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Feven Getachew
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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Holocaust survivor and Grinnell alumna speaks at Grinnell

holocaust2webCelina Biniaz ‘52 spoke to a full JRC 101 about her experiences in World War II concentration camps and her eventual placement in one of Oskar Schindler’s factories. During the interview, Biniaz spoke extensively of her time in war-torn Europe and Grinnell.

In going to high school in America and then transitioning to Grinnell, how were the interactions with your peers insofar as them asking about your past?

I never talked about it. You see at that point there was no such thing as a Holocaust, nobody used that word, it didn’t come up until much later. We were displaced people, survivors of the people, but displaced people, and that’s how we were regarded and that’s how we were written up. “The first displaced family to come to Des Moines.” That kind of stuff, you know.
So they knew that I came from Europe and they knew that there was a war and they didn’t really ask specific questions but they were very good. I was accepted totally. I was a strange thing, the first-foreign speaking student in North High. It was so unusual, you know, but I was well accepted, they went aout of the way to help me in every way. It was very good.

What did you study and what activities did you participate in at Grinnell College?

I majored in philosophy. And as a matter of fact my philosophy professor and mentor is still alive. He’s 102-years-old. Neal Klausner. I just went to visit him yesterday in the afternoon. His mind is so sharp, he remembers me completely, and you know how many years that is! Since 1952! So that’s what I majored in.
I was really interested in studying philosophy to figure out what happened and why it happened and what were the theories behind it and why did people act the way they did, just on a different level, the level I was accepted in in Germany was an emotional level … but here I wanted to know what the other people think why did it happen, not that I ever found out the answer to that, but it was a good major for me.

Were you involved in any other activities, extra . . .

Oh my God, yes. I was in the international club, I was in the ORCUS’—it was a dance club, modern dance club, and we did two concerts a year where we danced on the stage, student government. As my English got better and better I joined more things.
I had to work a lot so I didn’t have that much time. I worked at the office of the Dean of Women answering the phone, I worked in the dining room as a waitress, I worked breakfast time in the dining room, putting up the cereal boxes and all of that, I worked at the library—I had to put in two hours at the library.
That was the worst, because I couldn’t use the time to study. The best workplace was to be in the dining room because at that time, those two hours of meal time in the evening, we were very formal, with white table cloths and all that, the two hours that nobody studied, it was go-easy, perfect times—you didn’t lose any study time. The time in the library would have been the time when I would’ve studied anyway.

You mentioned that you were interviewed by either Steven Spielberg, or others who were working on “Schindler’s List.”

That happened years later, when the Schindler story literally hit the newspaper, because that’s when I found it. I was shocked to find out “that was my life.” It took almost 30 years—it was published in 1982, and we knew the name of Paul Page. We knew him from camp. So next time we were in California, we spoke about how he got Keneally to write the book. And then Universal Studios took an option on the book, and forced Spielberg to do the movie.
This was in 1983, right after he’d released “E.T.,” and he thought he was not mature enough to do the film. So he waited for ten years before he started. So finally the film appeared in 1993, and then from that he used his money to—because people kept approaching him while he was filming and telling him “I’ve got a story to tell you”—so he thought there were an awful lot of survivors who should have their stories published before they died.
So he started the Shoah foundation, with $56 million of his personal take of proceeds from the movie, and started this Shoah foundation on his Universal lot in Los Angeles, where they’d send people out all over the world to interview. He has 52,000 to 56,000 interviews with people who suffered during the war in 30 different languages in 50-some odd different countries and then he took all of that and employed people to translate them.
For example, the deposition was in Russian, then it would be translated into German maybe, and definitely into English. My interview was in English, and I’m sure it was translated into Polish, into German. It was put on a digital form and all of that is stored in archives and now they’re sending all of these archives to universities and learning institutions.
They’ve told me that my interview is at the Free University of Berlin and is in Frankfurt and they’re sending it to Australia. Eventually they want to all universities that will accept it. They have moved now the whole process, all of the archives, permanently into the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
They no longer do any interviews of Holocaust survivors because most of them died, or are dying. They’re now concentrating on Rwanda, doing interviews in Rwanda. They will follow all kinds of genocide, I think.
Ten years [later] I was called [and asked] if it was alright if they would include parts of my interview on the new DVD of “Schindler’s List” that they were going to release and I said sure, so they asked me to send some pictures and, you know, I didn’t know what they were going to do with all of this but so this happened ten years after the, the tenth anniversary of the Shoah Foundation and the tenth anniversary of the first film. And then I was invited to the event when they were releasing it to the public, talking about it to the public and I met Steven Spielberg and some of the other people and all the actors were there that were in “Schindler’s List” and Steven Spielberg told us why he did it.
He had no intention of putting it on a DVD but there were so many deniers of [the] Holocaust, people saying that it never happened, no way that it could have, they kept talking about six million Jews but there were actually 11 million people that were exterminated because the other five million were gypsies and homosexuals and feeble minded and you know. A whole bunch of other people so that’s why he did it, that’s why he put out the DVD and that’s why he wanted the support of the people who had survived on the list to speak about it on the backside of the DVD and he called it, “Voices from the List.”

I know you’re giving a talk in the JRC 101 today, but have you often given . . .

Never. This is my first.

Why did you decide to do this now?

I was called by Rebecca [Heller ’11] and e-mailed or something and she posed that question whether I would be willing to come. I thought about it, and I’d never done it, never, the only time I ever spoke publically was for the release of the DVD and they asked me to say something, what I said to Steven Spielberg and that amazingly was what was captured and appeared in all the newspapers.
It was funny, that that little bit that I spoke should have made it because other people spoke and he spoke but, no I’ve never done it, but I thought that I owed Grinnell something. Grinnell was very good to me, you know.

Do you think based off of doing the speech today that you will continue to speak about your experiences in the Holocaust?

I don’t know . . . It’s very interesting, I never spoke about it. Nobody in my community knew that I was a Holocaust survivor, not in school, not anywhere not even my children, not until my son was 14 and my daughter was 11. So where I live now in Southern California, we moved there about 15 years ago, I have a little granddaughter who is graduating from high school and you see how quickly the years progress.
And some of the people have heard, you know, because they saw my name printed in the L.A. Times so they’ve asked me and I haven’t considered it because it’s different speaking here, you know people are receptive, they’ve asked me for it and everything and speaking to people who might have never seen “Schindler’s List” . . . I only started talking about my experiences after “Schindler’s List” came out because there was a point of reference. I could say “have you seen it?” so I don’t know, I really don’t know, I’ll see how things go today and we’ll find out.

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