atrocities.

Tuck is 91 now. That worries those who want to ensure no one ever forgets about a genocide that killed 6 million.

Firsthand accounts told by survivors resonate with listeners in a way that textbooks and lectures cannot, said Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center. Yet a Holocaust survivor dies every 45 minutes, according to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.

So Feldman's museum, a one-room repository tucked away in a Jewish community center in Somerton, is partnering with a young filmmaker to preserve Philly-area survivors' and witnesses' stories. Tuck was their first subject; many more are lined up for their moment in front of the cameras.

"Obviously we're fighting the clock," Feldman said. "Many of our camp survivors are in their mid-80s at the youngest."

It's been done before. Steven Spielberg began a similar project in 1994, a year after finishing his Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List." Now called the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, the archive is housed at the University of Southern California and contains testimony from more than 51,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

But in Philadelphia, filmmaker Grant Schmidt aims to create more cinematic documentaries than the Shoah Foundation's straightforward, archival videos. He also plans to post them on a website for anyone to view and to give copies to the subjects themselves.

"We want this to be a resource for students, educators, researchers and just any people who want to know more about the Holocaust," said Schmidt, founder of Flim Films in Lansdowne.

His subjects are from the pool of 25 survivors and liberators who have participated in the museum's speaker series. Since 2001, when the museum began tallying its speakers' visits, they have shared their stories with at least 130,000 students and other listeners.

The project has proven popular already. A Kickstarter campaign to fund it hit its $36,717 goal a week early, and supporters still are pledging money.

Many survivors feel driven to tell their stories, so Schmidt has plenty of subjects to consider.

"They're hoping that by telling their story hate, homogeny of thought and prejudice can be averted," Schmidt said, adding that their stories hold timely lessons considering that genocides, such as in Rwanda and Darfur, continue to occur.

Tuck's reasons are simpler.

"Some people deny it . That hurts me," he said.

At schools, he often discusses bullying: "Hitler was the bully No. 1."

Tuck was a child living in Poland just over the German border when he and other Jews in his community were sent to the Lodz ghetto in 1939. When soldiers moved them to a labor camp, children deemed too young to work were killed; Tuck survived because he lied about his age and could speak German, he said.

He spent 5 1/2 years bouncing around camps including Posen, Auschwitz and Mauthausen before Allied troops rescued him on May 5, 1945.

In between, he was forced to chop stones and dig dirt to build roadways and work on constructing anti-aircraft guns. He worked always, even when he fell ill to the frequent sicknesses that swept the camps, knowing that the Nazi guards executed anyone too ill to work.

He recalled one five-day ride to another camp in a crammed cattle car. The passengers were given no food or water, so Tuck tore a strip from his shirt and tied it to a cup that he dangled out a narrow window to catch the snow outside. He'd drink the melted snow - and he didn't share. "Everybody's for himself. There were no friends in the camps," he said of their survival strategy.

By the time he was freed, Tuck weighed 78 pounds, after living on bread, weak coffee and watered-down soup for more than five years.

"The boys would fight over the soup. I don't know why; to find a potato, you have to take a dive. There was nothing there," Tuck remembered.

After recuperating in Milan and Paris, Tuck met another camp survivor, Marie Roza, who would become his wife. They moved to New York in 1950, where they had a daughter. Tuck eventually established his own business, Dave's French Interior Decorating.

Tired of the city bustle, the family moved to Pennsylvania many years ago. Although his wife died nine years ago, Tuck stays busy with his daughter, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

And, of course, his school talks.

Thirty years ago, he began sharing his story. He has no plans to rest, even after Schmidt is done chronicling his story.

"As long as I am around, I do it," Tuck said. "I survived. There's a reason for it, a purpose. My purpose is to tell my story. I was predestined."

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo


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