Thursday, September 15, 2016

"Keeping the Memory Alive"
This year's Yad Vashem Leadership Mission was comprised of Second Generation supporters, as well as a significant number of members of the next generations. On their return home, Yad Vashem sought to understand the motivation of the younger participants for joining the Mission, as well as their reflections and plans in its wake:

Yad Vashem Leadership Mission participants at a reception held at the President's Residence in Jerusalem. (July 2016) 
Harrison Wilf
"Growing up, I was always aware of how my family had been tragically affected by the Holocaust; both how they suffered and how those who survived carried tremendous burdens. I was eager to see with my own eyes the country where my relatives once lived, the town squares they once walked through and the shuls they once prayed in. Protecting the legacy of the Holocaust has been a priority for my family for three generations and that has been passed down to me. I was excited to experience the journey from Poland to Israel for myself and feel a heightened appreciation for the State of Israel after seeing what the Jewish people had been through.

"I have always thought of Yad Vashem as a very special museum because it is in Jerusalem, in Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people. However, it is not just a powerful museum; it is an entire institution that is keeping the legacy of the Holocaust alive.

"I fully expect to become more involved in future activities of Yad Vashem. Soon the survivors won’t be here to tell their stories, and if even one person forgets to tell his children about the Shoah then that entire family will not commemorate and learn from the Holocaust."

  Jonah Burian
"From a young age, I have heard countless stories from my grandfather about his experience in the Holocaust. I always connected to it, but never before like this. Seeing the infamous Auschwitz in person made the stories much more tangible, and yet, in a juxtaposed manner, the atrocities seem even harder to comprehend. There was one thought that pierced through my shocked mind. My grandfather and I both went through the same entrance, he suffered and I toured, but we both left as witnesses.

"The actual program itself was more or less what I expected. However, the group dynamic unexpectedly added a deeper level to the mission. The participants came from all over the world, varied in religious orientation and with unique personalities. This diversity bonded the group in a way that allowed for people not only to connect to the Holocaust through personal and familial experiences, but also to connect through the trip's experiences. Furthermore, although I was the youngest member on the mission (16), I was treated no differently than anyone else. This allowed me to participate in ways I also did not expect.

"I believe it was Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, who said, 'That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.' As a member of the third generation, the generation that is tasked with continuing the memory of the Holocaust, I hope and believe that we can change that."  

  Daniella Pomeranc
"Although I did not partake in the entire Mission, I was lucky to join up with the group at Yad Vashem for the day. My involvement with Yad Vashem has only gotten stronger and more rewarding over the years. Being the grandchild of two survivors, I obviously want to continue to make that connection stronger and keep their stories alive for generations to come.

"It was so extraordinary to see the preservation process and how pictures and information are scanned into Yad Vashem's databases. Yad Vashem continues to give back to so many people's lives, helping them discover their family's history. I am always so taken aback how different each experience is there. There is really so much to see and learn and feel. I am so thankful for every opportunity to reestablish my connection." 

  Shira Stein
"Fortunately, my family was not directly affected by the atrocities of the Holocaust; however, I am a parent of three daughters and know that it is my responsibility to share with them the importance of keeping the memories alive. 

"I joined the Mission with the expectation of learning and growing. I was not expecting the amazing personal connections I made with others on the trip. I fostered lifelong friendships with others who are passionate about Holocaust education. Additionally, I was utterly impressed by the attention to detail at each ceremony, event and seminar that took place. The guides were above and beyond knowledgeable and personable. The ceremonies that took place were moving and every person on the Mission had an active role. I was asked to do a reading at a ceremony in Poland. I read a personal narrative about Kristallnacht. I was moved when I learned that the passage that I read was actually the narrative of the mother of [International Relations Division Managing Director] Shaya Ben Yehuda. This is an example of what made the Mission so personal and moving. 

"I also saw some of the behind-the-scenes work that takes place at Yad Vashem. The staff is so passionate about what they do. It was enlightening to see the work that goes into identifying and placing a name or date to each artifact. The care and expertise that I saw being used to treat a wartime journal that had tremendous water damage made me feel extremely proud of the work being done at Yad Vashem."

