When Survivors Talk, He Listens

I am blessed to know a lot of interesting people who engage me in  thought-provoking conversations throughout the year. I’ve often wondered how to share them with you without turning a social event or conversation after religious services into work for me and awkwardness for them.  So I’ve just decided to recount what my noggin has retained (with my  subjects’ permission, of course).  I aim to keep these occasional cameos short and casual and hope that in the reading, you will glean a ray or two of what drew me in.

I’ve known Dr. Sid Bolkosky for years.  And even that is stretching it.  I know who this brilliant professor is, have heard him speak, have seen him at Shabbat dinners, brunches, and shivas over the years but never sat down for a good and satisfying chat.  Until this past New Year’s Day.  Sid has just become a zayde two times over with the birth of twin grandsons. Our conversation about them segued into talk about his work.

Sid is the Director of the U-M Dearborn Honors Program and is also the Director of the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive. The archive, begun in 1981, now comprises more than 300 interviews, 100 of which are available online.

Over blintzes and fresh fruit Sid shared his latest project — Nicholas Winton and the Power of Good. In December 1938, Nicholas Winton–a British stock-broker on holiday in Prague–recognized the danger posed to the Jewish community by the impending Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia. Winton helped raise money and secure paperwork for the transport of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to England eventually securing transport for 669 Jewish children. Sid recently returned from Israel where he was able to interview eleven of those saved by Winton’s heroic efforts.

“Over the years my techniques developed. The most difficult part of it is simply to listen, to sit by quietly while my subjects revisit the worst traumas of their lives. One Survivor told me after our interview, ‘After speaking to you I no longer have nightmares.’ ‘None?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he relented,’ not so many.’

Sid is a gentle man, slight, white haired. His smile is quick and rueful.  It’s not hard to imagine an interviewee feeling the relief of a nightmare’s power siphoned off after relating a story’s horror to him. “Sometimes,” he told me, “they get to a point in their story where they must leave the room.  I wait for their return, allowing them time to regroup.  Once a subject simply went upstairs and didn’t come down again. Other times they return and we complete the interview.”

One day soon Sid’s grandsons will begin talking. I imagine him with them, quiet and attentive. Perhaps the weight of history that is now a part of his very being will  be balanced by the lighthearted retelling of building Lego towers and fingerpainting, by the recounting of first grade and first dates.   Thank you, Sid for sharing a bit of your life’s work with me.

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7 thoughts on “When Survivors Talk, He Listens

  1. Lisa Hollis


    Thank you for yet another beautiful piece; please don’t hesitate to share these stories as they are part of who you are. I never tire of reading or hearing about good people doing good things to ease others’ suffering, especially such extreme trauma as the Holocaust. What a gift Sid must be to the folks he has had the privilege to interview. These are stories that must be told and recorded so that this never happens again.

  2. Judi Arthur

    Without the telling of shared moments with others by ones like you, ones like me may never know about them and their life stories. I think we are the better for knowing, as it may stimulate one or more of us to do, or perhaps not do, something ourselves.

  3. Debra

    Judi, Gaylee and Lisa,

    Thank you so much for your enthusiastic feedback!
    I am so glad that you all enjoyed this cameo. I look forward to doing more of these and to refining the feature a bit as well. Again, my thanks for reading and responding so swiftly. Pass it along to anyone you wish.

  4. Leah Rubin

    This is not only a beautiful and inspiring story, it is also a very important story. Thank you for telling it, and letting us know about such a good ‘neshomeh’.

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