More than 300 years ago King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher, to give him proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty – the Jews.”
How can the Jewish people survive so much adversity for so long? Pascal continued. “It must be from the help of God. It is beyond human comprehension.”
Fast forward into the 21st century and Nazi Germany. Even after unthinkable persecution in a killing machine of unthinkable proportions, so many Jews across Europe managed to survive, eventually fleeing to Israel and America.
The Bielskis are an example of one such family; and Robert Bielsky, the youngest son of Tuvia Bielsky will speak at this year’s community wide Yom Hashaoh program. Bielsky will speak about the exploits of his family, renowned partisans who defied the Nazis.
Sponsored annually by the Holocaust Memorial and Study Center (HMSC), the program will be held at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 7 at Rockland Community College’s Cultural Arts Center, 145 College Rd., Suffern.
Tuvia Bielski was the eldest of the famed “Bielski Brothers.” Along with his siblings Zus, Asael and Aron, he was responsible for saving more than 1,200 Jews in the Naliboki forest of Poland (now Belarus) and whose actions became the subject of the movie “Defiance” in 2008.
Bielsky speaks proudly of his father and uncles to groups nationwide and internationally. According to Bielsky, “It is essential that he and his children continue their father [and] grandfather’s legacy by continuing his acts of kindness and bravery and by never forgetting.”
The Bielski story is one that museum organizers felt would resonate with Rockland residents, especially since members of the HMSC board of trustees are members of the Bielski clan.
“We sought out Mr. Bielsky because we were looking a positive and inspirational experience for Yom Ha Shoah [this year] and were intrigued by the story of his family,” according to Andrea Winograd, director of development and operations for the museum
The museum has been holding an annual Yom Hashoah commemoration since it opened, but only at RCC for the past several years. The museum marks the day on the Sunday nearest the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the date the Israeli Knesset proclaimed Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, in 1951.
More than 500 people attended the museum’s commemoration last year at RCC, where the museum has one of its locations. Although it has held the annual commemoration at RCC since the start, museum officials hope that collaboration with the community college will strengthen beyond just this annual program.
“Now that we are located at RCC, we are really entrenched into the fabric of the campus, and woven into the fabric of the community,” said Winograd. “It makes it very different not coming in as a guest.”
During the ceremony, there will also be an annual candle lighting ceremony. The museum will invite representative from various synagogues to be “ambassadors” for the community in the museum’s “Adopt A Candle” program.
They will each light one candle in memory of those who perished during the Holocaust. A seventh candle representing remembrance and hope will be lit at the end of the program to symbolize the future of Jewish life and a commitment to repairing the world, according to Winograd.
The museum has been located in Rockland County since 1988, but only at RCC since November. While still maintaining its Spring Valley location next to Finklestein Memorial Library, museum organizers anticipate a full move to the campus by fall, after all exhibits can be transferred there. Supporters are hoping the move will raise the museum’s visibility, reach a younger generation, and offer more opportunities for study and collaboration in an educational setting.
“This year’s event will be very unique as it is our first season officially operating as an integral part of the Rockland Community College campus,” said Winograd. In addition the program is being held in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, which has promised to drive attendance and help with HMSC fundraising.
Although much is consistent from year to year in the commemoration, this one takes place under the auspices of the museum’s new president, Kristen Stavisky. In her former role as director of student activities at RCC, Stavisky said she gained extensive experience in the areas of cultural diversity social justice.
A personal trip to Yad Vashem several years ago made a difference in how she viewed the Holocaust, and made her want to work more closely with the museum.
As president of the museum and working on the RCC campus, she feels that she has “the best of both worlds.”