  Rachel Shnay
"I have been involved with the Yad Vashem Young Leaders for many years and am very passionate about Holocaust education and awareness. The victims, survivors and their families are forever grateful for the everlasting flame that Yad Vashem has lit for generations to come, and this trip solidified the fact that it is up to us to keep that flame alive.

"I gained so much insight into the Shoah, especially at Wolfsberg, a place I had never been or even heard of before the trip. I was in complete awe to learn about an underground camp and the extreme physical conditions they endured. One of the highlights of the trip was hearing Rabbi Lau speak for almost two hours at the conclusion of Shabbat. The entire room was mesmerized by his stories. Another incredible and chilling experience was when we entered the medical examiners' bunk. The women left eerie drawings on the walls that brought the situation to life and I was immediately taken back in time, hearing screams and cries along the corridor. I will forever remember those few minutes in that bunk.

"I also had no idea how complex is the 'underground' work being done at Yad Vashem every single day. From archiving to preserving to the Names Database to control against hackers – it was absolutely incredible. I always visited Yad Vashem as a museum-goer and now I can proudly tell others that there is so much more to Yad Vashem."
  
Sam Gordon
"My maternal grandparents are both survivors. I needed to see for myself what happened during the Holocaust to educate myself and others back home so that the memory never leaves our minds, and more importantly, is passed on to future generations.

"Perhaps naively, I always thought prewar Europe was this depressing cemetery of a place.  But I was wrong. Jews had lives no different than me. They had nice homes, schools, went to dinners, parties, etc. Some of them knew the good life. Everything they had was taken in cold blood. To see how Jewish life thrived before the war, and to see what happened during the Holocaust was an eye-opening experience. 

"The trip changed my life. It changed my point of view on almost everything. I also feel like I became more of a Jew. I plan to remain involved in Yad Vashem going forward in perpetuity." 


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Yad Vashem International Leadership Mission

Mark Moskowitz is the son of Holocaust survivors and a longstanding friend of Yad Vashem. Mark is actively involved in various Yad Vashem activities and events in Israel and the United States. He was a participant of this year's Yad Vashem Leadership Mission, traveling to Poland to view the lost Jewish world, and Israel, to learn more about Yad Vashem's day-to-day activities, achievements and challenges. He made the following address to the Mission at its Closing Event on 12 July 2016, in Yad Vashem's Valley of the Communities.
Mark Moskowitz delivering his address in the
Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

"I was raised in a family of Holocaust survivors. Growing up with an acute awareness of their strength of character and zest for life has impacted my decisions and who I am today. Survivors have imbued in us, the Second and Third Generations, a sense of infinite hope and determination, and a commitment to helping others achieve happy and healthy lives. My late father’s unwavering spirit and commitment to tzedakah (charity) helped him overcome unspeakable tragedies and create a truly significant life for himself, his family and his community.

While my beloved parents, Rose and Henry, restarted their lives in the United States, their passionate connection to Israel was always, and continues to be, a source of strength. Each year, attending the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem plays an integral role in my life. This day always occurs one week before Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and it is a great privilege to observe it here in Israel. Together, these two memorial days intensify the historic bond between Israel and Jews worldwide. It is on these days that we recognize the bravery and sacrifice of Holocaust victims and survivors, and the bravery and sacrifice of the strong young men and women not so different from those we met last night [at an army base].

In one moment, however, in the exact moment between light and dark, day shifts to night and mourning turns to celebration. Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, erupts from the darkness of Yom Hazikaron, and this sharp contrast puts into perspective the sacrifice of so many and the inexpressible gratitude we have for them. This juxtaposition is so powerful and so reminiscent of the remarkable journey we have just experienced together, an extraordinary journey from darkness to light, from experiencing the incredible, overwhelming sadness found in destruction to the exuberance and optimism of rebirth and renewal.

Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev together with
Chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem presented
President Rivlin with a facsimile of the Wolfsberg Machzor
In Wroclaw, we learned about the diversity and richness of Jewish life before the war. The diversity of faith and practice, arts and culture, a vitality that was dulled by the poisonous antisemitism and hatred. Most poignantly noted to me by a fellow participant was the realization that the lives destroyed were those of people like you and me, people with families and professions, hopes and dreams.

This Leadership Mission has connected us. It has connected us to our past, to our heritage, to Yad Vashem and to one another. The uniqueness of this Mission has been in the camaraderie we have developed and the mishpacha (family) we have created together – regardless of our personal connections (or lack thereof) to the Holocaust, our backgrounds, our age, or even our faiths.

