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.