Holocaust Survivor Visits Rivers Class

The path that led Marika Barnett to a Rivers classroom last week was a long and convoluted one. The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor—one of an ever-dwindling cohort—was born in Hungary in 1934, made it through the war years by dint of sheer luck and resourcefulness, losing many family members to the concentration camps, and arrived in America to start anew in 1957. Last Thursday, under the auspices of the Facing History and Ourselves program, Barnett came to campus to speak to students enrolled in an interdisciplinary course on the Holocaust.
“We explore the Holocaust through the lenses of history and psychology,” explains faculty member Joanna Seymour. “We have been exploring the human experience; we never want to lose sight of individual stories. It’s not just about horrific numbers but individuals with lives and stories.”

Thus Barnett’s visit, which gave students the rare opportunity to interact with a survivor of the Nazi atrocities. As Seymour points out, these students are members of the last generation who will have that opportunity. Barnett was a young child during the war, and soon, all living memory of the experience will vanish.

Born to a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in Budapest, Barnett (then Marika Schweitzer) lived a life of comfort and privilege until the Germans who occupied Hungary began to persecute Jews in that country. Barnett recounted her life experiences to the Rivers students with help from a Facing History facilitator, who directed the conversation and made sure students had the opportunity to ask questions along the way.

“The type of anecdotes she shared were so specific and relatable,” says Seymour. Barnett’s family had had a successful bicycle business before the war, and Barnett told a story of being halted on her bike one day by the mother of a neighbor, who proceeded to assail her verbally with threats of being rounded up by Hitler. While Barnett was able to avoid the notorious death camps, other family members were not so lucky; on her mother’s side, all but one cousin perished in Auschwitz.

The Holocaust class at Rivers endeavors to put the relevant events in a broader historic and psychological context. “We do a lot of work around the psychology of genocide,” says Seymour, tackling such topics as conformity, obedience, and our obligation (or lack thereof) toward fellow citizens.

Fittingly, Barnett’s visit came just days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed on January 27, the date that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in 1945. “Never again” is the refrain connected to the commemorations, but one takeaway from the course, says Seymour, is that the Nazi genocide was hardly unique. “My biggest focus for them,” says Seymour, “is that the conditions that led to the Holocaust were not outliers. There were political, economic, and psychological conditions that were not unique. And we look at the other side: What does it mean to resist abuses of power?”

Like many Holocaust survivors, Barnett waited many years to tell her harrowing story. Addressing the students, she likened it to the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering the desert after leaving Egypt. In similar fashion, she said, “It took us 40 years to tell our story.” It was a story this young generation of students was eager to hear and absorb—helping to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust not be forgotten.