We are the next generation. We are the generation that will live to see days without Holocaust survivors. They are disappearing, and with them, their stories, if not shared, will be gone forever.
We are the next generation. It is our duty to listen, participate, learn, teach and share. This message has been ingrained in my mind for as long as I’ve been able to understand the words “I survived the Holocaust.”
My maternal grandparents are survivors. To say that I know their stories well enough to recite them myself would be a lie. This fact, in itself, is embarrassing. I have been alive for 22 Yemei Ha’Shoah, I was in Poland, I saw the concentration camps and the ghettos, the museums and the memorials, and most importantly, I saw how easily history can be forgotten. Now, concentration camps are grassy fields with butterflies fluttering from flower to flower. When you are there, it feels impossible to believe the tragedies occurred there less than a century prior.
This Yom Ha’Shoah, I finally understood the gravity of the day and the immense responsibility we share to immortalize the memories and stories of our ancestors. This past Wednesday, May 4, the Bayit participated in a global project called “Zikaron BaSalon” (Memory in the Living Room) and hosted Holocaust survivor, Bill Harvey, to share his story with approximately 30 guests.
In 2010, a group of Israelis created the project “Zikaron BaSalon” to recreate a special evening they spent in honor of Yom Ha’Shoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. The evening was made up of three components: testimony from a survivor, an artistic element, and an open discussion. Since then, many living rooms have hosted a Zikaron BaSalon, and it has grown to be a global project. The Zikaron BaSalon at the Bayit had a bit of a different personality because of the unique crowd. Harvey shared his story and then shared photos of himself and his family, as well as letters from audience members and loved ones. Students and young adults, both Jews and non-Jews alike, sat immersed in Harvey’s every word.
There were two sentiments from his speech that resonated with me most. The first was the indifference in Europe — the fact that nobody said anything. When anti-Semitism was already rampant, nobody said anything. When Hitler rose to power and began to use Jews as scapegoats for Germany’s many problems, nobody said anything to defend the Jews. Nobody condemned his words. Harvey recounted, “There are over a billion people in China, there are a billion people in India, there are but 14 million Jews.”
Harvey’s confusion with the apathy of the European people rings eerily familiar in 2016. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where discrimination, racism and prejudice are disturbingly prevalent. While Harvey spoke of the dangers of apathy, I was reminded of the poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, “First they came…”
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
As the poem implicitly charges the reader, Harvey entrusted his young audience with the duty to speak out against discrimination, regardless of where we see it. History has shown us that these stereotypes can kill, and that racial slurs, with the help of apathy and indifference, turn into genocide.
Another sentiment that moved me to tears was Harvey’s unconditional love of people and of life. In the middle of his speech, he recited a poem by Edwin Markham taught to him by a teacher when he first came to America:
There is a destiny that makes us brothers,
No one goes his way alone;
All that we send into the lives of others,
Comes back into our own.
It is unthinkable, yet so inevitable, that a man who has seen so much hatred – “loss of love” as he defined it – in the world, still believes in the kindness of people and the power of altruism. “We know you cannot live without love,” he explained, and for this reason, he believes that the most important thing in our lifetime is to help others. It is common for many Holocaust survivors to be bitter and cynical because they have seen the absolute worst side of humanity, and yet Harvey wakes up every day to see beauty, feel joy, and live with no regrets. You can never really understand the meaning of “living life to the fullest” until you hear a Holocaust survivor say the words “I do not regret a day in my life.”
Bill Harvey was inspirational and I cannot thank him enough for reminding me of the importance of this day. Every survivor is different. Each story is unique. No two are the same. When you hear a Holocaust survivor speak, it is as if you are carefully examining one thread in a tapestry. Though its individual colors and textures are mesmerizing, there are many other threads that you need to investigate just as closely. We cannot do the entire tapestry justice if we don’t inspect each thread with our undivided attention.
Soon, this part of humanity will be gone. There are already people who deny this dark time in the history of the human race. This is the purpose of this day: to remember and share, and in a few years, to recount to our next generation the stories we were so lucky to hear during our time with the survivors.
Yom Ha’Shoah is hard to commemorate outside of Israel. There is no collective moment of silence. There is no municipal or televised ceremony in remembrance of the terrors of the Holocaust. This begs the questions: How can we commemorate Yom Ha’Shoah? And is the way we choose to immortalize the victims of the Holocaust the right way to do it? Living in the United States for 17 years, I have learned that the Israeli way isn’t always the right way: the ceremonies in Israel or in my Israeli community in America to which I am accustomed are not the only correct ways to remember the victims of this genocide. The creators of “Zikaron BaSalon” figured as much only a few years before me, and created a format to which the next generation can possibly better connect. I am honored to have been a part of this event, and humbled by its success in reminding my generation how important each of us is in fulfilling the promise of “never again.”
Bill Harvey speaks at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance once a week. I will not summarize his story in this article because I encourage everyone to go and hear him speak for themselves.