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: