The speakers included an Israeli ambassador and a U.S. senator, elderly Holocaust survivors and a third-generation granddaughter of a survivor. Each was eloquent; the message was the same.
Remember. Never forget.
Perhaps more powerful than the stirring words and the haunting songs that filled the magnificent sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El at New York’s annual Gathering of Remembrance on Sunday afternoon was the sight of 36 elderly female survivors, accompanied by young family members, walking slowly across the bima to light a candle in memory of the six million Jews, including those in their families, who perished in the Holocaust.
The poignant image stirred thoughts of the enormous gulf between the generations — one that endured horrific anguish and one that has known only comfort and freedom — that are nevertheless joined together by a commitment to continuity, extending from intimate family to Jews around the world.
No doubt many of the more than 2,000 people who filled the sanctuary for the city’s largest commemoration of Yom HaShoah had a strong connection to the community of Holocaust survivors — those present and those no longer with us. The ceremony, sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and 20 partner organizations, was geared to those who remember. It included poignant Yiddish songs like “Under the Little Polish Green Trees,” with the lyrics “Moishele and Shlomo play no more … not in the grass and not in the snow,” and the partisan hymn, “Never say this is the final road for you.”
Prior to the service, speaking with several survivors, I was reminded that each has a unique story.
I met Ludwig Charatan, who, at 90 last year, wrote and published a memoir, “Eye To Eye,” which describes how a poor Polish farming family of Righteous Gentiles saved him and other family members, and how his testimony, almost 30 years later, helped assure the conviction of a vicious Nazi war criminal.
I listened in as Gabriella Major told a rapt group of high school students how as a toddler, under 2 years old, she survived on a train headed for Auschwitz. She and her mother were among those re-routed to a concentration camp in Austria; they survived the war and returned to their home in Budapest, she said, with her one doll and potty intact.
During the somber service, I watched with pride as Susan Keller, a soft-spoken, dignified woman of 90, lit a candle on the bima, walking with three of her grandchildren, siblings Gideon Gil, Alexandra Gil and my daughter-in-law, Daniela Rosenblatt. Susan was 12 years old when the Nazis came to her village. She told me that in her talks to high school students about her experience, she emphasizes the need “to read, to learn Jewish history and world history.” She worries that too few today understand how evil can engulf a society.
She is far from alone in her concerns about the impact and lessons of the Holocaust fading along with her generation, with fewer than 100,000 survivors still alive.
Survey: 54 percent of people interviewed around the world had not heard of the Holocaust, and one-third believe it to be a myth or greatly exaggerated.
During the service, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) cited a survey finding that 54 percent of people interviewed around the world had not heard of the Holocaust, and one-third believe it to be a myth or greatly exaggerated. He asserted that anti-Semitism is again a serious concern, saying it “seems to live in the soil of Europe as their original sin, and can’t be washed out,” and is increasingly evident in the U.S. as well. He cited recent cemetery desecrations and other incidents here, reminding us that hatred of Jews “can easily be back in our lives.”
A recent account in The New York Times described how some visitors to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam were unaware of the basic facts of her life in the secret annex and of World War II. Though attendance at the museum has grown to 1.3 million visitors a year, officials are seeking new ways to ensure that the Holocaust is taught in ways that make it relevant today.
Even young Israelis know little about the Holocaust, according to a Haaretz article this week. Based on spending two days at Yad Vashem, observing tour groups of Israeli soldiers and high school students, the reporter noted that while Israelis were upset to hear White House press secretary Sean Spicer recently refer to “Holocaust centers” rather than concentration camps, and claim Hitler never used chemical weapons, “it was not always obvious … that young Israelis are that much more knowledgeable about this devastating period in modern Jewish history.”
“It was not always obvious … that young Israelis are that much more knowledgeable about this devastating period in modern Jewish history.”
Educational experts in Israel and the U.S. caution that Holocaust awareness and Holocaust knowledge are not the same. It’s important to emphasize the facts at a time when Holocaust deniers are more shrill and aggressive, especially online.
A new Anti-Defamation League study shows a “massive increase in the amount of harassment of American Jews, particularly since November, and a doubling in the amount of anti-Semitic bullying and vandalism” in schools. But there were only six physical assaults in the country cited in the first quarter of this year, down 40 percent from last year.
While one can debate the severity of the situation here, it’s clear that the leaders of European Jewry are deeply concerned about the future in their countries. The aging population is experiencing a sharp increase in aliyah and emigration to the West, driven in part by the rise of anti-Semitism from the far right, the far left and elements of the growing Muslim community.
At a session I attended on Monday at the World Jewish Congress plenary assembly — the first ever held in New York — Roger Cukierman, a leader of the French Jewish community, noted that even if Emmanuel Macron, the centrist presidential candidate, is elected in the national runoff next week against Marine Le Pen, about 40 percent of the country voted either far left or far right; both extremes are highly troubling to French Jews.
Even if Emmanuel Macron is elected… about 40 percent of the country voted either far left or far right; both extremes are highly troubling to French Jews.
As Dan Meridor, the former deputy prime minister of Israel and now president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, noted: “It’s not about the difference between the far right and the far left; it’s about the difference between right and wrong.”
Representatives of other European countries spoke of the alarming rise in nationalism. And Katharina von Schnurbein, a German national who serves as coordinator of the European Commission on Combating Anti-Semitism — formed in 2015 — acknowledged that “70 years after the Shoah, I see fear” within the Jewish communities she visits. If parents aren’t leaving their native countries, they are urging their children to leave.
“This is Europe’s shame,” she said.
And the shame doesn’t stop there. While the mantra “Never Again” is repeated with conviction at Holocaust memorial ceremonies here and around the country to mark the greatest genocide in history, those cries ring hollow when we look to the devastation in Syria, with more than 400,000 dead in a war that approaches its seventh year. During the Holocaust, those in the concentration camps believed that if only the world knew what was happening, the murders would stop. Today, in an age of instant news and video documentation of the ongoing bloodshed against innocents, we know differently.
Yom HaShoah is a day for reflection, when silence is more meaningful than words. Especially when the words surrounding the Holocaust have been increasingly politicized, questioned and refuted by those who deny the core fact: the Nazi goal of destroying European Jewry.
Those cries of “Never Again” ring hollow when we look to the devastation in Syria, with more than 400,000 dead in a war that approaches its seventh year.
What was once acknowledged as pure evil is now dragged through the mud of competing political perspectives. We see it among increasingly emboldened Holocaust deniers here at home and, most recently, in France, where Le Pen seeks Jewish votes by avoiding her party’s anti-Semitic roots.
We must do whatever we can to reassure the survivors that the lessons of the Holocaust are imbued within us. We owe it to them, to ourselves, and to those who come after us.