ST. PAUL, Minn. — Her life was a victory against Hitler, but Lucy Smith could not defeat time.
The 89-year-old Smith, one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Minnesota, died on Sunday in St. Paul. Her son, Daniel Smith, told WCCO he is embracing the responsibility to bear witness and continue telling Lucy’s story.
“It means it’s important to pass it, and to try to teach it in a way that people can understand and relate to it so it’s not just some dusty piece of history,” Daniel Smith said. “There’s similarities in hatred and prejudice, and so when I think about passing on the lessons of the Holocaust, I guess what I do is frame it in things that are happening in people’s lives now, and they so they can look and see the effects, because, well, there it is in history, it was pretty big.”
Born Lilka Kreisler, Smith was born in Poland in 1933, and was sent with her family to the Kraków Ghetto in 1939. While most of her relatives were sent to Nazi death camps like Treblinka, Smith’s father obtained counterfeit baptism papers for Smith and her mother, enabling them to escape and pose as a Catholic family.
According to Smith’s son, Lucy and her mother remained in Poland until after the war and would need their survival instincts again living through Communism.
“The thing is, she didn’t talk much about Grandma, and Grandma was the adult who got them through it,” Daniel Smith quipped about his mother’s storytelling at home.
Smith would move to Paris, meet and marry an American man, and then follow him to the United States. The marriage didn’t work out, but the Smiths would eventually settle in St. Paul in the 1970s.
Lucy’s first person testimonies are recorded at the University of Minnesota and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
The U’s Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, moreover, has a collection of first-person accounts of survivors who lived in the Twin Cities, including Herbert Fantle, Victor Vital, and Dora Zaidenweber, among others. Fantle and Vital both died in recent years; Zaidenweber is 98.
“Only 9 percent of Germans were part of the Nazi party. They were quite selective,” Daniel Smith said. “You look political strife in the U.S. and how a small group can lead a bigger group of people who were just angry — it’s frighteningly similar. This is why I want to pass these lessons on.”
Rise in Antisemitism, Decline in Holocaust Literacy
Those lessons are perhaps needed now more than ever, too, as recent surveys show an increasing number of younger Americans who are either uninformed or indifferent to the facts of history. A 2020 survey of 11,000 U.S. Millennials and Generation Z’ers found 63 percent of respondents were unaware that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis and collaborators. The survey also showed 48 percent of national respondents couldn’t name a single ghetto or concentration camp, including Warsaw or Auschwitz.
The Pew Research Center also conducted a survey where 43 percent of respondents were unaware that Hitler was democratically elected.
In Minnesota, the Jewish Community Relation Council has been working with dozens of school districts to reverse those trends. Laura Zelle, Director of the JCRC’s Tolerance Minnesota, said the first step is to help teach the teachers.
“The issue becomes the time in the classroom and the knowledge of the teacher,” Zelle said. “And teachers change subjects, and some teachers change grade levels throughout the year. So we want to make sure we have accurate slides, appropriate lessons, and that it talks about antisemitism.”
Reported attacks against Jews in America reached record levels in 2021, according to the Anti-Defamation League. In Minnesota, specifically, an ADL analysis counted 78 reports of antisemitic harassment, assault, and vandalism, including threats to synagogues and desecrating graves at a Jewish cemetery.
“The majority of teachers teaching the Holocaust today are not Jewish, and so that’s also important … for them to understand history of Judaism in the context of all of this,” Zelle said.
Across the United States, nearly two dozen states mandate Holocaust education, including Wisconsin — but not Minnesota.