Through this Mission, Yad Vashem has facilitated a connecting of dots – gathering pieces of our histories and heritage to complete a harmonious picture, connecting the past with the present, on both individual and national levels. Yad Vashem is determined to document the identity and restore the humanity of each of the victims and survivors, by connecting fragments of information from its repositories of documents, photographs, artifacts and testimonies. For example, like trained detectives, the archivists were able to attach a name, history, face, and life story to a six digit number present on a mass gravestone at Bergen Belsen. And as Director of the Archives Division Dr. Haim Gertner said, in an era when only the documents remain to testify, who will be there to tell their story? It is our duty to ensure that Yad Vashem will be there. It is our responsibility to the future, to the Third and Fourth Generations and those to come, that Yad Vashem remain to complete the picture, to tell the story.

Yad Vashem has been an inspiration to me and an unparalleled resource – not only of facts and history, but also of emotional strength. Here, I have gained a comprehensive lesson in humanity – whether from Rabbi Lau and Yehuda Bacon reflecting on recovering the ability to cry after the Holocaust, after their hearts were turned to stone, in essence regaining their humanity; hearing from young Israeli soldiers about the value of human life; or attending the moving Righteous Among the Nations ceremony recognizing Jan Willem Kamphuis and his daughter Klaziena for their pure will to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Participants of the Yad Vashem Leadership Mission received a
'Behind the Scenes' look at Yad Vashem's artifacts with 
Michael Tal of the Museums Division
A highlight of this Mission for me has been the presence of so many from the Third Generation, and being witness to their growing passion for, interest in and commitment to Holocaust remembrance and Jewish continuity – a spark that has been ignited this week here at Yad Vashem. On a personal level, that my nephew Sam joined me on this journey has been so meaningful and such a tangible representation of the continued generational support of Holocaust remembrance through Yad Vashem.

Our Leadership Mission has given us the opportunity to appreciate the myriad of resources Yad Vashem provides, and also to consider the myriad of challenges that it faces going forward. Even the frequent visitors among us were fascinated by the presentations by various department heads on the careful, painstaking, deliberate and, what we can even describe as “holy” work done on a daily basis. Here, meticulous care is being provided to record, archive and index documents, artifacts and history. Innovative and creative ways to teach current and future generations about the Shoah are being developed for varying cultures and age groups in what I would refer to as the Harvard of Holocaust Education, the International School for Holocaust Studies.

Here, at Yad Vashem, is where truth is displayed in its most terrible form, as well as in its most hopeful. Here is where we can continue to connect the past with the present and bear witness long into the future.  Collectively, we must safeguard the memories and be the sentinels for these crucial vaults of history, so that they are never forgotten and never repeated; and that others’ denials are recognized for what they are: abject dangerous falsehoods.
A group of young participants in the Leadership
Mission tour the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem

The profound effect that Yad Vashem has had on me defies description. Actively participating in supporting and maintaining the World Center of Holocaust Remembrance has become a true “center” of my life.

The journey we have taken over the last week has been deeply moving and equally rewarding. On behalf of the Mission participants, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Yad Vashem for organizing such a vitally interesting, well-thought out and equally well-organized program.

Indeed, this Leadership Mission has been a journey from darkness to light, from the chilly, foreboding tunnels of Wolfsberg and the grounds of Auschwitz to the warm embrace in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem, in the heart of the miraculous, reborn State of Israel. We have witnessed the aftermath of destruction and we have seen good triumph over evil.

I ask myself, as the son of survivors: Who will tell their story in future generations? Who will tell the stories of the victims, the heroes and the survivors? Who will safeguard the firsthand testimonies and be able to maintain their authenticity other than Yad Vashem? On behalf of the Second and Third Generations, our participation in this Mission reaffirms our commitment to be the bearers of memory and to further the legacy of the victims and survivors. I ask the Second and Third generation members to join me in this effort, and be Yad Vashem’s partner for years to come.


This Leadership Mission has ignited a spark in us all, it has connected us to one another and to Yad Vashem’s sacred efforts, and it will propel us further into our commitment to carry the Torch of Remembrance far into the future."


