Team led by GVSU expert creates website to honor West Michigan Holocaust survivors

A team led by a Grand Valley Holocaust scholar has created a website with a mission to educate the community by telling the comprehensive stories of West Michigan Holocaust survivors.

Rob Franciosi, professor of English, has been working with a team that includes GVSU students and a graduate. The group was charged with doing research and designing the website, the West Michigan Holocaust Memorial.

The website, part of the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, has been created as an educational tool to accompany the new Holocaust scuplture, "Ways to Say Goodbye," at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Scupture Park.

The sculpture by artist Ariel Schlesinger is a gift from the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids. The gift was made possible by a donation from the Pestka family in memory of their father, Henry, who was a Holocaust survivor, and the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust, according to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. The dedication of the sculpture was slated for June 30.

A person smiles in a posed head shot.
Rob Franciosi, professor of English, does scholarly work on the Holocaust.

Franciosi said he was invited to be part of a group exploring ideas for educational materials to accompany the sculpture, something he said was important to the Pestka family. He said he suggested creating "story maps" of West Michigan Holocaust survivors that detailed where they came from, their experiences during the Holocaust and their lives in the United States; the group later decided to create a website to present this information.

"We would be tracing their lives in both time and space," Franciosi said. "We always end with life in America and the lives these people built or rebuilt after the war. I think it's important to recognize where they came from but also what they achieved afterward. Most of them came over with almost nothing."

Those involved decided to create a website to present the stories. And then Franciosi and the research team started using specialized software and other tools, such as those that help with translation, along with extensive outreach to round out the stories.

While the Holocaust ended in 1945, Franciosi noted survivors still live among us along with their children and subsequent generations affected by the lives of the survivors.

The Grand Valley student who created the website, Arad Okanin, said he was mindful of his grandparents and their experiences surviving the Holocaust as he designed the website. Okanin, a computer science major who works for the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids on a variety of projects ranging from social media to information technology, said he wanted the design of the website to reflect the gravity of that time.

Part of a website with the words "preserving the stories of West Michigan survivors" with a seal to the side and a background photo of people behind a barbed wire fence.
Part of the content on the website that was developed to present the stories of West Michigan Holocaust survivors.

"One of the main reasons I wanted to work on the project is because I have that background and heard those stories and have seen the effects of the Holocaust," Okanin said, adding this project takes on special urgency given the ages of survivors. "That’s why it’s very, very important we do this work now, for future generations to see the atrocities."

For Julianna Schrier, '20, the heartbreaking details discovered while researching this project and filling in the blanks of people's lives has been an emotionally charged process. Schrier, who works as community connector for the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids, described being struck by the times prisoners even had to give up their names.

"When you’re looking for the history of somebody, a lot of times you can't find them before they moved to the United States because they were going by a different name. You have to find people's names to get their whole stories," Schrier said.

The "profound humanity" of the survivors is what has most moved another researcher, Jeanette Barry, who is pursuing a graduate degree in English at GVSU. Barry, a longtime K-12 teacher who taught units on the Holocaust, said a class with Franciosi further deepened her interest in knowing more about the Holocaust and eventually led to working on this project.

"How these survivors took this experience and were able to not just live beyond it but utilize the experience in a way that is helpful to other people – I just can't even imagine walking around with that kind of trauma and trying to fit into the rest of the world as though you haven't experienced that type of thing," Barry said. 

"Every time we're able to find a way to tell a survivor's story really well, it creates another connection," Barry added. "This is a way you don’t forget. You keep telling the story."


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