New website to share testimonials from Grand Rapids Holocaust survivors for the first time

What will the Holocaust memorial sculpture look like at Meijer Gardens?

With a small, tight-knit Jewish community in the western part of the state, the website hopes to spotlight a group of people who are sometimes overshadowed by Metro Detroit’s larger Jewish community.

A The new project created in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids aims to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors who settled in the Grand Rapids area.

Launched before the end of the year, a special website dedicated to survivors will feature personal interviews, photos, archives and more, chronicling their travels during and after WWII.

“Right now we have about 10 stories we’re going to do,” says Nicole Katzman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids. “As we finish them, we’ll share them with the community and with community partners, and then continue to add more survivor stories.”

With a small, tight-knit Jewish community in the western part of the state, the website hopes to spotlight a group of people who are sometimes overshadowed by Metro Detroit’s larger Jewish community.

After the website, which currently has three completed stories, the people behind the effort want their project to be a model or model that other Michigan communities can replicate and use for their own purposes.

LEFT: Joseph Stevens, survivor and resident of Grand Rapids, and two Polish boys who were in his underground cell during the war.  RIGHT: Here it is in the early 2000s.
LEFT: Joseph Stevens, survivor and resident of Grand Rapids, and two Polish boys who were part of his underground cell during
the war. RIGHT: Here it is in the early 2000s (Grand Valley State University) Grand Valley State University

“There are people who have settled in Benton Harbor and across the state who have similar stories,” says Rob Franciosi, a professor at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, who helps lead the project and its staff. research. “We thought that by creating a template it might be educational for other people to take and use as well.”

The idea began during an informal Zoom group organized during COVID-19, says Franciosi, where the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids and its partners met to discuss a Holocaust memorial sculpture soon to be installed in the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

“We were trying to find ways to complement the educational component,” says Franciosi. “We were talking about local connections in particular, so as a group we decided that some kind of website to honor Holocaust survivors who settled in Grand Rapids would be our unique contribution there.”

While there are many websites devoted to the history of the Holocaust, Franciosi says few, if any, highlight the perspective of western Michigan. To help tell the stories of survivors, the new website will use geospatial software that shows how people traveled from Europe to places like Shanghai, the Dominican Republic, and ultimately Grand Rapids.

Peg Finkelstein, who has led many archival efforts for the website, has spent the last year digitizing and documenting the history of the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids. Various programs she helped set up brought her in contact with local Holocaust survivors, especially a man named David Mandel.

“He lived in Grand Rapids for many years and never spoke about the Holocaust,” says Finkelstein. His story will be presented on the site. Mandel, encouraged by Grand Valley State University, slowly began to share his story and eventually ended up speaking in Jewish schools for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Grand Rapids Holocaust survivor Henry Pestka
Grand Rapids Holocaust survivor Henry Pestka Pestka family

Mandel is one of many Holocaust survivors based in Grand Rapids who have volunteered to share their journey for the website. “I think that with the Holocaust website project and the memorial project at Meijer Gardens, we’re really going to have an impact in Grand Rapids,” Finkelstein said.

By capturing the incredible stories of local survivors, Finkelstein adds that a project like this can help ensure that these journeys and moments in time are never forgotten, especially for families and descendants. In addition, an increase in online content makes it easier to secure archival data and photos now than in the past.

“We live in a time when, if you have access to the Internet, you can access the incredible genealogical resources that exist,” says Franciosi. “I had an online conversation with a local historian in a Polish town who was able to send photos of what the town [where a survivor was originally from] looked like the 1930s and 1940s.

For the small Jewish community in western Michigan – around 2,000, Katzman estimates – the website will mark the first time that many of these stories will be told. They also encourage people to share their own stories to further contribute to the effort.

“They have never been treated; they were never presented, ”Finkelstein said of numerous testimonies from Grand Rapids survivors. “It makes it even more important.”

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