The Yad Vashem Leadership Mission included many of Yad Vashem's most influential friends from around the world to explore prewar Jewish life in Europe, to reflect on the past, present and future, and to connect to Yad Vashem as well as to one another.  While in Israel the Mission was greeted by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, met with senior staff members at Yad Vashem and extensively toured the Yad Vashem campus.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Yad Vashem Leadership Mission Kicks Off in Wroclaw, Poland

The Yad Vashem Leadership Mission began yesterday in Poland. The Mission brings together Yad Vashem's friends and leaders from around the world to explore prewar Jewish life in Europe, reflect on the past, present and future, and connect to one another and to Yad Vashem.

In Poland, the Mission will travel through Wroclaw and the Wolfsberg forced labor camp before spending a memorable Shabbat in Krakow with Yad Vashem Chairman of the Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. After Shabbat, the Mission will travel to Israel and begin a comprehensive, behind-the-scenes journey through Yad Vashem and their critical efforts made towards Holocaust remembrance and education.

A longstanding, dear friend of Yad Vashem, Benjamin Warren, delivered the opening address for the Mission in Wroclaw, Poland. At this event, the Mission was greeted by the head of the Jewish community of Wroclaw, Mr. Alexander Gleichgeurchet.

The following were Mr. Warren's remarks at the opening event of the Yad Vashem Leadership Mission. 

Benjamin Warren speaking at in Wroclaw, Poland
"On behalf of the participants of this journey, I would like to share with you my story, my connection to the Holocaust and the importance of Holocaust remembrance, which of course underscores the spark that causes each and every one of us to be here today.

Let me start by introducing myself to you. I come from Houston, Texas. I'm the son of two Holocaust survivors: Martin Warren, who grew up and was educated in Warsaw, was arrested and sent to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald from which he was liberated in April 1945 by the United States Army. This is the same camp that Prof. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, was liberated from at the same time.

My mother, Naomi Warren, an extraordinary woman, who at the age of 95 continues to exhibit a zest for life in spite of a very difficult past, which took her from her home in Wolkowysk, Poland to Auschwitz, where her mother and first husband perished, then on the death march following the approach of the Russian Army to a women's camp Ravensbruk, that dark place where the Nazi's experimented on women in ghastly ways, then to Bergen Belsen from where she was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945.

As a child growing up in Houston, Texas with two sisters, I wasn't aware of our parents’ very difficult past until I was a young adult. No doubt like many of you, my parents, whether the result of wanting to put their painful past behind them, or more likely the result of wanting to shelter, to protect their children from this horrific experience, to avoid  wounding them, to avoid making them feel different from their friends whose parents were fortunate enough to miss this horror.

Today much of my life revolves around a variety of activities targeted towards making the world a better place. None however is more important, as much a part of my DNA, than my commitment to carrying the "Torch of Remembrance" to honor my parents, to remember those who perished and also those who survived, whether it's through my deep commitment to Yad Vashem and its mission, or my deep passion to furthering Holocaust education at the Holocaust Museum Houston through the Warren Fellowship for Future Teachers.

As the window closes on those brave and strong souls who survived, it becomes increasingly critical that those who follow carry on the responsibility of carrying the "Torch of Remembrance," which after all is the solemn purpose and goal of Yad Vashem. It's this responsibility, which I know each of you here today embraces, a privilege in the name of those who perished and those who survived, that I hope each of us further commits themselves to with this journey.

My personal story and connection to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, takes me back to the year 2000, when our family made a journey to Israel and to Yad Vashem. When we visited the Archives at Yad Vashem and sought to take a look into the lost community that our mother came from, from Wolkowysk, we found a book, "The Miracles of Tyranny" that chronicled the life of Mom's first husband, Alexander Rosenbaum, along with her brother in Auschwitz, including numerous references to her time sorting bundles in the "Canada" unit, which was a much sought after job for prisoners.

Fast forward to 2011, when my sister Geri and I made a journey to Germany with our cousin Elsa Spizdbaum Ross, to follow the tracks of her father whose whereabouts and fate ceased when he was arrested in Warsaw by the Nazis.

