What If No One Believes You?
Marian Fox was seven years old, and her sister Laurel Fox was 10 when they took a trip to Europe with their family in 1937. Marian remembers traveling over a bridge into Germany without a Visa for a brief stop in a cafe. It was hot. They just wanted a Coca-Cola.
Marian looked up and saw a picture. Though she was young, she knew that man in the picture. He was a bad man. She stuck out her tongue at the picture of Hitler. Her mother grabbed her by the arm and urgently ushered her out of there.
After they arrived back to their home in New Haven, reports started to trickle out of Europe about the rampant racism affecting Jewish people. The problems had started years before their trip to Europe. While initially confined to people who were radicals, hatred and racism was seeping into the general population as economic conditions in Germany worsened. German people, suffering, looked for someone else to blame. In January of 1933, the man in the picture, Hitler, had ascended to the position of chancellor of Germany. Several months later, the Dachau concentration camp was opened. Boycotts of Jewish-owned stores and businesses in Germany started to take place. Several years later, the German parliament, filled with Nazis, passed the Nuremberg Race Laws, with antisemitism at their core. In November 1938: Kristallnacht. In September 1939: Germany, after years of aggression, invaded Poland, officially kicking off World War II in Europe.
When the war started, Marian and Laurel saw their parents trying to warn people about the persecution of Jewish people in Germany. Many just would not believe them, Marian remembers in a videotaped interview. People said, “They would never do anything like that to the Jews,” she remembers.
After the war was over, even after all of the atrocities and even after the deaths of six million Jewish people, there were still people who did not believe. Laurel, with the help of her sister, decided to take advantage of what was then new filmmaking technology to talk with survivors. Laurel specifically wanted to create these films, she said, so that people could see the faces of the survivors as they told their stories. She called this “demeanor evidence” and eventually became known as a “pioneering Holocaust filmmaker,” according to the organizers of an upcoming event honoring Laurel Fox Vlock.
The program, hosted by the New Haven Museum (NHM) and co-sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven, will take place Sunday, March 3 at 2 p.m. at NHM, 114 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, will be offered in person only. In the case of bad weather, the program will be recorded and aired the following week on YouTube and social media.
Registration is available at www.newhavenmuseum.org/ and www.simpletix.com/e/laurel-fox-vlock-to-be-highlighted-at-new-tickets-155780. The event is free, and all are welcome to attend. The program will include speakers, remembrances of her life, video clips of her interviews. In addition, photos and other items related to her will be on view in the Community Case in the NHM rotunda. This program is the Second Annual Judith Ann Schiff Women's History Month event sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society and the New Haven Museum. Judith Ann Schiff (1937 - 2022) was New Haven's City Historian, Chief Research Archivist at Yale University, and a founder of both the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven and the Ethnic Heritage Center.
Laurel Fox Vlock eventually went on to help create a collection of videos that eventually became the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University (https://fortunoff.library.yale.edu/), with more than 4,000 testimonies. That was just one accomplishment in a long and distinguished career that included a journalism career that started in 1964 with a radio program, included a stint with WTNH, and saw her interviewing important leaders including Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel, and Hillary Clinton. Her documentary about survivors, “Forever Yesterday,” filmed for WNEW-TV in New York, garnered her an Emmy Award in 1981.
Like A Living Room
The Holocaust Survivors Film Project, founded in 1979, took advantage of what was then a new technology requiring large pieces of expensive equipment, along with special expertise to run them. This was not an iPhone point-and-shoot operation. Despite difficulties associated with learning and using a new technology, Laurel Vlock persevered, working with Dori Laub, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.
Vlock decided this work was important because she remembered how long it took for people to believe that the Holocaust was happening. Many people just preferred to turn away from something so painful to contemplate. Even in the 1970s and later there were still people who refused to believe the ample documented evidence of its horror. Vlock wanted people to see the faces and hear the voices of those who had been affected.
After interview subjects were identified, Vlock then did her best to make them feel comfortable. Her sister, Marian Fox Wexler, remembers that their efforts included creating a comfortable environment. “Coffee cake or Danish and coffee afterward,” Wexler says.
Vlock, who died in a car accident in 2000, said in a videotaped interview that it was important to give people as much time as they needed to tell their story. “We always let the taping go on for as long as the person feels he or she wants to talk,” she says. “And that’s very important because people become relaxed and they begin to relate to the interviewer, to the camera, as if they were in their own living room talking to someone they know, very intimately. It is that kind of presentation that makes the event take on a dimension and gives understanding to the event that perhaps no other technique can bring to it.”
