Profile: Bearing Witness Shares Holocaust Stories

Learning from the past makes for a better future. Bearing Witness co-presidents, Carli Zimelman, a 3rd year political science major, and Leanna Kramer, a 4th year Global Studies and Russian major speak with Her Campus and share why it's important to hear survivors' stories. Bearing Witness is a non-sectarian, non-denominational project intended to bring together students with Holocaust survivors.  

Her Campus: What is your major, and what are some of the other organizations you're involved in?

Leanna Kramer: I am a fourth year Global Studies and Russian Studies major, graduating this spring. Aside from Bearing Witness, I am a member of UCLA’s Russian Flagship program, and I currently intern at a private firm researching sanctions compliance.

Carli Zimelman:  I am junior (class of 2020), majoring in Political Science and double minoring in Film and Television Studies and Global Studies. Besides Bearing Witness, I am also a member of the Pre-Law Society and Pi Beta Phi Fraternity. I also am currently interning at Lionsgate in their Television Business and Legal Department and next quarter will be interning at Wasserman, assisting the recruiting team for football.

HC: What is Bearing Witness, and what is your role in the organization?

LK: Bearing Witness is an organization that offers students the opportunity to engage with and build relationships with Holocaust survivors and hear their personal stories over lunch. In addition, the program consists of reflection sessions, focused on broadening the message of tolerance beyond the Holocaust and giving students the chance to process the stories that they are hearing each week. Carli and I are co-­presidents this year, and we coordinate with Hillel, the survivors and our board to ensure that the program comes together, runs smoothly and offers students a meaningful experience.

CZ:  Students are placed into groups of about 6-7 people per survivor and throughout the quarter, the same students stay with their survivor, making the experience more intimate. This year, we will be having the USC Shoah foundation come and speak about Holocaust survivor holograms and bringing one to show to the entire program. We are also trying to get an ex-neo Nazi, who now works at the Museum of Tolerance to come and talk about his transformation. 


HC:  How has Bearing Witness personally impacted you?

LK: Every year, I am incredibly encouraged and inspired by the group of survivors, who come and relive the hardest, most terrifying moments of their lives in order to share these experiences with our students. However, students do not remember these survivors for the fear and tragedy that they faced, but rather for their continued joy and resilience. We have the responsibility to talk about these stories and apply them in the context of modern injustice.

CZ:  I never felt that I learned about this time in history to the extent that I should have, considering that some of my unknown extended family did not make it out of the concentration camps. Bearing Witness has filled this gap for me and has inspired me to keep these stories alive and because we are the last generation to have this amazing opportunity. 

HC: What are some of the most inspiring stories that you've been told by the survivors?

LK: One of the survivors I met with described how her family placed her in Catholic school in order to save her life. She insists, that even at the age of 4, while she was living separately from her family and observing Catholic traditions, she always knew that she was Jewish. At such a young age, she was not only aware of the discrimination against her people, but she made a conscious choice to remain fiercely loyal to her community. This bravery and loyalty is commonplace among this community of survivors.

HC: How many students are involved?

LK: We are expecting about 95 students to be involved. In the past, there has been around 80, but the student involvement is also dependent on the amount of survivors participating.

CZ:  This year, we received the most applications ever, and they are coming from diverse religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds.HC: Who is a strong female Jewish role model/ Holocaust survivor that you really admire? 

CZ: A strong female role model to me is Sonia Khrapkova, one of the Holocaust survivors who participates every year in Bearing Witness. I was one of Sonia "students" my freshman year and everyday she would comment about how beautiful life is and how grateful we should all be to be alive and healthy. She would also always tell us to never hold a grudge. She said never live your life full of anger, you only live a short amount of time, so make it as happy as possible. You would never think someone so optimistic and uplifting survived such a massive tragedy. She inspires me and her words still resonate with me everyday.

HC: How can people get involved with Bearing Witness?

LK: Students can apply for the program during fall quarter each year or enroll directly in Professor Presner’s fiat lux for winter quarter.

CZ: The program, takes place during Winter quarter only on Wednesdays, from 12pm-1pm. Applications usually are released around 6th or 7th week of Fall quarter and close at the end of the quarter. We also host an event in the Spring in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lastly, this year, we are planning on videoing the programming and creating a mini documentary about the entire program, which will be found on Hillel’s website at the end of Winter quarter.

HC: Leanna, you're graduating this year! How do you plan to take over the world?

LK: I don't have any definitive plans. I am applying for opportunities to continue to study Russian language abroad or work in the sphere of international relations. 

If you'd like to find out more information about Bearing Witness, check out their facebook, instagram or website.

We can't wait to see what amazing things you do in the future, Leanna and Carli!