Elsa never knew what happened to her father, who owned a very successful chocolate factory in Warsaw, until Yad Vashem and my dear friend Shaya Ben Yehuda took it on himself with the support of Yad Vashem's research team to search the records of Yad Vashem and those of the Bad Arolsen International Tracing Service of the Red Cross to see what they could learn about her father's past. What they uncovered was extraordinary. Including a trail that followed his arrest in Warsaw, an inventorying of his personal belongings, and a chronicle of his life as a slave laborer in an ammunition factory and internment camp outside of Warsaw. As the Russian Army approached, the story woven included a chronicle of the destruction of the munitions factory by the Nazis and the moving of the laborers to Buchenwald in advance of the opening of a new ammunition factory at a sub camp of Buchenwald named Schlieben. Unbelievably, the story continues with Elsa's father arriving in Schlieben and the tracking of his service in the munitions factory until he, along with 28 other prisoners, perished in an explosion at the factory.

But the story doesn't end there. Included in the Bad Arolsen records was a photograph of a mass grave with a monument listing the names of the 29 slave laborers who perished, including Elsa's father. You can imagine the emotion that followed as my cousin Elsa, my sister Geri, Shaya Ben Yehuda, a guide from Yad Vashem's German Desk, and I, said Kaddish for my cousin Elsa's father in the beautiful, well-manicured cemetery in Schlieben.

Now you can understand the closeness that I feel for Yad Vashem, for Shaya Ben Yehuda and his colleagues, who through their persistent diligence wove this incredible tapestry that chronicled the final chapter of my cousin Elsa’s father's life and allowed her the opportunity to bring closure to this haunting life experience.

This is but a single story that now is part of Yad Vashem's beacon of light, the burning "Torch of Remembrance." No doubt many of you have your own stories. Hopefully my story underscores the critical importance of staying connected with Yad Vashem, of supporting its mission and its critical work, making possible the continued weaving of stories like Elsa's father for all generations of the future.


To conclude, on behalf of our Leadership Mission participants and in advance of what will no doubt be a very emotional journey, I want to thank you Shaya, along with your extraordinary team, for weaving together the program ahead that will twine each of us to Yad Vashem and Holocaust remembrance forever. I also wish to welcome each of you who have traveled from Australia, from Canada, from Mexico, from the United States and from Israel for joining this journey and committing yourselves to adding to your knowledge of the Holocaust."

Farwell to a dear friend and an exemplary son of the Jewish People

Prof. Elie Wiesel touring Yad Vashem circa 1997
This week, we mourn the death of Elie Wiesel, z"l. His passing not only saddens and fills us with a sense of loss. It also constitutes a painful milestone in the gradual transition to an era and world lacking live personal Shoah testimony.

Elie was an exceptionally gifted witness of the Holocaust, remarkably articulating and communicating its haunting messages. An exemplary son of the Jewish people, he came to represent, embody and nurture its amazingly durable and resilient creative forces, following the Shoah. Despite the collapse of civilized morality that he witnessed and endured during the Holocaust, Elie believed, and inspired others to believe, that sincere human efforts to repair a broken world – can make a difference. 

I think that it was the complementary contrasts that so characterized Elie - sadness and hope, desolation and renewal, Jewish and universal values - that helped forge his unique bond with us at Yad Vashem, to which he was deeply devoted and which he described as "the heart and soul of Jewish memory". Elie Wiesel identified intensely with Yad Vashem's commitment and ability to delve into the complex legacy of the Holocaust in order to offer empowering insights, and to convey them to a multitude of individuals and communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish.     

Prof. Elie Wiesel with Avner Shalev at the Inauguration
Ceremony of the Holocaust History Museum, March 2005
We shared a special kinship and bond.  When I first met Elie Wiesel, he told me something I will never forget.  He told me that he had waited several years before meeting with me, so that he could learn more about Lt. General David "Dado" Elazar, the IDF Chief of Staff from 1972 to 1974.  He wanted to learn more about Dado before meeting with me because I served as the head of his office during the Yom Kippur War. That was just the type of person he was; those were the details he was concerned with. 

Personally, I have lost a friend. Though our youthful backgrounds were strikingly different, Elie and I found common cause in our shared conviction in the Jewish people's post-Holocaust continuity and future, in Judaism's ethical vision, and in our fervent love for the State of Israel.


