A day before more than 2,000 people packed the soaring Romanesque sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue for the organized Jewish community’s official Yom HaShoah ceremony, 25 Israeli-Americans crowded into the living room of Dan Adler’s Upper East Side apartment for a Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration of another kind.
At Temple Emanu-El on Sunday, April 23, U.S. senators, Israeli diplomats and other dignitaries gave speeches invoking the Six Million and the dangers of present-day anti-Semitism interspersed with Holocaust survivors, accompanied by their children and grandchildren, lighting memorial candles on the ornate bima.
The previous evening, in typical Israeli start-up, improvisatory fashion, Adler gathered his guests, half of them millennials, to hear the remarkable, tear-inducing story of a single survivor, Frances (Fran) Malkin, along with a musical interlude and some conversation.
It was the U.S. launch of “Zikaron BaSalon,” or “Memories in the Living Room,” an effort by Israeli-Americans to shape their own commemorative traditions, a task made all the more urgent as the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles.
“For me the Shoah is very personal — it’s a big part of who I am,” Adler, 57, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. Adler, a chief technology officer in a New York-based investment firm who moved here 30 years ago from Tel Aviv, is a second-generation survivor and a volunteer at the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which teaches the history and lessons of America’s response to the Holocaust. “It’s never enough for me, Yom HaShoah here. I’m always looking for more things to do, for more meaningful ways to commemorate,” he said.
This year Yom HaShoah fell on Monday, April 24, marking the 72nd anniversary of the event. In comparison to the emotional, though formal, commemorations like the one at Temple Emanu-El, and at others across the U.S., in Israel the somberness of the day tends to be all encompassing. Each year, starting the evening before, stores will close, radio and television channels will switch to Holocaust-themed broadcasting and streets become eerily quiet. At 10 a.m., as schools across the country stage Holocaust ceremonies, a siren will blare. For the duration of two minutes, traffic stops and citizens everywhere come to a standstill, in one of the country’s most awe-inspiring displays of unity and collective grief.
Used to that kind of emotional gut-punch from back home, Israeli- Americans can find the experience here underwhelming. Adler’s “more meaningful” kind of commemoration led him to his very own living room.
Seeking an alternative to rigid institutional ceremonies, the grassroots initiative brings together survivors and those who want to hear their stories in the intimacy of volunteers’ living rooms. The evening, if one follows the suggested blueprint, consists of a testimony, an “artistic expression” section and a freestyle conversation. The program’s website offers local directories of speakers and hosts, as well as some guidelines for the conversation, but participants are largely left to color in their own events.
Zikaron BaSalon began in Israel on Yom HaShoah, 2010. Looking to breathe new life into the commemoration, Israeli social entrepreneur Adi Altschuler invited a Holocaust survivor to tell his story to some two dozen of her friends, in the comfort of her own living room. Somebody brought a guitar and sang a few songs, and afterwards the participants talked. People agreed it was one of the more meaningful Shoah events they had taken part in.
The original guests replicated the idea in their own homes on the following Yom HaShoah, and by 2014 the initiative had spread across the country and abroad, picking up steam as dignitaries such as then Finance Minister Yair Lapid, IDF Gen. Benny Gantz, Knesset member Stav Shaffir and others joined in and promoted the idea. Last year, approximately half a million people in Israel, Europe and a smattering in the U.S. participated in a Zikaron BaSalon evening, including Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin reportedly hosted 40 guests in his official Jerusalem residence, where Meir Ginosar, an 87-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, told his story.
Coordinated by the national umbrella organization Israeli American Council (IAC), this year more than two-dozen salons took place here and in New Jersey, Miami, Los Angeles, North Carolina, St. Louis and Atlanta, together involving hundreds of participants.
“Now more than ever, as we are losing the first generation [of survivors], it’s imperative we find new ways to pass on their stories and perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust,” the project’s point man, IAC Regional Manager Kobi Cohen, said in a phone interview. Cohen, who manages a campus program for Israeli-Americans called IAC Mishelanu, remarked that this form of commemoration holds a greater appeal for college students; in New York, nine out of the 16 Zikaron BaSalon evenings took place on college campuses, including City University of New York’s Baruch, Brooklyn, Hunter and Queens colleges, as well as Rutgers University.
On Yom HaShoah, Adler opened the evening playing the guitar and leading the group in Hannah Senesh’s song, “Eli, Eli,” setting the stage for Malkin’s harrowing child-survivor story. Malkin was born in 1938 near the Polish city Sokal, which today is in Ukraine. When she was 5 years old her mother and a group of relatives escaped Sokal’s ghetto, and for the two years until the war was over, hid in a small hayloft above a pigsty. The hayloft, which belonged to a Christian woman named Francisca Halamajowa, housed 16 people.
In the days after her arrival, Malkin did not stop crying; since her loud sobs endangered them all, the hayloft’s occupants agreed they must kill her. Her mother stood aside as one of the occupants, a doctor, forced a vial of poison down Fran’s throat.
Fran’s miraculous survival, which earned her the nickname “Miracle child,” is documented in the film “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” as well as in the 1993 publication of “Years of Horror, Glimpse of Hope,” a collection of notes from her uncle Moshe Maltz’s wartime diary. “She handed me the book to read that part, about how they decided to silence her, and I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t read it,” Adler said.
After Malkin spoke, Romanian survivors Paul and Rodica Burg, who came to the U.S. in 1963 as political refugees, briefly discussed life in the Bucharest Ghetto and under the post-war Communist regime. Avi Ashman, a second-generation survivor, then read a speech about his parents’ endurance. Michal Nachmani, an artist, spoke about a Krakow exhibit in which she participated. In the conversation that followed, participants wondered if they could have done for refugees today what Halamajowa did for Malkin and her family. Malkin said, “You can’t tell, from New York of 2017, how you would act in Poland of the 1940s.”
“I’ve been telling my story in high schools, synagogues and ceremonies for years now… this was very different,” Malkin told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. She said the event “had a heimishe feeling, not like lecturing in front of an audience. I felt very comfortable.”
The intimate format transformed the experience of the listeners as well. Yris Bilia, a 53-year-old Hebrew teacher in Harlem’s HLA Hebrew Charter School, heard of the evening through the IAC’s newsletter. “When a survivor is standing on a stage in a big venue, talking to hundreds of people, what you feel is sadness, respect — and distance,” she said in a phone interview. “What I felt here, with Fran sitting right next to me and everybody conversing, was comradeship … a feeling of being embraced.”
Adler, who plans to continue to host and promote Zikaron BaSalon, refers to it as “an emerging tradition.”
“Now that we are losing the first generation, we are in the stage of inventing the future traditions for Yom HaShoah,” he said. “After the Second Temple was destroyed, you had this group of rabbis sitting around telling stories about Egypt. These stories later turned into the Haggadah.
“Maybe this is what we’re doing here — maybe we are creating a format that would become like a seder, a Shoah seder, that can be repeated over the generations. I don’t know if that’s where this is going, or what will happen,” he added, “but I’m excited to be a part of it.”