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Northeastern grad makes the past her future

Madison Flashenburg

Madison Flashen­burg flipped through the Book of Names, scan­ning the 6-​​foot-​​high volume in search of her sur­name, her ances­tors, her blood.

She expected to find a few Flashen­burgs among the 4.2 mil­lion known Holo­caust vic­tims listed in the over­size book, the cen­ter­piece of a new exhibit dis­played in Block 27 of the former Auschwitz-​​Birkenau Nazi death camp. But to her surprise—to her horror—she found 20. Not one, not two, but 20.

It was jar­ring to see my name on those pages,” recalls Flashen­burg, MA’14. “It made my expe­ri­ence much more personal.”

Flashen­burg, who grad­u­ated in the spring with a master’s in his­tory, vis­ited the exhibit in July, during the tail end of her month­long trip to Poland. She trav­eled there with an octet of her peers, grad­uate stu­dents, and doc­toral can­di­dates who had been chosen to par­tic­i­pate in the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fel­lows Pro­gram.

The pro­gram gave the scholars in training the oppor­tu­nity to study the Holo­caust in situ and the experience—listening to the tes­ti­monies of Holo­caust sur­vivors; vis­iting Oskar Schindler’s fac­tory; touring Krakow’s Jewish quarter—moved Flashen­burg one step closer to real­izing her dream of becoming a curator of a Holo­caust museum.

As a 17-​​year-​​old high school stu­dent, Flashen­burg par­tic­i­pated in the March of the Living, an annual pro­gram in which thou­sands of teens walk silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp built during World War II. “Ever since then,” Flashen­burg says, “I’ve known I’ve wanted to work in Holo­caust education.”

Her goal to keep the Holo­caust story alive by working as a museum curator started to take shape during her under­grad­uate years at Florida State Uni­ver­sity, when she con­ducted research and helped install exhibits at the Florida Holo­caust Museum. But it was her course work and intern­ships as a grad­uate stu­dent at North­eastern that solid­i­fied her career ambi­tion. As a public his­tory expert in training, she com­pleted two directed studies, including an analysis of the Amer­ican responses to the Holo­caust, and interned at the New Eng­land Archives of the Amer­ican Jewish His­tor­ical Society, where she con­ducted his­tor­ical research and processed archival collections.

Preser­va­tion of sur­vivor his­tory is invalu­able,” says Flashen­burg, noting that her museum expe­ri­ence in Poland honed her talent for telling the sto­ries behind Holo­caust arti­facts. “My gen­er­a­tion is so lucky to be able to learn from sur­vivors, but it’s scary to think that future gen­er­a­tions will not get to hear that first-​​hand testimony.”

In Krakow, Flashen­burg lis­tened to an Auschwitz sur­vivor recount her expe­ri­ence as one of Josef Mengele’s human exper­i­ments. The German physi­cian and SS officer, who later fled to South America, attempted to change the color of her eyes from brown to blue by injecting them with chem­i­cals. Her eyes swelled shut and she devel­oped fes­tering wounds. In Warsaw, another woman recalled how her family had hidden a Jewish girl in their home and passed her off as their cousin. Improb­ably, the two women recon­nected in Israel some 20 years later and remain good friends today.

This,” Flashen­burg says, “is one of the hap­piest end­ings you can get.”

-By Jason Kornwitz

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