My father’s shirt
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My father’s shirt

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Herbert Kolb, who survived Theresienstadt, lights the first candle for the Yom Hashoah Commemoration at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades JCCOTP

I am the child of survivors. My father was the youngest of eleven. When the Nazis burned his small hometown in Lithuania to the ground, his parents and nine of his siblings perished. Perchance, my father was spared that fate only to end up in a hell of a different kind, Dachau.

One of the things my father used to do was speak to school kids about his experience. He would share his first-hand account, living proof of what others want to deny, a testament to human resilience and strength. Somehow my father still had his striped prisoner’s shirt from Dachau and he would bring it whenever he went to speak. A haunting and horrifying show-and-tell, if you will.

I am the child of survivors. And all that comes with it. The pain, the guilt, and the silence. But on the other side of that silence is the obligation to tell, to somehow speak the unspeakable. My father passed away 19 years ago at the age of 72. And, unbelievably, that responsibility is now mine.

As my father’s generation grows smaller and smaller, it is increasingly the children of survivors who are called upon to speak to the next generation about the Holocaust. I’ve done it a handful of times. The first time I spoke before a group of students was when my older son was a freshman in high school.

I always bring my father’s shirt. I tell his story as best I can. It is painful and difficult and intimidating and surreal. I wish I didn’t have to. But I can’t escape my obligation. “Never forget” isn’t just a saying; it’s my personal responsibility. Somehow I have to make today’s fast-paced young people understand that Nazi Germany wasn’t some backwards fluke of history. The Holocaust was a crowning evil of one of the world’s most sophisticated and educated societies.

“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor…” Our tradition teaches that we need not complete the task, but neither are we free to avoid it. In other words, we needn’t carry the burden alone, nor can we escape our individual role. In many ways, that has been my life’s mission, my personal and professional work – to do my small part as the child of survivors, as a Jew, and as a member of the human race.

Here at the JCC this mission finds expression. Our annual Yom Hashoah commemoration is about remembering the six million as a community. It is sadness tempered by hope. Holocaust Memorial Day is closely followed by Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers, and then Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Our lowest lows and deepest sorrows are followed by our greatest national high. At the JCC we mark all of these days – the commemorations and the celebrations – with community. In good times and in bad, that’s where our strength lies.

Avi Lewinson is the CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

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