While most Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, events emphasize remembering the dead and the calamity of the Holocaust, Jonathan Ornstein, executive director at the Jewish Community Center of Kraków, in Poland, says that more emphasis needs to be placed on the survivors and the resilience they have demonstrated in rebuilding their lives.
Orenstein, along with Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University, have called for a more jubilant “Holocaust Survivor Day,” to take place on June 26, that honors them in a more upbeat way, with an entirely different tone than most Holocaust remembrance events.
Holocaust Remembrance Day begins at sundown in Israel on April 7.
“In Kraków, so close to Auschwitz and the epicenter of the Shoah, the Holocaust is never very far from our lives. Because of its omnipresence, we make an effort to focus on what we can do to rebuild and revive,” Ornstein told The Media Line. “We will commemorate Yom Hashoah as we do every year, with a small candlelighting ceremony, and a renewed effort to take care of our survivors, especially during this challenging COVID-19 period. We are looking toward June 26, the inaugural international Holocaust Survivor Day, a day of celebration and joy, to honor the survivors on their own day.”
June 26 is the birthday of Marian Turski, a prominent Polish Holocaust survivor and advocate, and a Polish historian and journalist.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is a difficult time for Susan Philipp, a Holocaust survivor living in Modiin, Israel, who was just 4 ½ years old when she was first deported with her parents, Moshe and Rosa Stern, and younger sister, to the Gurs concentration camp in the south of France.
“Everyone tried to go to the funerals, which happened fairly often, whether you knew the person or not,” Stern told The Media Line. “It was the only opportunity to meet your husband or wife and children, although we were discouraged from going; kids were not supposed to go outside in general.”
“I remember reading 900 people died the first week we were there. They died of hunger, typhoid and many other sicknesses,” Philipp said. “People would fight and steal each other’s food.”
While most Israelis are vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, many Holocaust commemorations remain virtual.
The Annual March of the Living, in which participants on Holocaust Remembrance Day walk through the Birkenau and Auschwitz camps in Poland, will be online, led by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, among others. People from around the globe will be able to create their own electronic remembrance inscriptions for the victims.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s central Holocaust memorial and museum, has put up an online virtual exhibition titled “The Onset of Murder: The Fate of Jewish Families in 1941” for Holocaust Remembrance Day. The institution will broadcast its annual torch-lighting ceremony, this year with Arabic translation, via its YouTube channel.
As a result of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities will host a Holocaust Remembrance Day event, which will include young people from the two Arab countries talking about their visit to Yad Vashem.
“It is incredibly important to see Muslims and Jews commemorating Yom Hashoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day] together, especially in the Gulf, because our society flourishes when we support one another. Having our Muslim friends and neighbors show their support of the Jewish community on a day when we remember one of our darkest periods, gives us hope that something like the Holocaust could not happen again because we live in a more tolerant society where our friends – no matter their religion – will stand up for us and in turn, we would do the same,” Houda Nonoo, former ambassador of Bahrain to the United States, told The Media Line.
Zikaron BaSalon, an organization that matches a host with a Holocaust survivor who tells his or her story to an audience, usually gathered in the host’s home, is also taking place online.
“Last year, I was looking for a Yom Hashoah event that I could participate in while in lockdown, and I found [the group]. I wasn’t going to go to jump over Yom Hashoah without doing anything. Last year was a big success and this year, I decided to start something instead of just being part of something,” Einat Yaniv, a Ramat Gan resident who is hosting on of the many Zikaron BaSalon gatherings, told The Media Line.
Yaniv recently learned that her friend is a Holocaust survivor, who is scheduled to give a talk on April 7 to 300 virtual guests slated to attend. They are considering doing another talk on April 11 in English.
Dr. Robert Rozett, senior historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, says Zikaron BaSalon highlights a trend in Holocaust education that began with the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, where individuals retelling their personal experiences became a major focus.
“In the 1960s, the place of the survivors became very central in the presentation of the Holocaust,” he told The Media Line.
Today, Rozett says that the firsthand accounts are from younger people who experienced the Holocaust.
“There are fewer and fewer survivors. Most of the ones now were teenagers and children then due to the passage of time. There aren’t that many people who can talk to us from the adult perspective,” he said.
Experiencing the Holocaust at a young age, however, made it difficult for Philipp to relate to other people who endured the Holocaust.
“I have a hard time listening to other survivors. … I can’t relate to most of the older people’s stories. … I had a different experience because of my age. Everything was bewildering; nobody told me what was going on,” she said.
Philipp began sharing her testimony only relatively recently.
“We were allowed to take one blanket each when we were deported and my mom made coats out of the blanket because the winter was harsh and we were always cold. We had a stove at the end of the barracks, which was supposed to keep us warm, but it didn’t. Some people froze to death,” she said.
“We had rats, lice that were in huge clumps all over us. … There were no bathrooms except ones that were quite far away. There was a latrine that I’m not going to describe because it was so horrible,” Philipp added.
The family was soon sent to the Rivesaltes concentration camp, also in France, which Philipp said was almost the same as Gurs, with the exception that the Red Cross and Quakers were allowed to visit on rare occasions.
These groups would eventually alert OSE, a French Jewish humanitarian organization that helped rescue Jewish children. The group saved Philipp’s life. She was taken from Rivesaltes without her sister, Beate, was not permitted to go at the time because she was too sick.
“Throughout my life, I kept thinking about the decision my parents had to make. They wanted us to live,” Philipp said.
“I don’t think I ever got over the fact that I was going to go away from my mother. I never saw my father because he was in the men’s barracks. We left in a covered truck with people who spoke German, but I only knew French. I didn’t have anyone,” she added.
Philipp would eventually come down with tuberculosis and be sent to a convent, where she would later reunite with her sister. Philipp had to pretend she was Catholic because the only person who knew of her situation was the head nun.
“I came from a religious home so I always knew I was Jewish. I said the Shema prayer every night as it was the only connection I had to my parents. I had to say it very quietly so no one would hear,” Philipp said.
After the war, an aunt in the US wanted to take in Philipp, then 10 years old, along with her sister, but their request for a visa was denied. They would stay with an uncle in London for two years before being allowed entry into America. The sisters later learned that their parents had been killed at Auschwitz.
Beate, who died two years ago, spoke frequently about her experience and Philipp speaks now about her story to honor the memory of her sister.
“My sister talked to every civic group and church, far and wide. … I talk in her name because she is no longer here,” she said.
Jay Schultz, founder of Adopt-A-Safta, which matches young volunteers with Holocaust survivors, says that their organization’s Yom Hashoah ceremony is the largest in Israel that is in English. This year, the event will also be virtual, which has both positives and drawbacks.
“In general, any ceremony like this should be done by community but we play the hand we are dealt. And this way, we are able to reach a lot more people and go global,” he told The Media Line.
This year, the Adopt-A-Safta model is launching in eight Jewish communities: Atlanta, Berlin, Miami, Montreal, Paris, Rome, Sydney, and throughout Ethiopia.