Wiesel visiting the original Holocaust History Museum circa 1997
Elie Wiesel believed to his dying day that the world must remember and relate to the legacy of the Holocaust as a unique Jewish event containing a universal human message. I know that he was encouraged that Yad Vashem is working to ensure the vibrancy and relevance of that legacy for generations to come.
May his memory be blessed.


Since 1993, Avner Shalev has been Chairman of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. He established the Museums Complex, including the Holocaust History Museum, for which he serves as chief curator and founded Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies.  He also serves as chief curator of Yad Vashem's permanent exhibition in the Auschwitz- Birkenau State Museum's Jewish Pavilion.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Shoah Remembrance: A Personal Perspective

By: Sam Gelman
"Never forget" is a motto synonymous with Holocaust remembrance and education.  Time and again, we are reminded that we can never allow ourselves or the world to forget about the Holocaust and the six million Jews murdered by the German Nazis and their collaborators. We have heard numerous survivor testimonies, watched disturbing films, and seen heart-wrenching photos. Hundreds of books and research studies have been written on the subject with the express purpose of fulfilling this task.
With each passing day, however, this duty becomes more challenging. The last of the survivors are passing away, soon to leave no eyewitnesses to the atrocities. Holocaust denial and antisemitism are on the rise around the world. It is incumbent upon us to find ways to ensure that Holocaust commemoration remains relevant for future generations. 
Sam Gelman at the Memorial to the Deportees, Yad Vashem 
Last spring, I went on a trip to Poland with my Yeshiva. Before the trip began, I tried to prepare myself for the tidal wave of emotions I was about to experience. I thought about how I would react when I arrived at the death camps. Never did it occur to me that my most poignant moment would be on the first day of the trip at the Radegast train station, a small railway terminal, near Lodz Poland, from which Jews were taken to the extermination camps. The station now serves as a memorial and small museum, and houses a few cattle cars that were once used to transport the Jews. On one of these cattle cars that tourists are allowed to enter, there is a sign that states: “For security reasons, a maximum of 20 persons are allowed to be in the railway car at one time.”
To me, this sign was heartbreaking. Just over 70 years ago, these same rail cars were packed with over 100 people each, and now this sign was telling me that I had to wait my turn because the car could not handle so many people. It reminded me that every aspect of the Holocaust was a nightmare, and that even those of us who have learned about this horror cannot truly comprehend what the victims endured. However, to a visitor not familiar with the Holocaust, the sign would be completely benign; of course no more than 20 people should go in the car at the same time! Not only would that be uncomfortable for the visitors, but the aging car could collapse and hurt someone. They would not be able to see the paradox within the sign. How could they? They were never exposed to it. 
This is why Yad Vashem is so important to me, and why I decided to volunteer here this year. Educating the public about the victims and horrors of the Holocaust is vital in helping people gain an understanding of the scope of the tragedy, as well as in preserving the memory of the calamity. Yad Vashem is at the forefront of this mission. As Elie Weisel said, “There are many other museums in the world, but the source is here at Yad Vashem. This is the heart and soul of Jewish memory.” As a Jew, I feel both obligated and honored to be able to help with this task. However, we are not alone. Every year, dignitaries and leaders from around the globe visit Yad Vashem to learn about the Holocaust and to pay their respects its victims. For some, it is the next step in their education regarding the Holocaust. For others, it is their first real exposure to this world-shattering event.
                Sam Gelman at the Hall of Names, Yad Vashem
Recently, Texas Governor Greg Abbot visited Israel and prioritized a visit to Yad Vashem to honor the victims of the Holocaust. He is only one of a long list of leaders from every continent around the world that have visited Yad Vashem since it was founded in 1953, including the recent visits of US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
As a student from Texas studying here in Israel, I was pleased to hear that Governor Abbot had visited Yad Vashem. With all that Israel has been through over the last few months, it is comforting to know that the Jewish state still has friends who are willing to come and honor the six million Jewish men, women and children who were brutally murdered during the Holocaust. 
Regardless who the leader is or how many times they have been to Yad Vashem, each visit is monumentally significant. Each of its close to one million annual visitors sends a strong message to Holocaust deniers that this tragedy indeed took place, and that we will not stand silently by and let history be changed for a nefarious agenda. Yad Vashem is at the forefront raising Holocaust awareness in those countries where the public knows the least about it. Through its outstanding Museums Complex, world-class International School for Holocaust Studies, comprehensive and multilingual website, strong social media presence and range of traveling exhibitions, Yad Vashem is at the center of Holocaust commemoration, remembrance, documentation and education. However, our most important goal is to show that the world has not forgotten, and that our friends and allies across the globe are strengthening Shoah Remembrance day by day.
We must do everything we can to make sure the memory of the Holocaust remains solid, so people remember not only the 20-person cattle cars, but the millions of people who traveled in them as well.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Unto Every Person There is a Name: Remembering Ita Rochel Aronstein

