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Northeastern grad makes the past her future

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.”