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Dr. David Silberklang speaks on “mutual assistance” during Holocaust at annual Rev. Bernie Clark Lecture

| Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Dr. David Silberklang serves as the senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust museum and memorial in Israel. He is a visiting professor at universities around the world, and he also teaches at the University of Haifa’s Weiss-Livnat International M.A. Program in Holocaust Studies and at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

Silberklang visited Notre Dame Tuesday for the annual Rev. Bernie Clark Lecture. According to the Center for Social Concerns, the lecture series was created in 2009 to “highlight the issues and themes within the Catholic social tradition, and to inspire students to live out Fr. Bernie’s words of promoting justice.”

Silberklang began the lecture by discussing the mission of Yad Vashem. 

“Part of the job that was given to Yad Vashem was commemorating the Holocaust, the Jews as individuals and as communities, who were killed,” he said. In addition to commemorating the lives lost during the Holocaust, Yad Vashem was mandated to educate about the Holocaust and conduct seminars to train teachers on how to teach the Holocaust. 

The lecture was comprised of snippets from different stories about everyday peoples’ experiences during the Holocaust, the dilemas that Jews faced and the people that helped them. Silberklang explained that focusing on individuals and victims of the Holocaust “allows us to grapple with the Holocaust and connect to it.”

“It’s difficult to connect to the millions who were killed, but when you connect to the individual you can then zoom out and get a sense of the magnitude of the story that we are trying to tell,” he said. 

One point that Silberklang continually touched upon throughout the lecture is the idea of “mutual assistance” and how people displayed acts of kindness and humanity during the most extreme and impossible circumstances. This goes along with another mission of Yad Vashem: “to honor the righteous among the nations, those people who were not Jewish, who during the Holocaust risked their well being or even their lives to try and rescue Jews.”

“We’re honoring that effort, and we haven’t found every story, but we’re looking for every story,” he said.  

For the Jews, there was this overwhelming sense of loneliness and that they were on their own in facing the Nazis. They knew that their chances of survival were quite slim, but “even though everyone was aware of the hopelessness of the situation, there was still effort and mutual assistance, which included spiritual assistance as well as physical assistance,” Silberklang said. 

Yad Vashem tells the story of the people who were not afraid to help, Silberklang said.

In the lecture, Silberklang highlighted some of the difficult questions that people who decided to help had to contend with. These included deciding to help one person over another, saving one person at the expense of another’s’ life and the dilemma of risking the lives of other people. Silberklang characterized these as “choiceless choices” because “whatever choice they made, it was always a bad choice. No matter what they did it was wrong, but they had to do something,” he said. 

Silberklang closed the lecture with a thought about how people can engage in mutual assistance in today’s world. 

“An important point that we’ve discovered in all of this research is that the overwhelming majority [of people who helped during the Holocaust] were ordinary human beings who, at a critical moment, made the right choice,” he said. 

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