Her colleague Laub was born in Romania, survived the Holocaust, and emigrated to Israel where he became a doctor and psychiatrist. He said in a videotaped interview that, while working as an interviewer on the project, it was important to stay connected to the people recounting their painful stories. “A listener to the survivor needs to be a full participant in every aspect of the shared experience,” he says. “There is no place or tolerance for fleeing from it.” He describes the process as becoming a companion to the interviewee, “on the way of disclosing and opening the difficult and painful secret of his life.”
He adds: “It is not a matter of getting information from the survivor and then leaving him. It is rather a matter of being a fully sharing companion in all the moments of pain…”
Collecting these testimonies from Holocaust survivors was grueling. It took courage to step up and do so, it took a toll while it was being done, and it was being done using a complicated new technology at that. It took tenacity to stick with the project. And in some ways, Laurel Fox Vlock was born to it. This kind of work was part of her birthright.
Her sister Marian remembers that her grandparents on her mother’s side came from Russia. After a brief sojourn in Argentina, where they found the lifestyle a bit too wild, they brought their family of ten children to America and settled in New Haven, where her grandparents opened a small store. At home, they had about a quarter acre of land where they raised chickens and goats in the backyard.
The girls heard stories about their great grandfather, who wrote five Torahs by hand and gave one to each of his children. Of her parents, Marian remembers, “there was never a moment when they weren’t involved with some community endeavor.” They supported Camp Laurelwood when, through their work with the Jewish Community Center, they learned about children who never left the city. When World War II started and her mother heard of all the atrocities in Europe, she began to make layettes for European families with babies, families that may have lost all of their possessions while fleeing war and terror.
When the war started, Marian says, their parents tried so very hard to warn people about what was happening. She remembers uncles and aunts who had been to Germany and who said, “Oh, they are wonderful people; they would never do anything like that. And nobody believed.” She adds: “We were very much aware of the war and what was going on in Europe and the concentration camps, which most people did not believe.”
Marian’s and Laurel’s parents also became involved in the effort to find a new homeland for Jewish refugees. From Eastern Europe alone, after World War II, there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who had been forcibly displaced and who feared returning home because of continued antisemitism or who could not return home because their homes had been destroyed. “My mother and father were working constantly for Zionism, for the chance to have a Jewish homeland in Israel, so my house was filled with people who were connected with that,” she says.
In addition to their community work, her father owned a steel company, Fox Steel. When Laurel got married to Jim Vlock, he joined the company and “greatly contributed to its success,” Marian says.
An Incredible Service To The World
Laurel and Marian had a comfortable life in New Haven. Laurel had a successful career in radio and television. And then in 1978, Laurel did an interview for Channel 8 in New Haven about the Yom Hashoah observance, also known as Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. She realized she needed to take a deeper dive into this painful subject. She then connected with Dori Laub, and during interviews with him, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project was conceived. Laurel herself participated in more than 168 taping sessions and created several programs based on the stories she heard. Those became part of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, which now has more than 4,000 testimonies.
Her admirers included the writer, philosopher, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who made it his life’s work to bear witness to the Nazi’s genocide. After being interviewed by her, he wrote, “It is good that Laurel Vlock has been charged with this mission to make this project a reality and even a success.”
Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven President Michael Dimenstein says the reality of what happened to those who survived, many of them also speaking on behalf of those who did not survive, “can only be told by those who have the right to tell it.”
“These are the heroes who lived and survived through one of the worst periods of our history. And the spoken word is so powerful because it comes with emotion,” he says. “The facial expressions and the body language can only be captured by filming a person who is speaking, as they are telling their story.”
He adds that there will be those who will try to change the story. “Now more than ever, we cannot allow this history to be revised. We cannot have revisionism or Holocaust denial. And those who were able to speak were quickly disappearing. There are fewer and fewer of them around today,” he says. “The fact that Laurel had the foresight and the determination to make sure their stories were told, and not just told, but preserved for the future? Well, she has just done such an incredible service to the world.”
Rhoda Zahler Samuel, a member of the board of the Jewish Historical Society, who is helping to organize the upcoming event, agrees that Laurel’s work is more important now than ever. “We’re living in a country and a world in which there’s often a lack of empathy and listening to people who are suffering,” she says. “I think the lesson from this is that it is our job to be listening to what is going on around us to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.”
Editor’s Note: This article was edited on Thursday, Feb. 8 to reflect the correct information about whether the program will be offered virtually.