In Search of Survivors: A 12,000-Mile Research Trip from Madison to Jerusalem and Back
By Chad S.A. Gibbs
As a graduate student conducting Holocaust research in Jerusalem last fall, I hardly expected that my findings would lead my work back to Wisconsin. That, however, was before I found a video interview of Ben Lerman, a Jewish man born in Poland who survived Treblinka and settled in Milwaukee after the war.
With support from the George L. Mosse Program in History and the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, I moved to Israel in July 2019 to study Jewish resistance inside Treblinka. Historians currently believe only 67 people survived Treblinka, so finding new witnesses is a difficult and important challenge for my research. Locating interviews left behind by as-yet-unrecognized survivors allows me to provide long-overdue historical recognition of what these former inmates endured.
In the course of Lerman’s interview, conducted in Milwaukee in 1987, he described his life before and during the Holocaust. He talked about family, the Warsaw Ghetto, and much more. Lerman also recounted how he was deported from Warsaw to Treblinka only to be sent on to Majdanek. He was one of a precious few to make it out of Treblinka after only a few hours. The overwhelming majority, including his sister, were not as fortunate.
Interviews like Lerman’s normally cover a survivor’s entire lifetime. His story, though, ends abruptly just after the war, at which point the videotape ran out and his interviewers attempted to locate a new one. They apparently failed to find it.
To fill in this incomplete interview I’ve begun to look for more information on Lerman after the Holocaust. With the help of staff at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, I was able to find traces of his life in Wisconsin.
Lerman settled in Milwaukee some time before 1960, remaining there until his passing in 1998. Through these years, he appears frequently in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. His dedication to the Jewish community shines through in articles on topics from education to Holocaust memory. In 1975 Lerman was elected president of Milwaukee’s Temple Menorah. In 1982 one of his daughters graduated from UW–Madison, thus bringing my research on the Lerman family full circle.
Although the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020 curtailed my trip to Israel, I am now back in Madison continuing my work on Treblinka survivors. I’d like to learn more about Ben Lerman.
Chad S.A. Gibbs is a graduate student in the Department of History. He invites readers with information about Ben Lerman to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.