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In new book, Holocaust education ‘pioneer’ shares survivors’ stories

Merle Saferstein combed through thousands of pages of her journals to find vignettes from the lives of Holocaust survivors she interviewed that could best help contemporary readers.

The Florida writer and educator Merle Saferstein. Credit: Courtesy.
The Florida writer and educator Merle Saferstein. Credit: Courtesy.

Merle Saferstein, an educator, author and public speaker who lives in North Miami Beach, Fla., has spent many years helping Holocaust survivors pass along their life stories to younger generations.

Saferstein spent 26 years as educational outreach director of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in South Florida before retiring in 2011. The following year, the 78-year-old developed and began to teach the course “Living and Leaving Your Legacy.”

The greatest lesson she has learned from Holocaust survivors is the “resilience of the human spirit,” Saferstein told JNS.

“I remember a survivor luncheon in Fort Lauderdale that I went to, and the survivors were dancing like teenagers,” she said. “That was such a huge moment for me to realize that here were these people, who had been through the worst tragedy possible in humanity, and they took the pieces and they were living a full wonderful life.”

Saferstein has now fulfilled a promise that she made to survivors to share their stories, and what she learned from them, with current and future generations. Her new book, the second volume of Living and Leaving My Legacy, was published in June. (Volume one came out last year.)

Both volumes consist of Saferstein’s journal entries, selected from more than 380 that she has penned to date. Throughout, she writes in the first person, and in addition to the stories of survivors, Saferstein reflects on death and dying and writing an ethical will, headline news events over the years, relationships and legacy work, among other topics

Beyond concentration camps

To write the volumes, Saferstein told JNS that she combed through thousands of pages of her personal journals, dated between 1974 and 2016. She selected 22 themes—whittled down from 70 initially—and sought entries that fit those subjects.

Her goal was to select entries relevant to readers, even if they didn’t know her, who were struggling to understand life events. Both books draw on her time working at the education center, and a chapter in volume two contains 48 vignettes of stories from survivors, with whom she worked. (Volume two has been a No. 1 release on Amazon in Holocaust and Jewish biographies, according to Saferstein’s website.)

Going through her journals, Saferstein realized how much valuable information she had gleaned from hearing survivors’ stories directly.

“When people think about the Holocaust, they think about concentration camps. There are so many other stories,” she told JNS. “This gave me an opportunity to keep my promise to the survivors to tell their stories, and also to be able to help people understand that the Holocaust was so different for so many people.”

Coffee-table ‘treasure’

Merle Saferstein
Cover of a 2023 book by the Florida writer and educator Merle Saferstein. Credit: Courtesy.

Miriam Klein Kassenoff, a child survivor of the Holocaust who now lives in Miami Beach, is one of those whose stories appear in Saferstein’s book.

Kassenoff, who directs the University of Miami’s Holocaust Teacher Institute, told JNS that Saferstein’s work with South Florida Holocaust survivors is “exemplary” and that she is honored to be included in the new book.

“I said, ‘Of course,’ immediately,” she said. “It’s a treasure that everyone should have on their cocktail tables, and show it off to the world and to everyone, to see what one person can do to promote Holocaust education, as well as documenting memories and memoirs of the Holocaust survivors in our community.”

Saferstein told JNS that one of her most emotional moments at the education center was watching how a day-long program on prejudice and bullying, in which Holocaust survivors shared their stories with high schoolers, could transform the students.

“The students would start off the day sitting at a table with some man or woman, and they probably wondered what they were doing there,” she said. “Seeing the respect and understanding they gained for that person by the end of the day was very powerful.”

The Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in California, has worked with Saferstein for many years. 

The rabbi, who also directs the university’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the “ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust,” regards Saferstein as a Holocaust-education pioneer, he told JNS.

Saferstein and others “were pioneers, because they were starting things that had never been done before in Holocaust education,” Berenbaum said. “Now, we take Holocaust education for granted and it’s there, but in very many respects, it was brand new at that point.”

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