As numbers dwindle, Holocaust survivors in Sonoma County work to preserve their stories

Alfred and Susanne Batzdorff of Santa Rosa are two of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors remaining in Sonoma County, now estimated between 20 and 30.

Soon, there will be no survivors left, which is why the Batzdorffs, both 95, are working so closely with the county’s Alliance for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide to find ways to keep remembrance of the Holocaust from fading solely into the history books.

The Batzdorffs decided something needed to be done to bring the knowledge of what happened in the Holocaust to the public.

They created “The Phoenix Coalition,” a group of people, including clergy members, with the goal to educate, but quickly realized the clergy members had no real knowledge of what happened during the Holocaust, either.

“There was this huge chasm to be bridged,” said Susanne Batzdorff. “We figured if they didn’t know about it, their congregants wouldn’t either. It became really necessary.”

In November 1988, the Batzdorffs’ began speaking publicly to churches, community groups and schools about their flight from Nazi Germany.

Fifty years earlier, on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, the wave of violence now known as Kristallnacht swept through Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia, with Nazis and sympathizers destroying and plundering Jewish homes, synagogues and businesses, and attacking Jews in the streets.

Alfred Batzdorff, then 16, was arrested, and just days later boarded the first Kindertransport train, which whisked him from Berlin to Holland and then to England. He still has a newspaper clipping from a British newspaper announcing the train’s arrival.

His childhood neighbor Susanne Biberstein, now his wife, left Germany at age 17, in February 1939, bound for New York City with her mother and a brother.

That’s the story they have been telling for almost four decades in front of schools, churches and community centers.

“It gets more and more important as fewer and fewer of the survivors are around,” Alfred Batzdorff said.

What will happen, though, when they’re no longer around to tell their story?

The Alliance for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide is working to answer that question. The number of Holocaust survivors in America is now estimated to be somewhere between 109,000 and 140,000, and a focus of Holocaust remembrance groups, said Barbara Lesch McCaffry, president of the alliance, has been to record those stories, and find children of survivors who can carry on the tradition and make sure the stories are heard.

Without that, Alfred Batzdorff said, “(the Holocaust) becomes just like any event in history. Kids learn about the Civil War, and the history of the United States, the history of the world and it will just become one other event.”

“One of the things I always try to emphasize,” said his wife, “is to stop a movement like the Nazi movement, you have to start immediately. You have to call it an injustice as you see it and not wait until it becomes so strong that there’s no way to stop it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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