New website will publish testimony of Holocaust survivors in Grand Rapids for the first time


What the Holocaust memorial sculpture in Meijer Gardens will look like.

With a small but tightly knit Jewish community in the west of the state, the site hopes to highlight a group of people sometimes overshadowed by Metro Detroit’s larger Jewish community.

A A new project launched in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids aims to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors who settled in the Grand Rapids area.

Before the end of the year, a special website for the survivors will open, featuring face-to-face interviews, photos, archives and more that will capture their travels during and after World War II.

“Right now we have about 10 stories that we’re going to make,” says Nicole Katzman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids. “When we complete it, we’ll share it with the community and with community partners, and then add more survivor stories.”

With a small but tightly knit Jewish community in the west of the state, the site hopes to highlight a group of people sometimes overshadowed by Metro Detroit’s larger Jewish community.

Once the website is complete, which currently has three stories, the people behind the effort want their project to be a template or model that other Michigan communities can recreate and use for their own purposes.

LEFT: Survivor Joseph Stevens, who lives in Grand Rapids, and two Polish boys who were part of his underground cell during the war.  RIGHT: Here it is in the early 2000s.
LEFT: Survivor and Grand Rapids resident Joseph Stevens and two Polish boys who were part of his underground cell during the time
the war. RIGHT: Here it is in the early 2000s. (Grand Valley State University) Grand Valley State University

“There are people who have settled in Benton Harbor and across the state who have similar stories,” explains Rob Franciosi, professor at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids who is driving the project and its research. “We thought by creating a model that could be educational to others as well.”

The idea started during an informal zoom group held during COVID-19, says Franciosi, where the Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids and its partners met to discuss a soon-to-be-installed Holocaust memorial sculpture at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

“We tried to find ways to complement the educational component,” says Franciosi. “We mostly talked about local connections, so we as a group decided that some kind of website honoring the Holocaust survivors who settled in Grand Rapids would be our unique contribution there.”

While there are many websites devoted to the history of the Holocaust, Franciosi says few, if any, shed light on the West Michigan’s perspective. To tell the stories of survivors, the emerging website will use a geospatial software program that shows how people traveled from Europe to Shanghai, the Dominican Republic, and eventually Grand Rapids.

Peg Finkelstein, who directed much of the archival work for the website, spent the last year scanning and documenting the history of the Grand Rapids Jewish Federation. Various programs she has been involved with led her to connect with local Holocaust survivors, particularly a man named David Mandel.

“He lived in Grand Rapids for many years and never talked about the Holocaust,” explains Finkelstein. His story is presented on the website. Mandel, encouraged by Grand Valley State University, slowly began to tell his story and eventually ended up speaking at Jewish day schools on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Grand Rapids Holocaust survivor Henry Pestka
Grand Rapids Holocaust survivor Henry Pestka Pestka family

Mandel is one of several Grand Rapids Holocaust survivors who have volunteered to share their trip for the site. “I think with the Holocaust website project and the memorial project in Meijer Gardens, we will really make a difference in Grand Rapids,” says Finkelstein.

Finkelstein adds that a project like this can help ensure these trips and moments are never forgotten, especially for families and descendants, by capturing the incredible stories of local survivors. Plus, the increase in online content makes backing up archive data and photos easier than it used to be.

“We live in a time when internet access gives you access to some amazing genealogical resources,” says Franciosi. “I got into an online conversation with a local historian in a Polish city who was able to send pictures of the city [where a survivor was originally from] looked like in the 1930s and 1940s. “

For the small Jewish community in western Michigan – about 2,000 people, Katzman estimates – the website will be the first time many of these stories have been told. They also encourage people to come forward with their own stories to further add to the effort.

“They have never been processed; they have never been presented before, ”says Finkelstein of the testimony of many Grand Rapids survivors. “That makes it even more important.”

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