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.