Nothing prepared him for what he saw.
“Leon heard one of the survivors speaking in Yiddish, saying ‘Is there anyone Jewish in the military?’” said Arthur Freedman, Satenstein’s nephew. “Then they asked him to get a jeep so he could go through the whole camp.”
That was when Satenstein first realized the horror of what had taken place.
Shortly after that experience, the war came to an end. Satenstein stayed at the camp, where some 41,500 people were murdered, to help round up the SS officers, who would eventually be prosecuted for war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials. He would return to the United States in 1948 with impressions of emaciated bodies, bewildered faces, and piles of corpses seared into memory. He would go back to college and become an attorney.
Volunteering as a social worker upon his return, Satenstein talked to and counseled Holocaust survivors who had settled in Boston and Brookline. Regina Barshak was among them.
“Leon was one of the only one’s who would listen to them,” said Freedman. “And they would cry out their emotions to him.”
Survivors resettled in the United States with some measure of success, according to historian Barbara Burstin. He wrote that “…in the early 1950s and then forty years later, researchers concluded that Holocaust survivors did indeed adjust to a new life in America with an ‘amazing resiliency’ that was most impressive, perhaps even heroic.”
But Freedman said his uncle encountered many survivors who had a difficult time living in a new culture with such terrible memories.
“At the time, the Jewish community didn’t really want people to speak about their experiences,” he said. “They wanted it to die with the past.”
Satenstein feared a growing Holocaust denial movement that was slowly trickling into the culture and making its way even into American college campuses. He wanted to preserve survivor and witness testimony from those he spoke to at the time. It was then in 1980, when he moved to Brookline, that he and Barshak proposed the creation of a living monument to local survivors.
“Leon would always read the obituaries,” said Freedman. “When it was concerning a Holocaust survivor, he would cut it out, read it carefully—as if to study it. He kept all those clippings. It’s obvious the memories he had affected him.”
Stephen Bressler, then the Brookline director of the Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission, gave the go-ahead to launch the Holocaust Witness Project.
“One of the Selectman called me and said there was a Holocaust Memorial Committee and asked me if I would staff it,” said Bressler. “Of course I said, yes.”
Satenstein and Barshak would chair the committee together. Bressler stated that the goal of the project was to preserve witness testimony through a series of videotaped interviews. In a taped interview about the effort, Satenstein said Barshak was the “brainchild.”
“I feel that this is an extremely important and valuable addition to the historical record,” Satenstein said during the interview. “There still is, even at this late date, a significant number of survivors of the concentration camps, some of whom have been in hiding, all of whom have remarkable stories to tell, and yet have not told their stories for many different reasons—reasons as different as the individual survivors themselves.”
The goal of the project, Bressler said, was to create “a source for scholars and the general public” that captured the experience of survivors through oral testimony. The town had the wherewithal to use cable and television studios to conduct several dozen lengthy interviews. Satenstein would sit down with each person for a pre-interview and thoroughly document the whole of their experience. What he and Bressler discovered was startling.
Lawrence L. Langer, Professor Emeritus of English at Simmons College, conducted most of the interviews and supervised all the interviews.
“For some, it was the first time they have talked about it since the 1940s,” said Bressler, who conducted several interviews. “Some didn’t even tell their families, and others couldn’t bring themselves to speak about their experiences.”
Over 80 hours of interview footage was compiled, but Bressler said, a lack of resources prevented them from being made public.
“The goal was never to just store these things,” he said. “We wanted to use them and do some educational programming. The idea was to edit them and have different versions for each grade level. The problem was that we didn’t have staff.”
Satenstein passed away in 2012, leaving $11,200 in his will to the town in order to complete the project.
“I assembled the tapes that he had in his apartment and brought them to Town Hall,” said Freedman. “Then I didn’t hear anything about them until just over a month ago.”
Lloyd Gellineau, Bressler’s successor and the town’s current chief diversity officer, discovered the raw footage in his office in 2014. Gellineau approached video producer and founder of the Brookline Youth Awards, R. Harvey Bravman with the tapes. A 90-minute condensed documentary film entitled Soul Witness, the Brookline Holocaust Witness Project, written, directed and produced by Bravman, will be shown at the Coolidge Corner Theater on January 26.
Since the discovery of the tapes, the process of digitizing, condensing and ultimately deciding on how to handle them took several years. The original Holocaust Memorial Committee, staffed with new members, was resurrected for the purpose of the film.
Although Satenstein never discussed what he ultimately wanted to do with the interviews, Freedman said he would have wanted them to be accessible to the public in an edited form.
“I think that what Leon and Regina did was really just step one,” he said. “What Harvey is doing is like steps 2, 3, 4 and 5. I applaud him for the job. And he’s doing it in a way that’s now accessible to the public. Based on Leon’s life, I would believe he wanted that.”
“To me it was a godsend, having Harvey do this,” said Bressler. “I’m really pleased he’s been able to take the time and make the commitment to do it right.”