Kristine Johansson-Smith, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor from Riga, Latvia, grew up never knowing what her maternal grandmother, Ita Rochel Aronstein, looked like. Kristine's mother, Ruta Johansson-Aronstein, born in 1936, was only five years old when the Nazis occupied Latvia. The young Ruta survived the war under the care of her stepmother, who was not Jewish, but her grandmother Ita was deported and never heard from again.
 
Kristine Johansson-Smith in the Hall of Remembrance
 "My mother survived the Shoah during the Nazi occupation of Latvia," Kristine related. "Her freedom was 'bought' from the Nazis during the war, while her mother – my grandmother – was deported and executed. According to my mother, my grandmother knew she was going die. She had given her blessing to my mother's wealthy stepmother who adopted and saved my mother." Kristine added, "All through my childhood in Sweden, I witnessed how much my mother missed her own mother, saying 'If I only had one photo of my mother,' 'I don't even  know where she is buried, where I can visit her.' 'One photo, if only I had one photo.'" 
Ita-Rochel Aronstein
Kristine relocated to Israel in January 2016. As part of her aliyah process, she contacted the Latvian State Historical Archive in search of documents to confirm her Jewish identity. In addition to the documentation she sought, Kristine was surprised to discover that the Archive contained a photograph of her grandmother. After contacting her mother and sending her a copy of the photograph, Kristine decided to commemorate her grandmother by registering her name with Yad Vashem.  
 
Pictured with Cynthia Wroclawski,
Deputy Director Archives Division
Kristine contacted Yad Vashem with the idea that it would be most befitting for her to complete the process of commemoration on Holocaust Remembrance Day. While Ita Rochel Aronstein's name does appear on Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names, it is recorded as it appears in several archival sources documenting pre-war Jewish residents of Riga, Latvia only – as Rochel Jukowitsch nee Arenstein.
 
For this reason, the documents do not state the fate of the individual. With the goal of providing her grandmother with a personal commemoration and in order to attest to her murder, Kristine submitted a Page of Testimony for her grandmother, Ita Rochel Aronstein, along with the newly found photograph. Pages of Testimony are special forms created by Yad Vashem to restore the personal identities of each one of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices. Submitted by survivors, family members or friends in commemoration of the Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust, these one-page forms, containing the names, brief biographical details and, when available, photographs of each individual victim, are essentially symbolic tombstones. To date the names of some 4.6 million Holocaust victims are recorded on Yad Vashem's online Names Database.
 
Entry in Names Database for Ita-Rochel Aronstein
 In addition, Kristine will also submit a Shoah Survivor Registration Form for her mother Ruta, documenting her experiences during the Holocaust and briefly recounting her life history in its aftermath. She also consulted with experts from the Yad Vashem Archives on the region of Latvia regarding the fate of her family during the Holocaust.
 
After submitting the forms, Kristine took part in a moving ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance, called "Unto Every Person There is a Name," wherein she publically read out her grandmother's name, granting her a sense of closure after so many years of doubt and heartache.

"Reading my grandmother's name in the Hall of Remembrance, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, was a deeply moving experience for me," recounted an emotional Kristine. "Finally she has a resting place, a place where she can be remembered by the whole world for generations to come. This is what my mother wanted for her all these years." Kristine hesitated, and added, "Wishes do come true. It may take your whole life. I believe this is one of the most beautiful miracles that has occurred since I landed in Israel."

