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New Orleans woman continues grandparents legacy as Holocaust survivors

U. S. Holocaust Museum Virtual Event February 11th
Updated: Feb. 10, 2021 at 9:10 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 honored the more than six million Jewish and other people killed by Nazi’s.

One woman is committed to keeping those stories alive to prevent similar horrors from being repeated.

A simple spoon usually doesn’t mean much, but to Mara Baumgarten Force it represents a lot. She said, “Our families most treasured possession is the spoon my grandfather used at Dachau.” When all you have is taken the small conveyance of nourishment Misha Meilup used in that camp became a source of hope.

Force recounts, “My grandfather who lost his first wife, his parents, his sister and his son in liquidation was sent to Dachau.”

Force grew up in Chicago. The now New Orleanian and Tulane professor learn from her grandparents Misha and Vera Meilup how they made it through the Holocaust. She said, “When your family has been through such absolute, suffering, loosing children in the most horrible way. Literally starving physically and emotionally and just suffering for who you are.”

The Lithuanian families had been herded into ghettos. Force said, “My grandmother who lost her husband and her daughter Ruth in the liquidation was sent to a camp call Stutthoff. What has been so unbelievably amazing to me is that they liquidated the ghettos and took the prisoners to the camps back in Germany just literally days in front of liberating armies.”

Vera and her mother survived. She met Misha while searching for her brother after liberation. They later immigrated to America. Force said, “My mother came over on a boat through Ellis Island as a refugee.”

They lived near other survivors. Force said it was common to share experiences with each other. “They would all tell their stories to one another and you know there is no good story. Unfortunately, they are all so unbelievably, uniquely, desperately awful.”

That connection with her grandparents and their work with the United States National Holocaust Museum spurs her to continue to honor their legacy.

Particularly after a trip organized by the museum allowed her to see where they had experienced these atrocities.

Force said, “To see the place where my great-grandfather was killed. Where maybe the ashes of the rest of my family is was just absolutely unbelievable. Just continued to instill in me this overwhelming desire that nothing like this ever happen to anyone ever again.”

Mara and her husband Joshua co-chair the museum’s 2021 “What You Do Matters” Southeast Virtual Event. Robert Tanen is the Southeast Regional Director for the museum.

“This event traditionally takes place in person every year. Obviously, due to the pandemic, we couldn’t do that,” he said.

The annual fundraiser highlights stories of the Holocaust through survivor accounts and celebrity readings of written accounts to educate and keep the world vigilant.

Tanen said, “It’s important to remember the Holocaust was not inevitable. Nazi anti-Semitic and racist ideology took hold in a country with a democratic constitution. Millions and millions of people in Germany and frankly across Europe became complicit or indifferent and bystanders to genocide.”

Force marveled, “If you start thinking about how awful it is that my grandfather’s friends and neighbors once the Nazis came to Lithuania there was so much embedded anti-Semitism and just hate. It was the local Lithuanians who participated in the roundups and the murders.”

Even more staggering for Force, it was just one lifetime ago.

She said, “The Jewish community of Lithuania was over 200,000. At the end of the war, I believe estimates were somewhere between 11 and 15,000 survived. I mean it’s just unbelievable and it’s just not that long ago. Holocaust Remembrance Day is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and I mean it’s 76 years. It’s so unbelievably recent.”

While her grandparents passed on 20 years ago she continues to share their trials to remind everyone how deadly indifference can become.

You can hear more of Force’s story and many others by joining the “What You Do Matters” Virtual fundraising event Thursday evening February 11, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. You can register for the event here.

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