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Making Sense of the Senseless

Mar 22, 2010
by Liz Daube, '05

Alumna Mallory Needleman works with recordings of Holocaust survivors at Holocaust Museum

Mallory Needleman gets paid to listen to horror stories. As an assistant outreach and archival researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., she catalogues and fact checks interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the Nazi Germany genocide that killed roughly 6 million European Jews.

The 2008 Flagler alumna works with about 1,600 of the museum’s audio and video accounts of the Holocaust’s everyday atrocities: not just the typical shootings and mass graves, but unexpected details – like a neighbor who found the village’s Jewish tailor with all his teeth gone, pulled for their tiny gold fillings.

“There’s still a part of me that just doesn’t understand,” Needleman said. “About 95 percent of the museum’s stuff is in a warehouse, and we switch things out … One day, I started breaking down crying.

“I looked to the left of me, and staring me straight in the face were three cans of the Zyklon B. It’s the most ironic kind of thing because it says ‘POISONOUS, USE WITH CAUTION,’ and it was used to kill millions and millions of people … My boss told me, ‘Everybody has their little things. Mine is the hair.’ We have bags and bags of hair, and some of it is braided, and some of it has that baby curl to it. He can’t work with it.”

Needleman has spent her entire college career trying to understand the Holocaust. She studied history and international relations at Flagler and took classes that fascinated her, like Dr. Tim Johnson’s course on Christian-Jewish relations. Now, Needleman is finishing a master’s degree in Jewish studies at Towson University. While her tasks at the museum sometimes stress her, Needleman said she feels lucky to be contributing to a subject she’s passionate about.

“This is a generation that is leaving,” she said. “We need to be able to say 100 years from now that the Holocaust happened … It sounds cheesy, but knowledge is power. If you don’t know, then you’re just going to fall to the depths of ignorance.

“People ask me why the Holocaust happened, and it’s not one thing. These things could happen again today. It’s a destructive economy. It’s the loss of a war. It’s a very influential leader. It’s, ‘We need to find someone to blame this on.’ ”

Needleman’s goal at the Holocaust Museum is to make sure the interviews are as factual as possible, translated into various languages and easy to search; this will allow historians and scholars to access as much reliable information and testimony about the Holocaust as possible.

Currently, she helps coordinate 52 volunteer translators who are working on 70 interviews in 16 languages. Each hour-long interview takes about a month to translate.

Needleman said maybe 20 or so of the museum’s in-house oral history accounts are from admitted perpetrators. She said those interviews are often enlightening, but especially disturbing. Needleman recalled one man in particular: “He gives me chills because he speaks about the Holocaust in the way I think about it: in terms of gray areas,” she said. “Is the perpetrator the person who shot the gun? Or is the perpetrator the person who looked away and refused to hide the neighbor?

“He was one of the mass shooters. He took all their valuables and shot them into graves … And he’s talking about this family, and he’s being honest. He’s like, ‘Well, I shot the dad, and then I shot the kids,’ and he’s just saying systematically what he did. And he says, ‘Being a dad, could you imagine seeing your kid shot? … I did him a favor by killing him first.’ ”

Needleman says such ethical gray areas are important to examine if society wants to prevent future genocides. In addition to her studies, she has traveled to Germany and will soon be visiting Poland to get a clearer picture of both Holocaust history and contemporary culture in the area.

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