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Once Documenting The Holocaust, Now She Turns To Refugees Of Syria And Iraq


The U.N. estimates more than 65 million people have been forced to leave their homes. That's the latest figure from the U.N. Refugee Agency, and it's a record high. Each story of displacement is unique, often tragic, and Zepporah Glass has spent her life collecting these stories. At the Shoah Foundation, she recorded the stories of Jewish refugees. And now she's turning her ear to the stories of Middle Eastern refugees. When we spoke, she told us that this project started a couple of years ago when she heard about people flooding into Greece. And a warning to our listeners - some of the descriptions here may be disturbing.

ZEPPORAH GLASS: I just had this idea that I should go in and be of help. I think that comes from the fact that my parents are Holocaust survivors and that I was born in a displaced persons camp. And I just felt motivated to try to do something. So I went to Kos, which is one of the islands that refugees were landing on. And I went originally just to help sort clothes and make sandwiches. And as it turned out, I was on the beach as people were landing. And as a result of that, I ended up befriending two families, one from Syria and one from Iraq. And I gave them my card and said email me when you get to wherever it is you land.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about them. Who were they? Where were they coming from?

GLASS: OK. One was a family from Iraq. They were three brothers, all in their 20s. One had finished their medical studies in Libya and had gone back to Iraq to save their parents and bring their parents out because their town, Mosul, was under the control of ISIS. So that was one family. The other was a father of four children with his wife, and they were from Syria, and they were also under ISIS, and they decided to escape. So both of these families, you know, I met them for a short while in Greece. And then, some months later, I heard from both of them, and they said they had arrived in Germany. And Germany has a particular importance in my mind because that's exactly from where my parents fled.

And I decided, you know, because I had done, you know, many interviews of Holocaust survivors and it was very - I was very taken by the fact that when my parents first arrived, there were very few projects that were interviewing them about their experience. And it wasn't until many, many years later that the Shoah Foundation started recording their interviews. So I thought maybe we should try interviewing these people just after they've had this experience. So I went to Germany, and I decided I was going to do their interviews.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that struck me listening to these tapes is how you do oral history. There was a particularly disturbing exchange you had where the person you were interviewing witnessed a crucifixion. Let's listen.


GLASS: What do you mean they crossed - they crossed them?

NASIR: Like this and like this, they put them like this.

GLASS: You mean - on wood or on...

NASIR: (Foreign language spoken).

GLASS: On a metal pipe.

NASIR: Yeah, a metal pipe like this.

GLASS: They tied them by their wrists and by their feet.

NASIR: Yes, yes, then they shoot them in the head.

GLASS: Who did it?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who's speaking here?

GLASS: Oh, this is the father of the four children from Syria. His name is Nasir (ph).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you tackle discussing such difficult memories with people who are in the midst of still experiencing or reliving something so terrible?

GLASS: You know, I think there is a great deal of comfort in being able to talk about these things. I think a lot of people want to repress it and feel like they don't want to share that with their children, with other people. I know very much so that that was the case for my parents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This was obviously a very personal journey for you going back to Germany, the place where you had obviously been born and interviewing people who are also facing difficult circumstances. What did the men's lives look like when you saw them that second time in Germany?

GLASS: Well, one of the really interesting stories here is that the family who came from Syria with the four children, they had been sponsored by a German man and were living in a farm way in the north of Germany, and he also was a refugee. He had been living in what had become communist Poland. And so his family fled to go to the west. So here we were in this farm, northern Germany, with a Protestant refugee family, a Muslim refugee family and me. And this is all in one, you know, in one generation, in one lifetime. So that to me was just really, you know, stunning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the power of gathering oral history? What is its importance do you think?

GLASS: Well, you know, I think history should not only be written by the historians but by the people who have actually experienced those events. And I think that we have a much clearer idea about what the causes were, what the effects are, what the long-term effects are, by hearing people's voices. You know, one of the refugees told me, they said, why would anyone care about anything that happened to me? Who am I that, you know, my story is so important?

He never thought that I would be interested in just him, you know, just that one person, one person in a sea of people. But I really believe that each individual story is really critical, and we need to know that, we need to record it, we need to be able to look at it again and again and try and hope that no one else has to experience those kinds of things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Zepporah Glass, an oral historian who interviews refugees. She's still in touch with the family she spoke about from Syria and Iraq, and she plans to continue recording their stories. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.