 For assistance with submitting Pages of Testimony and for additional information, contact: The Shoah Victim's Names Recovery Project:  names.proj@yadvashem.org.il 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Connecting to my Jewish Roots


By Alana Luttinger 

For the past four months I have been an intern at Yad Vashem in the International Relations Division. Before this internship, I had been to Yad Vashem twice: once with my family, and once with Birthright. During both of these trips, I only saw a small portion of what Yad Vashem had to offer. But throughout my internship here, I have learned how substantial the organization is, and I have had the opportunity to see so much of the vital work being done here. One aspect of my internship is to accompany special visitors to Yad Vashem, often to the Holocaust History Museum, but sometimes to places more "behind-the-scenes." Through these tours I have learned a great deal about the Shoah than I had previously learned in high school and grade school. Before my internship, I hadn’t known much other than that six million Jews were murdered. Since coming to Yad Vashem, I have learned more about the terrible suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, but also about the occasional moments of light.

One of these moments of light that I found a true connection with, and will remember for the rest of my life, is the story of Irena Sendler. Irena was a young non-Jewish woman who went against the norms of society and with the help of some friends was able to save around 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto. Even while in prison, Irena never gave the name of a single child she had saved. The tree that was planted in her honor at Yad Vashem in recognition of her as a Righteous Among Nations is located just before the entrance to the Holocaust History Museum, and visitors often begin their tour with her story.


Alana standing next to Righteous Among the Nations, 
Irena Sendler tree

Since hearing Irena’s story, I have found myself striving to become a better person. As a young adult who has recently graduated college, I am struggling to become my own person, an individual among millions. Irena Sendler has become my role model, and someone I strive to emulate. While Yad Vashem honors many Righteous Among Nations each year, what makes Irena special to me is that when she was honored a number of years ago and when she stood up to speak at the ceremony, she apologized. She said she was sorry she hadn’t done more, sorry she had not saved more people. While six million Jewish people were murdered and millions did nothing, this one woman saved thousands. My hope is that one day instead of being a quiet girl who is afraid to speak her mind, I will become more like Irena, who knew that there was wrong in the world, and instead of being a passive observer took action.

While some people see the Holocaust as an event of the past, the antisemitism that fueled it is still very much a problem in the world today. So, no matter how irrelevant some see the Holocaust to be, from my time at Yad Vashem, I have found it to be quite the opposite.

Alana in the Valley of the Communities, Yad Vashem
Another consequence of my time at Yad Vashem is the deeper connection I built not only with the country of Israel, but also with my own personal identity. This self-awareness came mainly from research I did on my own family background. I knew that my great-grandparents came to the United States starting in the early 1900s through the 1920s, but I had never known anything about the members of their families who remained in Europe. From my research at Yad Vashem, I now know that a couple from each side of my family came from the same city, Czernowitz. Out of all four sets of grandparents, my maternal grandfather’s family lost the most family members during the Shoah. With the recent passing of my grandfather, I fear that the identities and stories of his six aunts, uncles and grandparents who did not leave Europe will be lost forever. Without their names I cannot even fill out Pages of Testimony for them. For some like my family, where nobody is left to remember the names of those murdered in the Holocaust, I have found a connection to the family I lost in the Valley of the Communities. The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem pays tribute to the many towns and cities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. From my grandmother, I have learned that my maternal family was from Czernowitz, Romania and Szeged, Hungary. Finding my family’s home towns engraved in the wall of the Valley, I have been able to honor and connect to the memory of all those lost.

Due to this, I have come to realize how important Yad Vashem’s work is in gathering the names and stories of individual victims and survivors. Particularly important is the recording of survivor testimonies. Since my time at Yad Vashem, I have read and heard many such testimonies that must be recorded and passed down to future generations so people can never deny the horror of what happened to each and every one of the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust

For instance, during my internship at Yad Vashem, I had the privilege to hear the testimonies of Hannah Pick – Anne Frank's childhood friend – and Berthe Elzon, a volunteer at Yad Vashem. Both women have very different stories but both experienced extreme hardship and saw more death than any person should ever witness. I even had the opportunity to type up the story of one woman who only recently sent the story of her experiences in the Shoah to Yad Vashem. Each of these individual stories make up the mosaic of Jewish life - and suffering – that we know as the Holocaust. 

Learning about the survivors, my family, and incredible people such as Irena Sendler has made me feel closer to my Jewish heritage, and makes me want to live a full, positive and meaningful life to make up for the life denied to all of the men, women and children so cruelly persecuted and killed during the Shoah.